Why is it so hard for us to change?

By Douglas Kenrick, Ph.D., Dave Lundberg-Kenrick

A stroll through your local bookstore, or a glance around its electronic equivalent, reveals a seemingly endless selection of books brimming with advice on how to change your behavior – titles advocating tiny little atomic habits and giant habits of a million dollars, with a lot of gradations in between.

Why are there so many books on positive change? Probably for the same reason there are many books about love and marriage; Getting these things right requires continuous tweaking and the occasional major tweak.

Although we’ve read dozens of such books ourselves, Dave and I are struggling to start or sustain some of the most desirable changes in our own lives, like cutting out those extra desserts, turning off Youtube to get some sleep more or find some time each day to do some writing.

Why is it so hard to change?

People looking for the answer to this 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 recognizes a fact that hardly ever appears 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 lifelong effort, not a one-time fix.

If you’re like Dave or me, when you’re trying to change a habit, you’re probably not starting from scratch. You don’t start a completely carefree, hedonistic lifestyle by eating marshmallows all day. You may be starting to do almost your best – already trying to eat healthy foods, exercise and work out more, but you still find it difficult to exercise more between work, family and other commitments. Cutting out those last snacks can feel like you’re depriving yourself of the last moments of joy before passing out.

During our adult lives, we’ve both been exercise fanatics, then we’ve had periods of laziness, then we’ve gone back to the gym or on the bike. We both had periods of healthy eating, followed by periods of eating mostly pizza and brownies, followed by holy phases of fruits and vegetables.

If you’re one of us mortals always looking for ways to cut out those final desserts or add a few extra spins to the gym, Milkman’s book may give you plenty of inspiration; it is full of practical advice for dealing with different types of common problems, organized into chapters on how to overcome the obstacles of impulsiveness, procrastination, forgetfulness and laziness, as well as the costs and benefits of overconfidence and social conformity.

His book contains a few dozen useful suggestions. Here are three.

  1. One of the biggest problems is what Milkman calls current bias – the tendency to value short-term gratifications right now (watching an entertaining TV series) over the big rewards that will only come in the future (having 15 pounds less or get a good grade at the end of the semester for your textbook study). She offers us associate temptations with virtuous activities. One of us has independently adopted this tactic – pairing listening to audiobooks with home exercises or washing up (every time I get engrossed in a book like Milkman’s, say, cooking once dirty is spotless for several days).
  2. A related solution to the problem of short-term gratification is to gamify our work tasks; Peleton does this by having leaderboards, giving ongoing feedback on how many calories you’re burning, and having instructors call an exerciser home once in a while. You can do something similar simply by awarding yourself points for exercising or doing homework, and later cashing in those points for a reward.
  3. Public commitments are an age-old behavior change technique. Milkman notes that they work best when there are difficult consequences to not achieving 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 quitting smoking). Nearly half a century ago, our friend Rich Keefe used this technique to complete an expensive comprehensive paper in graduate school, asking Doug to donate the money to an organization Rich didn’t particularly like. but only if he failed to achieve his goal. In the end, Rich got the money back and overcame what seemed like an insurmountable obstacle.

The trick is to combine these different techniques in a creative way that works for you.

The other day, Dave and I were discussing tactics he could use to shed a few extra pounds in the COVID era, and he mentioned that he struggled to find more satisfying rewards than his favorite snacks.

We’ve found a nifty 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 insights into core motifs from our own recent book (Kenrick and Kenrick, 2022, see post).

Dave’s integrative plan to detox from carbohydrate-rich foods is as follows: for every week he avoids junk food for at least five days, he’s going to donate $10 to his son and daughter. He’ll feel good in two ways if he hits his weekly goal, and he’ll let his kids down in two ways if he doesn’t.

Just to add the audience engagement factor, we’ll let you know how it goes in about a month.

Dave Lundberg-Kenrick

Source: Photo by Rob Ewing used with permission

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