If you’re like most people, you’ve probably got some habits you’d like to change: maybe you want to quit smoking or eat better or check your phone less. And if you’re like most people, you’ve probably tried making those changes, and failed. And after failing again and again, you just gave up.
My guest today is a psychologist who specializes in helping people make real, lasting change in their lives. His name is Sean Young and he’s the director of the UCLA Center of Digital Behavior and the author of the book Stick with It: A Scientifically Proven Process For Changing Your Life—for Good. Today on the show, Sean explains why most of our approaches to personal change fail, and the scientifically proven process he and his team have developed to help people make lasting change. Sean shares several tactics that — when used in combination — can help you finally make those changes you’ve long desired.
We discuss why creating small wins is important in habit change and what we can learn from cults on how to effectively change ourselves. We then discuss how we can alter our environment to facilitate transformation, as well as “neurohacks” that can shortcut the brain’s hardwired instincts. At the end, Sean ties all these concepts together to provide listeners with a roadmap to finally sticking with a habit change.
- Why do a lot of our efforts at sticking with things — especially when it comes to life change — fail?
- Why motivational and self-help books don’t work in the long run
- Why information alone doesn’t work in helping people change their habits
- How bad habits and behaviors cost taxpayers, and even affect public policy
- A, B, and C behaviors — not all behaviors and actions are the same
- The S.C.I.E.N.C.E. framework to creating lasting change
- What’s a “stepladder” and how is it an effective tool in changing our habits?
- The important differences between steps, goals, and dreams
- What cults can teach us about lasting change
- How to make something that should be important to you, actually important
- How we can make change easier for us
- Change your environment, change your behaviors
- What are neurohacks, and how they can foster change?
- Why motivation and inspiration are way overrated
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Podcast: Hacking the Habit Loop
- Podcast: Shock Yourself Into New Habits
- Podcast: How to Live a Rich Life
- How to Hack the Habit Loop
- How to Create Habits That Stick
- Become a Self-Starter: What the U.S. Marines Can Teach You About the Skill of Motivation
- The Lean Startup by Eric Ries
- Inspiration is for Amateurs
- What to Feel Like a Man? Then Act Like One
Stick with It takes different ideas you may have read about habit change and puts them together in a system that’s been scientifically studied to produce lasting change. You won’t regret reading this book.
Connect With Sean
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
The Art of Manliness Store. Check out our newest items — like our “Stay Manly” mug, pint glass, and “If” enamel pin — and take an additional 10% off by using “AOMPODCAST” at checkout.
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. If you’re like most people, you’ve probably got some habits you’d like to change. Maybe you want to quit smoking or eat better or check your phone less. And if you’re like most people, you’ve probably tried making those changes but failed. After failing again and again, you just give up. We’ve all been there.
My guest today is a psychologist who specializes in helping people make real lasting change in their lives. His name is Sean Young, and he’s the director of the UCLA Center of Digital Behavior and the author of the new book, Stick With It: A Scientifically Proven Process for Changing Your Life for Good.
Today on the show, Sean explains why most of our approaches to personal change fail, and the scientifically proven process he and his team have developed to help people make lasting change. Sean shares several tactics that when used in combination with each other, can help you finally make those changes you’ve long desired. He discusses why creating small wins is important in habit change, and what we can learn from cults on how to effectively change ourselves.
We then discuss how we can alter our environment to facilitate transformation as well as neuro-hacks that can shortcut the brain’s hardwired instincts. At the end, Sean ties all these concepts together to provide listeners with a roadmap to finally sticking with a habit change that you’ve been trying to do. You’re going to love this show, a lot of practical takeaways. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at aom.is/makeitstick.
All right, Sean Young, welcome to the show.
Sean Young: Thanks for having me here.
Brett McKay: You recently published a book, one of the best books I’ve read this year, I gotta say, Stick With It: A Scientifically Proven Process for Changing Your Life For Good. That’s a big promise there man, so we’re going to see if you can deliver on it today. We were talking earlier on the show that changing habits, whether you want to eat better, quit smoking, start exercise, this is something that people struggle with since for time immemorial, and there’s like a new diet book or a new workout or a new book that promises change but doesn’t deliver.
I’m curious, why is it all these ideas we have about how to change habits, traits etc. Why do they typically fall short, usually?
