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Why Is It So Hard for Us to Change?

Three useful techniques to make self-improvement easier.

Key points

  • Maintaining a healthy productive lifestyle is not a one-time fix, but a long-term commitment, requiring continual tune-ups.
  • Bundling temptations, gamifying tasks, and making public commitments capitalize on different behavior-change principles.
  • Different change techniques can be combined, and we suggest one novel example here

By Douglas T. Kenrick & Dave Lundberg-Kenrick

A walk around your local bookstore, or a glance around its electronic equivalent, reveals a seemingly endless selection of books brimming with advice about how to change your behavior— titles advocating teeny little atomic habits and jumbo-sized million-dollar habits, with lots of gradations in between.

Why are there so many books about positive change? Probably for the same reason there are a lot of books about love and marriage; getting these things right requires continual fine-tuning and occasional major adjustments.

Despite reading dozens of such books ourselves, Dave and I both find it difficult to begin or maintain some of the most desirable changes in our own lives, such as cutting out those extra desserts, turning off Youtube to get a little more sleep, or finding some time every day to do a little writing.

Why is it so hard to change?

People looking for the answer to that question might want to check out Katie Milkman’s excellent new book “How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.

Milkman acknowledges a fact that almost never comes up in advice books: in most cases, behavior change interventions only produce small effects and don’t last forever. She uses the analogy of treating diabetes, it’s a lifetime endeavor, not a one-shot fix.

If you’re anything like Dave or me, when you try to change a habit, you’re probably not starting from scratch. You’re not going from a completely carefree, hedonistic lifestyle eating marshmallows all day long. You may well be starting from a position of doing nearly the best you can—already trying to eat healthy foods, exercise, and work more, yet still struggling to fit in any more exercise between work, family, and other commitments. Cutting out those last few snacks may feel like denying yourself the last moments of joy before you pass out.

Over the course of our adult lives, the two of us have been exercise fanatics, then had periods of laziness, then got back into the gym or onto the bike. We’ve both had periods of eating healthy diets, followed by periods of eating mostly pizza and brownies, followed by saintly phases of fruits and vegetables.

If you’re one of us mortals still looking for ways to cut out those last few desserts or add in a few extra laps at the gym, Milkman’s book can offer plenty of inspiration; it’s full of practical advice for dealing with different kinds of habitual problems, organized into chapters on overcoming the obstacles of impulsivity, procrastination, forgetfulness, and laziness, as well as the costs and benefits of overconfidence and social conformity.

Her book contains a couple of dozen useful suggestions. Here are three of them.

  1. One of the biggest problems is what Milkman calls present bias—the tendency to value short-term gratifications right now (binge-watching an entertaining TV series) over big rewards that will only come in the future (being 15 pounds lighter, or getting a good grade at the end of the semester for studying your textbook). She suggests we bundle temptations along with virtuous activities. One of us independently hit upon this tactic—by pairing listening to audiobooks with doing home workouts or washing the dishes (every time I get absorbed in a book like Milkman’s, for example, the once dirty kitchen is spotless for several days).
  2. A related solution to the short-term gratification problem is to gamify our work tasks; Peleton does this by having leaderboards, giving continual feedback about how many calories you are burning, and having the instructors occasionally call out to some individual exercising at home. You can do something similar just by awarding yourself points for exercising or doing homework, and later cashing in those points for a reward.
  3. Public commitments are a time-honored behavior change technique. Milkman notes they work better when there are hard consequences for not meeting your goals. One technique is to give $100 to a friend or relative, with instructions to spend it or give it away if you don’t reach a goal (weight loss or cigarette cessation). Nearly half a century ago, our friend Rich Keefe used this technique to finish an onerous comprehensive paper in graduate school, instructing Doug to donate the money to an organization Rich didn’t particularly like, but only if he failed to reach his goal. In the end, Rich got the money back and overcame what had seemed an insurmountable hurdle.

The trick is combining these different techniques in creative ways that work for you.

The other day, Dave and I were discussing tactics he could use to lose a few extra COVID-era pounds, and he mentioned that he had trouble coming up with rewards more satisfying than his favorite snacks.

We came up with a clever trick that combines Milkman’s advice with Dunn, Aknin, and Norton’s (2008) finding that giving to others makes you happier than spending money on yourself (see our interview with Dunn), and also incorporates ideas about fundamental motives from our own recent book (Kenrick and Kenrick, 2022, Solving Modern Problems with a Stone-Age Brain, see post).

Dave’s integrative plan to detox from high-carb foods is this: for every week that he avoids junk foods for at least five days, he’s going to give $10 to his son and daughter. He’ll get to feel good in two ways if he reaches his weekly goal, and disappoint his kids in two ways if he doesn’t.

Just to add the public commitment factor, we’ll let you know how it goes in a month or so.

Postscript: I talk about 4 more tricks from Milkman's book in a follow-up.

Photo by Rob Ewing Used with Permission
Dave Lundberg-Kenrick
Source: Photo by Rob Ewing Used with Permission

References

Dunn, E. W., Aknin, L. B., & Norton, M. I. (2008). Spending money on others promotes happiness. Science, 319(5870), 1687-1688.

Kenrick, D.T., & Lundberg-Kenrick, D.E. (2022). Solving Modern Problems with a Stone-Age Brain: Human evolution and the 7 Fundamental Motives. Washington, DC: APA Books

Milkman, K. L. (2021). How to change: The science of getting from where you are to where you want to be. New York: Portfolio/Penguin.

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