If you want to change yourself for ever, make the change in tiny steps. We’re all familiar with people who make big resolutions at New Year (I’m just as guilty as anyone else), who then take out gym membership on 1 January but who have stopped going by the 10th. When I reflect I’m ashamed by the number of times I have resolved to eat less, drink less, exercise more, work more, travel more, go out more, and so on, and so on, and so on.
A few years ago the book Nudge by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler (2009) was very popular; apparently politicians were taking it on holiday as beach reading. I see that there is a forthcoming book (2015) by David Halpern called Inside the Nudge Unit; its Amazon description starts:
“Behavioural scientist Dr David Halpern heads up Number 10’s ‘Nudge Unit’, the world’s first government institution that uses behavioural economics to examine and influence human behaviour, to ‘nudge’ us into making better decisions. Seemingly small and subtle solutions have led to huge improvements across tax, healthcare, pensions, employment, crime reduction, energy conservation and economic growth.”
The much debated “sugar tax” is presumably a recent application of the nudge principle: a small increase in the price of sugar-containing goods will (or might) change behaviour by stopping some people eating quite as much sugar as they have, leading to a reduction in obesity levels. With millions of people you don’t need to make a big change to make a big difference.
Nudging means changing behaviour by making small changes. We know dramatic diets are often ineffective; indeed people often end up weighing more than they before dieting. When people fall off the diet wagon they think “what the heck”, and binge. Small changes to lifestyles are more likely to persist and have long-lasting effects than dramatic resolutions.
So I am reducing my medication, and doing it gradually. (A caveat: always discuss it with your healthcare professional before you change medication in any way. I did with mine, and they’re monitoring me in case I go downhill without appreciating it.) I’ve cut quetiapine from four to one a day, very gradually. I don’t feel so good after going down to just one but I’m hoping it’s just a blip.
And of course only change one thing at once, and give that change a chance to bed in and observe its effects. There are still many more things I want to change about my life so that I can find more time for writing, reading, and thinking, but this change is the big one for now. It will mean I need to sleep less and am more alert in the day.
This technique should work for everyone – including depressed non-writers and non-depressed writers and even non-depressed non-writers. Look at your life. Decide what is the most important thing you have to change. Decide upon a small step towards that change. Implement the change. Give it time until what you’ve changed is now habit, then repeat. The technique is good for diet, exercise, working more, working less, and so on.
One thing I am not so sure about is whether gradual change is better for making a permanent change in areas such as smoking and alcohol and drug addiction. In these areas many people appear to have success with going cold turkey. Whether nudging would be even more successful for these sorts of things I don’t know, and I don’t know of any figures either way.
So vow to make one small change today.