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Changing Our Human Behavior

By this time in early February, many people are struggling to keep their New Year’s resolutions.  The Wall Street Journal recently published an essay from the book “Tiny Habits” by Dr. Fogg, of Stamford University.  He says behavior changes should be tiny changes that come easily and make us happy.

I only made two New Year’s resolutions in my life, both in the year I turned 30.  I had tried to quit smoking several times and failed.  Because of the bad health reports for smoking, I resolved to try again.  Unknowingly, I followed Dr. Fogg’s advice and resolved to quit one day at a time.  At the end of each day I felt good about myself and the next day was a little easier.  After 30 days, I rarely had a desire to smoke.

My second resolution was to start regular, daily exercise.  MY energy level at the end of the day had shrunk and I found myself in bed by 9 pm.  I realized I wouldn’t drive to a gym and do a thirty-minute workout.  I needed something I could do at home in 10 minutes. I chose a military style calisthenics workout similar to what I did in Army basic training which included jogging in place for aerobic exercise.  Unknowingly, I followed Dr. Fogg’s rule.  I followed that routine for 50 years.  In recent years I’ve dropped back to 2 gym workouts each week.

Dr. Fogg recommends a 4-step process based on his research with more than 40,000 people over the past decade.  First, don’t try to motivate yourself to do something you dislike.  Instead, chose something you’re already eager to do.  Second, start with small steps that are easy and sustainable.  You can expand later.  My small steps were one day at a time and 10 minutes per day.  Third, design a prompt.  A good prompt is to anchor it to an existing routine in your life or a time of day.  I did my 10 minutes of exercise immediately after work.  Fourth, each time, celebrate your success immediately.  You maintain your new habit by tapping into the reward circuity of your brain causing it to recognize and encode the sequence of behaviors you just performed.  The more intense the positive emotions, the faster your new behavior will become automatic.  It’s not primarily repetition over a long period that creates new habits.  It’s the emotion you attach to them.  Dr. Fogg finds that more than half of those in his courses are able to instill new habits in 5 days or less.  When people participate in a support group to adopt a new habit or behavior, the results are even more transformative.

When we consider the history of human progress in science, technology, economics, government and all human activity, it’s been a process of many small incremental steps forward, not single giant leaps.  Small steps have worked well for human society and work equally well for individual humans.

Ralph Coker