Sean Young: Yeah, thanks and thanks for the kind words about the book. I mean it took two years of my life to write, and 15 years of research. I’ve just put heart and soul and so much into it, so it means a lot that you said that it really resonated with you. The book, I started doing research in this area because there were personal and professional things going on in my own life that had me questioning why people don’t stick with things. In the book, I talk about my brother has Crohn’s disease and was in the hospital. And I was in a band, I mean there were a lot of questions that were getting me to ask why people don’t stick with things.
So I started studying this scientifically, and I realized that a lot of other people were asking the exact same questions and struggling with it also. What I noticed is that so much in this space because we don’t have the answers, there’s two things that happen. One is we put the blame on the person. We put the blame on the individual, and we say if we can’t get ourselves to go to the gym, it’s because we’re not motivated enough. We don’t have enough discipline.
Or if I work with patients, I’m a professor in the medical school at UCLA, and if patients can’t take their medication, it’s because we’re told they’re not disciplined enough, or there’s something wrong with them. That really didn’t make sense to me, to just put the blame on people. It also makes us feel bad about ourselves, and I found through this process of studying it, it’s really not the right science. Instead of putting the blame on the person and telling the person, “You have to change who you are,” which we really can’t change that much of who we are. I learned it’s really about just tweaking little things in our lives, and changing the process of how we do it.
So this book, it’s a scientific process that I’ve used. I’ve studied it in research. I’ve put it together from decades of scientific research. I’ve applied it in my own life and in my own work and business. It’s really just a process for being able to stick with things. That’s one reason, one issue is we put the blame on other people, but the other thing is since these solutions aren’t out there, often we fall back to motivation. We fall back to inspiration. I can talk more about that in a minute, and unpack that.
But generally, we think, “I’m going to solve the problem by reading a self-help book.” Or, “I’m going to solve the problem by going to a motivational speaker.” That’s not going to last. It’s a temporary feeling, so what we really need is a process we can stick to no matter how we’re feeling.
Brett McKay: Right. That reliance on sort of the feeling of motivation is why people often buy another self-help book after they read one and sign up for another motivational speaker or a course or a conference, etc. is because they think that’s going to be the cure, but it’s not.
Sean Young: Yeah, exactly. I mean you mentioned before when we were chatting, you know every day there’s a different diet book. There’s a different motivational book. I mean that stuff’s out there because people really hurt. It’s when we’re trying to change something, and we can’t change it, people really suffer. I see this with patients. I see it with the people that we work with, and so if there’s something out there that will make us feel good, at least temporarily, and make us feel like we can change, people want to get that. Unfortunately, that’s been the books, and that’s been the solution, just temporarily make people feel better. But it doesn’t last, and the reality is there is a science out there that we can follow that will get us to stick with things. That’s why I wrote this book.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and another approach I see a lot of those type of books or things try to use to help change is giving people information. Like “Here’s all these things you need to do to get on a program.” Or, “Here’s why you need to quit smoking.” I think everyone who wants to quit smoking, knows why they should quit smoking. But that information’s not helping them change.
Sean Young: Yeah, that’s probably the biggest thing, the biggest misinformation that we have about behavior change. That if you just educate people more, and then they’ll change. And these aren’t uneducated people even, who are saying this. I’ll work with doctors who will say, “My patients aren’t taking their medication. They are just not educated enough about it. Until they start reading more about why they need to take their medication, I don’t want to work with them anymore.” We’ve learned, you know, decades of psychology research, we’ve learned, like you said, people know they shouldn’t smoke, but they still smoke.
In a lot of cases, they aren’t educated enough and there education helps. But in so many cases, people know what they should and shouldn’t be doing, but there’s a lot of underlying psychology and other things in there. Education is not the only thing, and it’s often used as just the fallback is, well if the person’s not doing it, they’re not educated enough, or they’re dumb. That’s just not true.
Brett McKay: You mentioned a little bit about your background of where this process came from. You’re currently the director of the UCLA Center of Digital Behavior and the UC Institute of Prediction Technology. How is your work there, or even your research before then, what have you done with that research or this process you developed to help people in these capacities?
