Readers who have been interested in following some of the threads about personal change -- becoming an athlete, overcoming gluttony, detaching from time, and maybe even beginning the devout life à la St. Francis de Sales -- might be interested in a quick-read book I just finished, one that Mark got for free at work after the author made a presentation there.
The book is Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. It seems to be aimed at the business/management market, and indeed most of the many and very interesting anecdotes have to do with encouraging behavioral change in other people, but there is a sprinkling of stories about personal change as well. I don't think the logic is perfectly crisp (and Mark wasn't terribly impressed by the author's presentation), but I think it's worth reading, if only because the anecdotes are so fascinating and varied. For example:
- How aid workers permanently improved child nutrition in a Vietnam village with no extra resources
- How hospitals reduced medication errors by discouraging staff from distracting nurses
- How therapists taught child-abusing parents techniques that dropped re-offending rates from 65 to 20 percent
- How one hospital nearly eliminated IV-line infections with a single policy
... as well as some other examples of effective techniques from popular gurus that will be familiar to many readers of this blog, such as Dave Ramsey (the get-out-of-debt-with-cash-in-envelopes guy), "FlyLady" Martha Marla Cilley (the clean-your-house-by-shining-your-sink lady), and Brian Wansink (the lose-weight-by-shrinking-your-plate professor).
Chapter One of the book is available on the authors' website here.
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Nowadays when I read self-help books of any kind, I find myself testing them against my own experiences making serious, deliberate changes. I have made two life-altering, "previously impossible" changes now: I've gone from being mostly sedentary to regular vigorous exercise and even athletic competition; and I've gone from being a habitual and even compulsive over-eater to, well, not being one at all anymore. Those are fairly recent, within the last three years, so they are still fresh in my memory, if not entirely completely understood and processed yet.
I can go back farther and remember a couple more successful changes. One significant, life-altering change was made about ten years ago in conjunction with another person, my friend Hannah, when we with our (then) one baby each quite deliberately set out to create a "tribe," a sort of extended family for ourselves and for our kids and husbands, by sharing one day's worth of our work each week. Hannah and I had to make another deliberate change about three years ago when we realized we absolutely had to integrate our homeschooling efforts if we were going to keep up our (now two days a week) schedule.
So when I look at a book like this -- a book that purports to explain how to make difficult changes happen -- I feel that I can really evaluate it on the merits, at least as far as personal change is concerned. (I've never been a manager, and I've never had to enforce any really major changes in the family's behavior, so I can't really evaluate it in terms of encouraging others to change.)
And my judgment is that this book meshes really well with my experience. Let's take a look.
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The Heaths organize their book around a borrowed image of something I've written about before, the divided self. They envision:
- the logical, decision-making, long-term-focused self as the reins-holding Rider;
- the emotion-driven, pleasure-seeking self as the much more powerful Elephant;
- and the environment or situation that influences both as the Path.
The various chapters in the book offer advice on how to "direct the Rider" (that is, how to show the intellect where to go and what to do, what steps to take; how to "motivate the Elephant" (that is, to get the emotional side on board with the change and thus harness its power, or at least, how to reduce its resistance); and how to "shape the Path" (that is, how to change the situation to make the desired change easier for both Rider and Elephant).
At first I was a little skeptical about this way of framing the divided self, but as I went through the book I came to see that it is indeed an apt analogy (and a neat organizational principle as well -- which always appeals to me).
Here's a quick outline of their main points, with comments about how these fit into my two recent experiences with personal change: becoming an athlete and overcoming a lifetime of overeating.
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I. Direct the Rider
A. "Follow the bright spots: Investigate what's working and clone it."
The only recent exercise I had successfully stuck with was YMCA swimming lessons once a week. So when I decided to exercise twice a week, I picked swimming.
I didn't know about any normal-eating "bright spots" before I started, but an example of this would be if you picked up a book like Thin For Life: 10 Keys To Success from People Who Have Lost Weight and Kept It Off by Anne Fletcher -- which is based on data from the National Weight Control Registry -- and tried to follow their recommendations.
B. "Script the critical moves. Don't think about the big picture, think in terms of specific behaviors." By this they mean, identify one or two specific action items that pack a big punch.
The perfect example of this is the four-point "No S Diet" published by Reinhard Engels. It goes like this: "No snacks, no sweets, no seconds, except on days that begin with S." Easy to remember, and really quite effective for many people. As for me, it took a long time for me to discover the critical moves for reducing my own weight, but now that I have them, the task of maintaining is much easier. They are: no seconds, no bedtime snacks, sharply curtail alcohol, use small plates. If I concentrate on those four rules, my weight goes down surprisingly quickly.
As for exercising, I guess you could say that my "specific behavior" was "Get in the pool twice a week." If I do that, I get enough exercise.
