Forget willpower

As people start the traditional making and breaking of New Year’s resolutions, willpower seems to be at top of mind for many.  I have been ruminating on what I want to accomplish this year, and how I’ll put the right steps in place to get there.  I’m sure many of you have been doing the same!  But I dislike making resolutions just because it’s January, and I really dislike pretending that something is going to change unless I am really sure I can establish and execute on an plan.  Corporate training meets real life, I guess!

So when one of my ZS colleagues posted on an internal community about 3 Tiny Habits research that was discussed on NPR, my curiosity was piqued.   The project is being conducted by Stanford professor and industry consultant BJ Fogg, and on one of the Slideshare.net presentations he developed with his students, the first of the top ten mistakes in behavioral change is “relying on willpower for long-term change”.  In an article on QUEST (a multimedia science series and website), Dr. Fogg says that we are much better off trying to make small changes rather than sweeping adjustments in our lives.  Part of the reason appears to be that making small changes forces us to be more specific both about what we are trying to do and how we need to adjust our behavior.  The example that Fogg provides in the article is that he plays a specific chord sequence on his ukelele.  He leaves the instrument in a place that is visible and accessible to him so that he is reminded of the behavioral change he is trying to achieve.

This perspective is consistent with other things I’ve heard in the past:

  • The first is by my favorite blogger Jonah Lehrer, who researches and writes at the intersection of neuroscience and social sciences.  His most recent post is called The Willpower Trick, and he says that “willpower is really about properly directing the spotlight of attention, learning how to control that short list of thoughts in working memory”, which is a different perspective but nonetheless consistent with the 3 Tiny Habits approach.   He provides the example of the infamous Marshmallow Study, which showed that kids who were most effective in resisting the temptation to eat a marshmallow (in favor of two later), were those who actually tried to do or think about something else during the testing window.  If you’re interested in a quick summary of his book How We Decide, you can read a summary of the webinar I attended.
  • Michael Idinopulos is a social media strategist whose work I was exposed to a few years ago.  He argues that people are more likely to engage with technologies that fit ‘in the flow’ of how they work.  It seems to me that the idea of having the ukelele close at hand takes that approach to some degree.

One person pointed out that personal changes are not unlike corporate Change Management initiatives, and I would agree – have a clear plan, get people on board, measure what you manage, and provide specific, direct guidance to keep people on the trajectory you’ve established.  Since corporations are essentially comprised of people, it’s not terribly surprising that we struggle with change management much as we struggle to keep New Year’s resolutions.

But one option appears to be starting a Tiny Habit or three.  Not sure yet if I can commit myself 100% to the approach, since I’m not sure what incremental adjustments I can make.  Fogg talks about the act of flossing one tooth, which you can incorporate into the flow of your bathroom routine, and over time, you floss more and more until  you’ve established a new habit which includes all your teeth (hopefully you still have some by the time you get there).  So … should I commit to putting on workout clothes 3-5 times a week, even if I never make it to the treadmill?  Not sure yet!  But if you think that the 3 Tiny Habits program could be for you, here is a page to get you started with his program.

Happy flossing!

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