Sean Young: Yeah. My background, I’m a social and behavioral psychologist, went to graduate school in that. I started off, I played in bands. I actually studied music and was in punk/funk bands and playing music because I saw growing up that the musicians I looked up to really had a big influence on the world. That’s something that I’ve always wanted, so I started studying psychology, just kind of fell into it actually to go to grad school. But found that psychology and behavior change was a way of really connecting with a lot of people and leaving a mark on the world hopefully. That was my goal, and why I ended up rather than just going into psychology theory, I went off to UCLA in the medical school, where I’m a medical school professor, like you said. I lead two organizations. One’s the Center for Digital Behavior, and the other’s the Institute for Prediction Technology.
What we do there, we look at behavior, and since we’re in the medical school, most of it’s focused on improving people’s health broadly. So we’ll work a lot on HIV, trying to get people tested for HIV. We work in prescription drug abuse. I work with UCLA patients who have chronic pain, trying to get them less reliant on their opioids, so that they’re not addicted or a risk for overdose. We’ll work with cyber bullying among youth, all kinds of different broad public health problems, crime and politics.
What we’ll do is incorporate technologies, and how can we use technologies and other methods of behavior change to change people’s behavior. We’ve come up with study after study that incorporates insights in psychology, and I describe a lot of those in the book. One thing that we’ve done, we created an online community called The HOPE Intervention, which stands for Harnessing Online Peer Education. It’s like a peer-driven community that we find time and again in multiple studies gets people just in a short period of time, just 12 weeks, we can get people to change their behavior and make it last. That’s something, I talk a lot about that and how do you create an organic community for behavior change, and that’s the focus of one of the chapters of the book.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I love that because oftentimes, when people think about personal change, they’re thinking about themselves typically. But as you point out in the book, this has public policy ramifications. This cost taxpayers lots of money, trying to change behaviors of large amounts of people who are costing taxpayers lots of money to treat, like opioid addiction or HIV, etc. etc. I thought it was really interesting how you try to apply these principles, not just on a micro level, but also looking at it at a macro level.
Sean Young: Yeah. As an academic, as a public health person, as why I got into this was … I mean every day I wake up, and I think about what are problems either in the world or just locally down the street, and I want to try to solve them. Honestly, that’s what gets me excited every day when I wake up, to try to feel like I’m helping to solve some problems and bring some good in the world.
Also, I’ve found that the same methods that I’ve learned through trying to solve these social problems, can also be applied in my own life. I’m definitely doing that and applying the science. I do consulting work and apply it with business. For a long time, I’ve been involved with startups either helping to found companies or advise companies, and the same principles apply there. It’s really the science of behavior change is just applies everywhere and the root of everything.
Brett McKay: Right. All right, so we know that just blaming the person doesn’t work, or relying solely on discipline or willpower. Motivation isn’t going to cause lasting change, and information is not going to cause lasting change. So what is this framework that you’ve developed through your years of research that you’ve found actually produces lasting change in individuals?
Sean Young: What I’ve found is that behaviors aren’t all the same. There are different types of behaviors, and we’ve gotta understand the different types of behaviors. There’s three of them, what I call A, B, and C behaviors. Once we know those three different types of behaviors, there’s a set of tools that we can use. Just like you might use a wrench for something, you might use a screwdriver for something else. Of that toolkit and set of tools, we use some of them for changing A behaviors others for B, and others for C. And I think that’s been a limitation in the past. A lot of people have just lumped behaviors into this one big category, but they’re actually different types of behaviors.
It reminds me of, I remember reading about there’s indigenous people in Sweden, in Finland, in Norway and Scandinavia, I remember reading these people, there’s like 300 different words related to snow in their language. For us, we have behavior, or we have habit. And that’s it, and people consider habit to be a just repetitive behavior, but to psychologists, habit has a very specific definition. That’s important because the way you change habits is different than you change other types of behaviors.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. So let’s talk about some of these approaches for these different types, these A, B, C behaviors. You start off talking about … You have like I think it was an acronym, SCIENCE. Right? The SCIENCE framework, and that S in SCIENCE stands for stepladders. What’s the stepladder, and why is it an effective tool? When would you use that tool?
Sean Young: Stepladders is the idea that we gotta do things in small steps, incremental steps. We shouldn’t plan to do something that we’re not going to be able to achieve because then we’ll fail at it. When I say this, this obviously, this is intuitive. People will say, “Okay, sure. I know that I’m supposed to do this in small steps.” And most of us do, but we still plan steps that are way too big. The question is, how do you get people to plan smaller steps?
