There’s an old joke: how many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? Only one, but they really, really have to want to change. We all want to change our lives; to be fitter, healthier, happier. Recent developments in behaviour change theory have shown us effective ways to make changes.
The key is ‘nudge theory’. You make small changes and lots of them to ‘nudge’ you towards your goal. Each change rewards you and makes the next change easier. This theory is now so popular that the government has set up a Behavioural Insights Team. The aim is to ‘use insights from behavioural science to encourage people to make better choices for themselves and society’. Many of these insights can be used at a personal level. BJ Fogg runs the Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University. He suggests breaking the change process down into three key steps; Spark, Signal, Trigger.
Spark This stage gives you the information you need and inspires you. Reading about healthy eating, or the long term health problems a lack of exercise brings can act as a spark. Often we ignore these things because they are just too scary. If you think about this information gathering as a completely separate thing to actually making changes it is not so intimidating: ‘I am just finding out’.
Signal This is the planning phase. Working out what you want to do and how you can go about it. Take your time here. Good planning gives you time to really think things through and makes all the difference to the next stage – the trigger.
Trigger This is about setting a start point and doing it. Find a date and time that matters to you; a birthday, an anniversary, an event, and use this as a trigger to start your plan. By the time the event comes round, you will have achieved what you set out to do. 12 easy changes to make your life better.
The change you want to make may be small (drink more water, give up biscuits) or large (lose weight, run a marathon, get a new job). Our change plan can be used on all of them. Before you begin, work out exactly what is stopping you. On the right-hand side of a piece of paper write a list of why you don’t run every day, eat healthily, or what stops you looking for a new job. Maybe your trainers are uncomfortable, or you don’t know where to start job hunting. On the left-hand side write solutions to each of the problems. Now you have built in solutions to the obstacles that are stopping you achieving what you want.
1 One thing at a time Instead of making drastic changes, break things down and do it in stages. If you want to lose weight, maybe start by working on that snacking habit. Replace sugary snacks with healthy ones. Then move on to reducing calorie intake.
2 Identify your triggers Keep a diary for a week to help identify what triggers behaviours you want to change. Mid-afternoon chocolate snack perhaps? Sleeping late stops you running? Then plan replacements for those triggers.
3 Make positive plans You are not giving up things but doing new things. This is called ‘gain framing’. So don’t see it as giving up cakes and crisps, but eating more fruit and vegetables.
4 Get Equipped Download a fitness app to your phone, get a notebook to keep a food diary, throw out the junk food, sign up to a jobs website. This acts as a signal to show that you are getting into the right mind frame to make a change.
5 Break it down into small steps Work out the steps involved in getting to your target and then start with the smallest step. Maybe walking for ten minutes a day, or just reading the job vacant pages each week. Taking the first step is the hardest. Get that done and you are underway.
6 Write your plan down This is a promise to yourself. Put the plan where you will see it often; on the fridge, on your phone or computer. Give it a clear headline: ‘in eight weeks I will fit into my too-tight favourite dress’ or ‘in six weeks I will be able to run for 20 minutes non-stop’.
7 Record the now Take pictures, record your weight, keep a work diary, note how long you can run for. Once a week update your record.
8 Reward yourself No, not with cream cakes! Find good rewards and use them once a week, not just at the end: a new running top or lipstick, a trip to the cinema.
9 Tag it Adding your new habit to something you already do is called tagging. Put your vitamin pills next to your toothbrush so youremember to take them in the morning. Place your car keys on top of a box of healthy snacks to remind you to take them to work.
10 Make it regular Habits are inbuilt. You remember to clean your teeth because you do it every day. So your new good habits need a regular slot. If you want to ride your static bike every day, do it at the same time. After a while you will do it automatically.
11 Find a buddy It’s much easier to keep to a plan if you have a friend on board; they don’t even have to do it with you. Studies of the effectiveness of giving up smoking using mobile phone messages found that adding a ‘buddy’, who smokers could text when they were tempted, made them more successful at giving up. Which friend would you call?
12 Make new habits the norm This is called ‘choice architecture’ in behaviour change jargon. It's simple. In canteens, studies found that customers chose healthier foods if these were placed at the front of the display. So arrange your own ‘choice architecture’. Store only healthy snacks in your cupboards. Make getting changed for your run quick and easy by having your gear out and ready.