C. Point to the Destination: Change is easier when you know where you're going and why it's worth it."
I didn't need much intellectual convincing that it was a good idea to get some exercise. Here's a post I wrote about the non-weight-loss benefits of regular exercise.
As for overeating, you might think that I would know intellectually my whole life "where I was going," but actually I didn't. It wasn't until my intellect grasped the (should-have-been-obvious) fact that I was simply eating too much food that I was able to make the change.
II. Motivate the Elephant.
A. Find the Feeling. "Knowing ... isn't enough..."
One of the things that went "click" for me and let me stop overeating was the onset of a feeling -- the feeling of being really sick of overeating itself. When I suddenly started to feel disgusted with my behavior (rather than with my appearance), I started to act to change. And (before I decided it was bad for my sense of compassion) I used to deliberately linger over watching other people's disgustingly gluttonous behavior, e.g., at salad bars. Effective, if spiritually damaging.
B. Shrink the change. "Break down the change until it no longer spooks the Elephant."
Oh yes, this is a big one: measuring my successes meal by meal, snack by snack, and workout by workout.
C. Grow... "Cultivate a sense of identity."
I definitely did this. I set out to create an identity of myself as a person who exercises, an "athlete." I imagined myself as a "person who goes to the gym" -- and then I tried to do what I thought that person would do. It is more than just "Well, she'd go to the gym, duh!" When it's an entire identity, you have to fill in lots of details of character.
A person who was like me, except she goes to the gym.... well, she'd have two sets of workout clothes, not one. And she'd keep her bag packed all the time and in the car so as not to miss an opportunity. And she would be the sort of mother who expects her kids to manage in the gym child care for half an hour, not the sort who would reflexively reject gym child care. And she would occasionally take a yoga class if she happened to arrive at just the right time. And she wouldn't care if occasionally slipping that workout in meant she would wind up washing her hair twice in a day, or that she would have wet hair or wrinkled clothes when she got where she was going. "Sorry I look like a mess, I just came from the gym," she would say.
As for overeating, well, that's the power of the mantra, "I don't do that anymore." I have observed before that when maintenance requires me to go back to extra-careful eating, it takes me a few days to settle back into the pattern of impulse resistance, almost as if I had forgotten how to do it. I wonder now if it doesn't take a few days to switch into the "identity" of a non-glutton.
III. Shape the path.
A. Tweak the environment. "When the situation changes, the behavior changes."
So many strategies here. Buying smaller, divided dinner plates was, I'm convinced, the single most helpful environmental change that I made.
B. Build habits. "When behavior is habitual, it... doesn't tax the Rider. Look for ways to encourage habits." [including checklists and what the authors call "action triggers," i.e., decisions "to execute a certain action...when you encounter a certain situational trigger."]
I've written a lot about habits, so that's nothing new, but I like the concept of the "action trigger," which the authors recommend for motivating people to "do the things they know they need to do." One example of an action trigger might be, "I'll change the batteries in my smoke detectors on the same day that I change the clocks." The authors say that dreaming up an action trigger reduces personal resistance enough to be like creating an "instant habit" -- and if that's correct, then it's powerful indeed.
An example from my overeating life would be when I decided that when I finish my first plate of dinner, I'll get up and get a cup of coffee or a piece of gum. From my exercising life: "I'll head to the Y right after the preschool music class every week."
Everything gets a lot easier when you're in the habit, but making these little micro-plans -- basically just deciding when and where you're going to do something, and taking a moment to imagine it happening -- could perhaps carry you along until the habits are established.
C. Rally the herd. "Behavior is contagious. Help it spread."
This one has more to do with encouraging change in a group (for example, how managers might get a whole slew of employees to adopt new safety rules) but I still think I saw some of it in my own change. For one thing, I tried very hard to look to my fit and active and not-at-all-gluttonous husband as an example, and as part of my change -- it's hard to see which came first here -- we reinforced our whole-family identity as "a family who does active things together."
And I am sure that it helped me feel comfortable in my new role as "a person who exercises" that I was part of a larger organization, a member at my local YMCA, and that two or three times a week I was literally surrounding myself with people who already were who I aspired to be: "a person who goes to the gym." I felt that identity coalescing as I found that I knew the names of the staff and they recognized me, as I nodded hello to the same people I saw from time to time in the locker rooms, as my kids got comfortable in the child care and made "favorite" friends among the staff.
I think that blogging about it helped too. There is a certain risk you take in announcing to the world that you're making a change. I admit that I feel responsibility toward "the blog" to stay on habit at this point! I don't want to let you all down!
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This post has gone on long enough, so I'll end here, but I'm pleased at how it coincided so neatly with the start of the new year! I'm not making any new year's resolutions myself, but I wish the best to any of you who are.
(Just do it at some other YMCA, not mine. The parking is bad enough as it is. Ah, January...)