I was at the market, and I ran into someone. He had run cross-country in high school, so he was a runner, and he had a good training. But he hadn’t run since then. It had been 15 years since then, and he decides, I’m going to go run a marathon, and since I knew how to run in cross country, I can go nail this. I’m going to make this marathon. I’m going to finish it. I don’t even need to train for it. He actually did really well. He got to mile 19, but then he just collapsed. He fell down, and he couldn’t finish the marathon. He told me, “You know what? I couldn’t finish this one, and I’m probably never running another marathon again after that experience.”
It really resonated with me because I know I couldn’t run a marathon without doing a lot of training for it. I think that that’s something … The marathon example, I think a lot of people can relate to, but we all do things like that in our own life. We may plan a New Year’s resolution and say, “You know last year, I didn’t really exercise much, but this year, I’m going to go to the gym every day. Or I’m going to go for a run every day for 30 or 45 minutes a day.” And you’ll see the gyms pack up for the first week or two because people are motivated to do it, but then they stop. And they stop doing it, and the problem is they planned a goal or actually what I call a dream. They planned something that was way too difficult for them to obtain, and it was too big of a step.
The question is, how do you figure out what’s the right size step when all of us, you know, it makes sense to plan things that are small and incremental. In the book, I created a figure, which I call Steps, Goals, and Dreams, and it breaks up things based on how long it takes to achieve them. So if we’re planning something that takes more than three months to do, for me, I can’t just go run a marathon right now. It’s going to take me a few months of training. That’s not a step. That’s not a small thing. It’s what I call a dream. Then a goal is kind of medium term. It takes about a month to three months to achieve. A step is something that takes less than a week to do, so a day or two, so go get some running shoes, if I’ve never had those, or just go walk if I have no experience running. That’s a step, and we’ve got to gradually build up.
This figure will teach us how to plan steps that are the right size for us to stick with it and not fail.
Brett McKay: Right. So get as discreet as you can. A lot of people, they don’t go small enough on this. Like you said, people understand that intuitively, but they don’t go small enough with the steps.
Sean Young: Yep. Yep. Exactly. This helps because it’s tough with words. We understand the idea of small, but what does that actually mean quantifiably? How do you actually apply that into your life, so this chart helps people actually have recipe for what is small.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I’ve even heard one habit that someone wants to develop is like flossing your teeth. You know, so they don’t get the tsk-tsk from the dental hygienist when they check your gum pockets. I hate that. Anyways, but instead of just saying, “I’m going to floss my teeth every night.” You’d say, well just start off like floss one tooth. Right? Get that going. Make it that small, because oftentimes you think, “Oh man, floss all my teeth. That’s going to take forever.” But if you can just get one. That can sort of snowball into where you’re getting to do all of them.
Sean Young: Yeah, or even, I mean if you don’t floss at all, first buy some floss. Second, put it next to your toothbrush, so that whenever you brush your teeth, you’re going to see it, and it will remind you. Even that, even if you’re not actually flossing, just seeing your floss next to your toothbrush every time you grab your toothbrush. Tape it to your toothbrush even, so that you can’t not see your floss. Things that like, they’re intuitive actionable steps, but they come from this larger science.
Brett McKay: Is there a type of behavior that the step laddering works best for? Like the A, B, C, behaviors?
Sean Young: Yeah. Yeah. Great question. Step ladders works best for C behaviors. A behaviors are automatic behaviors. These are things that happen unconsciously. We’re not even aware of them. B behaviors are burning behaviors. Behaviors where we’re aware that we’re doing them, but we feel like we can’t stop. C behaviors are common behaviors. They’re more due to motivation.
An example of an A behavior is like I’m forgetting to stand up straight. I’m forgetting to keep good posture, or picking my nose without even realizing it. That would be an A behavior. It’s unconscious, hopefully. B behavior is a burning behavior. An example of that is I wake up in the morning, and I gotta check email, or I gotta check my phone to see what’s going on. I know what I’m doing. I know I’m grabbing it, but I feel like I just gotta do this. Addictions are often B behaviors. C behaviors are things like going to exercise, wanting to exercise where I know I should go for a run right now. I’m aware of it, but I’ve got work to do, or my buddy’s called me up and said, “Let’s go grab some food or a drink.” Other things get in the way, and we just decide not to do it.
Stepladders works best for addressing C behaviors, common behaviors, motivational things because it’s the idea, like we said, of doing things in small steps. If we take the exercise example, we know we want to exercise. We can put some running shoes next to the door, or just put running shoes on right now. That’ll be a small step to get me to go for a run or do something.
