Making big changes the small way

NW Scotland

 

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.

 

 

Author: trevorharley

I am Emeritus Professor of Psychology at the University of Dundee, Scotland. I am the author of several books, including the best selling texts "The psychology of language" (now in its fourth edition) and "Talking the talk: Language, psychology and science". I am currently also writing books on the science of consciousness and on the philosophy of science as applied to psychology (the latter with Richard Wilton), with both due to be published in 2017. Several other books are in the pipeline. My research interests are varied and I have published widely in some of the leading peer-reviewed psychology journals. My interests include language production, how we represent meaning, computer models of the mind, sleep and dreams, consciousness, mental illness, personality and motivation, the effects of brain damage on behaviour, and how the weather influences behaviour. I believe passionately that scientists, particularly those paid from the public purse, have a duty to explain what they do to that public. I also believe that we can reach a wide audience by the use of social media and new ways of explaining what we do. In my spare time I use stand-up comedy to talk about my research; a few years ago I appeared at the Edinburgh Fringe. One of the strangest things about being a comic is that I am often severely depressed (as well as anxious and obsessive). I have been on many types of medication, with varying degrees of success. When depressed I am always struck by how pointless everything seems: nothing seems worthwhile, and those things that I usually enjoy (playing the piano - even if not very well, looking at the natural world, reading, watching movies) no longer entice. My interest in things is a very accurate barometer of how well I am. I have realised that some mental illnesses, particularly severe mood disorders, are in part a loss of purpose and meaning in life. Becoming well involves recovering this purpose. I am also very keen to help remove the stigma that still surrounds mental illness. All of my life I have been puzzled by the question of what is the best way to spend my time. This blog is my search for answer to that question. In it I talk about my life, psychology, mental illness, purpose, living a better life, time management, existential despair, death (making me a death blogger I suppose), being creative, writing, and trying to write when depressed. I try and blog once a week or so; long silences usually mean I'm too depressed to write. For more information about me, see the home page of my website at www.trevorharley.com. I welcome comments on my blog, or if you prefer you can email me at trevor.harley@mac.com. You can follow me on Twitter at @trevharley.

3 thoughts on “Making big changes the small way”

  1. Agree with little changes! 5 Years ago I decided to reduce my sugar intake, so I stopped putting sugar in my hot drinks. I still eat cakes and sweets if they’re under my nose, but at least my coffee is sugar free. Recently I started drinking black coffee – my body thanked me for it, though taste buds are still adjusting. These changes were easy to make and I hope they’re here to stay. Onto new goals. Good luck with yours!

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    1. I’m lucky that I don’t like the taste of sugar, or the sensation it leaves in my mouth and on my gums afterwards. My weakness is wine. I’m trying to nudge my intake down, and it’s not easy. But any small change maintained leaves us better off. Good luck with reducing your sugar intake even more.

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  2. Assuming that there is not an underlying pathology, and we wish to change habits or behaviour, then one of the primary keys is commitment. Sadly, we live in an age where too many folks don’t want to to do the work, and expect others to do it for them. We are brainwashed into thinking that the answer is in a pill, or in the hands of the therapist. This is the path to failure, for what we focus on – we amplify.

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