It’s not going to work as well for A and B behaviors. Like if you want to … Let’s say I interrupt all the time, and I’m not even aware that I’m doing it. You can’t incrementally stop interrupting. I can’t say, I’m going to only interrupt you part of the time, or I’m going to stop myself from interrupting. Or I’m going to take certain steps to not interrupt as much. It just doesn’t even make sense because I’m not aware that I’m interrupting. The first thing that we have to do is be aware of what we’re doing, and then you can use stepladders to gradually address that.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. The C in that SCIENCE framework stands for Community. I gotta say, I thought this was the most fascinating chapter about community, and it’s important in change. Basically, you’re taking lessons from cults, and figuring out how we can harness the power of what cults do to promote positive social change. What have cults figured out that help people make lasting change in their lives, that we can apply in our own lives?
Sean Young: Yeah. Cults are so interesting, I think. It doesn’t have to be terrorist cults, or it doesn’t have to be cults for bad things. Even like Star Wars cults, or cult movies or cult classics, you know. I love the movie Superbad, and there’s cult following around that. So what is it about cults? I mean they’re able to get people to do things that they wouldn’t normally do.
In the opening chapter, I talk about a woman who, she’s a smart woman. She’s really educated, and she somehow finds herself just like burning her old things. She finds herself where she’s not seeing her family and people from her old life, and she’s in like a para-military organization, a full-on cult that’s looking to do bad things, and that’s endorsing and supporting other cults that have had mass suicides. How did she even get there? And the science behind that, and how cults work, it can be applied for social good too. That’s what I unpack in there, that we want to be different from other people, and we think we’re different from other people. And we think if other people are wearing certain clothes, if they’re talking in a certain way, that we can be different. But we’re actually really influenced by other people.
Cults are good at leveraging that force, that science, but that tool of community is just a tool, so it can be used for good or bad things. In the book, I try to show people how they can hopefully use it for good things.
Brett McKay: Right. And that’s interesting because a lot of people when they think about changing or improving themselves, they think it’s a solo affair, that’s probably one of the reasons why a lot of people fail at those changes because as you say, the power of community is amazing because you have this group that reinforces positive change. They’ll hold you accountable to things you shouldn’t be doing, so you kind of leverage some of that, I don’t know, primordial shame that we feel when we don’t conform. Even though we think we’re a bunch of nonconformists, it still feels bad to be rejected or kind of looked down upon in a group. But that can all be used for positive change in your life.
Sean Young: Absolutely. I think community is the one that’s most powerful in the research that I do at UCLA. I think I mentioned this HOPE community, this online community. We built this, and we … Take the case of HIV. We’ve recruited African-American and Latino gay men to an online community. We recruited them because they are at high-risk for HIV, and we wanted to see could we get them to get an HIV test. They didn’t want to get an HIV test necessarily. I mean who wants to get an HIV test, but we recruited them into this community saying, “Complete a survey, and we’ll give you a little bit of money to take this quick survey. Join our online community. Then once you join it, you can drop out. You don’t have to be in it anymore, and you’ve already gotten paid, so you’re done with what you need to do for the study.”
Then it was up to us to make the community engaging enough so that they wouldn’t want to leave, and that they’d stay in it. That’s what we did. We built this community as a 12-week online community. We found over time, we were able to get these men who didn’t want to get an HIV test to actually get tested and to care about getting tested and care about changing their health.
Just 12 weeks to do it, and we found that these changes last over time. The first one that I did of these was seven years ago, and on its own, it’s still working. People are still using it on their own, and we’ve built these communities in a bunch of different areas, not just HIV. Like I said, for opioid abuse, for general health and well-being, for all different drug use, all different kinds of areas. So community is really powerful in getting people to do things, even if they don’t care to do it themselves initially.
Brett McKay: Is it just a matter of like just joining a running club, or a fitness class, or joining AA? Or is there something about the way the community is organized that allows for that change to happen? I’ve seen lots of people get together to try to sort of start these self-improvement groups, and they just don’t go anywhere.
Sean Young: Yep, exactly. A lot of social media, they’ve tried a lot of social media studies or community studies, and actually about only 30% of people actually stay in them. About 70% of people just drop out. We’ve found in our studies that after 12 weeks, we had 94% of people who are still actively involved. A year-and-a-half later, over 84% of people were still involved, and we haven’t checked since, but I mean I see the activity going on like three, four, five, seven years later.
So what is it? I mean there’s a special science about how we did it, and it involves having peer role models be involved. We recruit role models in a certain area. Like if it’s prescription drug abuse, we recruit people who were suffering from prescription drug abuse but have been able to overcome it, and who are respected peer role models. We then train them. We bring them in to UCLA, to our institute, train them on this science of how do you reach out to strangers, people who don’t even know you. And how do you connect with them and get them to trust you and ultimately follow your way of doing things? It’s that science that’s the way to build community.
Brett McKay: Gotcha. You gotta spike it.
Sean Young: Yeah, yeah, exactly. You spike it, and there’s … For Art of Manliness here … So in the chapter, I talk about two different beers, so I’ll bring this up in case people would like. You know the answer to this from having read it, Brett, but the question I ask is, “Who do you think sold more beer about a year-and-a-half ago? Was it Sam Adams or Dos Equis?” When I ask people this question, almost everyone says Dos Equis. The reason why they say Dos Equis is just the most interesting man in the world ads. They’re hilarious ads. Everyone talks about them or was talking about them. And it just got so much buzz, so much word of mouth, that it seems obvious that that’s going to lead to more people buying Dos Equis beer, and they’ll continue buying that beer.
But if you go and look at their Facebook pages, you’ll see on the Dos Equis page, there’s a few million fans that they have. They have a ton of fans, whereas in the Sam Adams page, you’ve only got about a million. Still, makes sense, people like Dos Equis. Then if you look at the actual conversations, those are different conversations. On the Dos Equis page, there’s like a picture of the El Senor guy. He’s wrestling with a tiger or something. Or he’s scoring a touchdown, and people are talking about it. They’re talking about making other jokes of their own, or they may even be making fun of the beer. There was one of someone saying, “I don’t always drink alcohol, but if there’s nothing else around, and I can’t find anything else, then I’ll drink Dos Equis.” Or they’re just kind of ripping on the beer, but they’re making these jokes, but they’re talking about it.
Whereas in Sam Adams, what they’re talking about is, “I live in Canada, and we don’t have the new type of Sams. We just got them, and I just stockpiled them to invite all my friends over.” Or, “When I go to the U.S., I pick up extra ones to bring them back.” So people are, even though it’s a smaller following, they’re talking about the beer, and they’re talking about how much they love it. That’s where community really matters. So it’s not about, oftentimes we think just marketing, advertising will get people to change or information like we said earlier will get people to change. That’s not it. It’s about having a strong community is what gets people to keep on doing something, and that’s why Sam Adams sold more beer than Dos Equis.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I love that example. When I read that, it made me think of Burger King’s chicken fries. They had some really funny commercials a couple of years ago, but I never had the desire to buy chicken fries. I mean I watched the videos, chuckled, but yeah, didn’t buy any chicken fries.
Anyways, all right the next I in SCIENCE Framework, I thought was really interesting because it seems so obvious that it’s trite. But when you think about it, it’s like, no actually that’s a really important point, and that is Important. Like the change you’re trying to make has to be important to you. I think people will understand on an intuitive level. Of course, this thing’s important to me, like losing weight, so I can reduce my blood pressure. That’s important. Quitting smoking so I don’t get cancer, that’s important. But it’s oftentimes, really not that important to a person because they’re not doing it.
So the trick is, I wonder … Here’s the rub. How do you make something you know should be important in your life, whether it’s quitting smoking or saving for retirement, actually important in your life?
Sean Young: Yeah, there’s a book, The Lean Startup based up on this lean startup methodology of learning your customer. You can’t just build a product and expect that people will start using the product. You can’t just start a podcast and expect people are going to come and listen. You built up this podcast probably from talking to a lot of people, figuring out what resonates with them, and knowing your customer and knowing what they need.
The same kind of approach applies in behavior change, whether for products or for our own behavior. If we want to be able to change something, either in ourselves or in others, getting other people to listen to a podcast or buy a product, it’s gotta be something that’s important to them or important to us if we’re changing. How do you figure that out? It’s a pretty simple concept of people should be motivated to keep doing it, but people have different motivations. In the chapter, I talked about and I give a short list of things. Money’s obviously important to people as an incentive. Health is important for a lot of people. Social approval is important for a lot of people. Different things are important to different people, so really knowing yourself enough, or if you’re trying to change others, like get a family member to be healthier, knowing them enough. And knowing what is it that motivates them. In the chapter, we talk about that.
But what I think’s interesting is that, like you said, it’s pretty intuitive that if people are motivated to do something, they’ll do it, but we often think that if you’re not motivated to do something, there’s no way you’ll do it. What we’ve learned is that important is just one of these seven tools or forces, but there’s six others. So even if I don’t care about changing something, like in the HIV testing example I gave. Even if I don’t want to get an HIV test, doesn’t mean I’m not going to get it because these other forces, if we use these other tools, we can still get ourselves or others to do things, even if we don’t have the motivation, even if the inspiration’s gone away. I think that’s what’s really exciting.
We often think … And that’s why people go to these self-help seminars or motivational talks because they think, “I’ve gotta have that motivation to change, otherwise, I’m not going to do it.” Fortunately and actually, science shows, no, you don’t have to be motivated all the time, and you’re probably not going to be motivated all the time. As long as you use these other tools, you can still change behavior, and once you are changing behavior, it’ll actually get you more motivated so you don’t have to necessarily start with motivation. Motivation and inspiration can come after you’ve already changed your behavior.
Brett McKay: Yeah. We’ll talk about it a little bit with the neuro-hacks section, but another chapter I thought had a lot of profound insights was the idea that the change itself has to be easy, or we should make it easy for ourselves to make that change because as you talk about in the book, humans are pretty lazy, right? And it makes sense. It’s efficient. Right? We just want to go with the flow. We want to put things on autopilot, so we don’t have to think about them and waste energy or resources on those things.
You mentioned a few ways that we can make things easier for ourself with the stepladdering, with the floss, like buy dental floss and keep it by your toothbrush. I guess that way, you’re changing the environment to make the change stick. Is that what you’re doing there? So that makes it easy because you’re changing your environment, and therefore you’re relying less on willpower, and just relying more on your natural inclination to be lazy. And you’re like, “Well it’s already there, so I might as well do it.”
Sean Young: There’s the story that I tell about there’s a grocery store chain that was not doing well. So the person who was running it, he mortgaged his house and just put everything on the line to try to save it. But he was competing against 7-Eleven, which had just started and other stores, which were offering so many different types of products for people. They could get anything that they wanted at all hours of the day. So the guy, Joe Coulombe, he takes off and he goes to the Caribbean, and in the Caribbean, he decides, I’m just going to relax and have a chill vacation, listen to Calypso music, and sit and drink cocktails. And he realizes it’s really easy to be on vacation here. What if I take some of this back to my grocery store, and make it easy for people to keep shopping.
So instead of offering a ton of products for people to buy, instead of having 10 different types of mayonnaise to choose from, or 13 types of breads like most stores. He says, “I’m just going to have one main product for each of them. I’m going to have one store-brand bread. I’m going to have one store-brand type of chips.” And that did it. That store ultimately became Trader Joe’s, became a huge lasting success, and it’s because he made it easy for people to shop. They didn’t have to sit there and figure out which type of tortilla chips do I want of these 15 types. It’s just it makes it pretty clear and pretty easy.
Brett McKay: Yeah. I’m curious with your work in helping people make change in their lives, how much does their environment hinder them making those changes because their environment sort of guides their behavior. Right? If you’re just hanging around a bunch of opioid addicts, that’s probably what you’ll end up doing. It’s like what do you do for those individuals who are in an environment that’s not conducive to lasting change? Do you have to completely get out of there? Or do you have to rely on some of these other tools we’ve been talking about?
Sean Young: Yeah, we have the ability to make change by changing our environment. It gets into almost a larger conversation about free will and choice and stuff. I mean I believe, and the research has spoken to me and said once we’re in a certain environment, it’s really difficult for us to change. But we do have the ability to change our environment, and once we do that, that can allow us to change our behavior. That’s why I call it forces like this because there’s constantly these forces acting on us, but we have the ability to change our forces that are acting on us.
So give an example, I used to go to the gym on campus at UCLA, and I was pretty good about it. Then I moved offices to a little bit off campus, about a mile down the road, and I didn’t go to the gym as much. I wasn’t exercising as much. It wasn’t because I wasn’t motivated. It wasn’t because my inspiration to exercise had changed or anything like that. It just was not easy for me anymore to walk the mile up the street. I couldn’t drive. It just took 30-45 minutes for me to now be able to just arrive at the gym.
So what I did is I switched gyms, and I chose a gym … First I’d bring my gym bag with me to work every day. And when I’d leave work, I’ve got my gym bag on me. And as I’m walking on the way to the parking lot to my car, I pass the gym where I signed up for. Now I feel like I can’t walk by this gym and pass it on the way to the car because I’ll feel guilty. I’ll feel like I should be doing this, and it’s just too easy to go to the gym. It’s almost more difficult for me to not go than to go, and that’s what gets me to go.
So changing my environment, and we can all do this in the case of if we want to exercise, if it’s a gym that we go to, pick one that’s walking distance from our home or work. Don’t pick one that’s a 15 minute drive. We’re not going to be doing it. If we want to read more books, get the book and put it next to your bed so that it’s easy to do. Just little, little tweaks like that where we change our environment, make us more likely to be able to stick with things.
Brett McKay: It could also be something more drastic, like dumping all your friends that are bringing you down, who are encouraging opioid use or whatever.
Sean Young: Yep. And we talk about that in … There’s a guy named Charlie, really nice guy, who had a digital addiction, and he was able to overcome his digital addiction. That was one of the main parts of it, you know, just getting some time away. As you said, we’ll get into this with neuro-hacks. Getting some time away, and knowing that he’s capable of being away from his digital devices, but also not being around the people who are gaming anymore and not being around people who are reinforcing that behavior for him to be using his digital devices.
Brett McKay: You mentioned earlier, the importance, the idea of motivation, it can work. I mean it’s sort of like it’s a tool. It’s not a silver bullet. But one tool that works in a lot of cases for change is this idea of neuro-hacks. What are those, and how can they help in the change process?
Sean Young: Neuro-hacks are quick, mental shortcuts that we can do to change our brain and be able to do things that we were never able to do before. I’m sitting in front of my computer right now, and if a program crashes, I can hit ctrl/alt/delete, and reset it, and now the program’s reset. We have the ability to do that with our brain. We can get ourselves … It doesn’t matter how many times we’ve failed at something, we can reset our brain, so that we have a fresh restart, and we’re now able to do things we’ve never done before. That’s what I call a neuro-hack.
With neuro-hacks, there’s a story that I tell of a guy named Mauricio, who did a quick neuro-hack from just changing his password, something as small as changing his password, he was able to get himself to get out of a funk he was in from a recent divorce and to quit smoking overnight.
Brett McKay: That’s crazy. I think he changed his password to “forgive her”, or something like that, talking about forgiving his ex-wife.
Sean Young: Mm-hmm.
Brett McKay: But yeah, what you’re tapping into is this idea that it’s the body doesn’t follow the mind. The mind follows the body. So it’s like in body cognition. Right? That how we behave, or things we do, that affects how we feel, or it can even affect how we change things.
Sean Young: Neuro-hacks is I think, the most counterintuitive or the most going against the grain of conventional wisdom of all the forces. You know a lot of them make sense intuitively. We talked about stepladders. We know we should do things in small steps. Important, people should be motivated. That makes sense, but most of us are taught that if you want to change something, and you want to be different in your life or in the world, it starts in your brain. It starts by telling yourself, “I can do this.” If I want to get myself to learn a new instrument, then we’re taught visualize myself playing and tell myself, “I’m going to learn this instrument, and I can do it.”
But what the science has showed is that those feelings or things that we tell ourselves, it doesn’t last. First we need to start with behavior, and we need to teach ourselves, teach our brain, that we can actually do it. We can’t have our brain convince our body to do something. We need our body to teach our brain, “Hey, I already did that. I can totally keep doing this. This is not a problem. I may have thought that I wasn’t capable of doing it, but I already did it.”
I took my daughter swimming yesterday. She’s two-and-a-half, and she’s been afraid of the water, and I really want to teach her to swim. I grew up along the beach, and was at the beach all the time. I took her in the pool. She’d been afraid of the ocean, but I put one of those swim vests on her. I started off holding both her hands, and showing her how she could stay afloat. Then I removed one hand. Then I removed the other hand, and she realized, she didn’t need me. She didn’t need to hold onto me. She had been in her mind thinking, there’s no way she could swim. She’s just not capable. She’s too scared of it. But within 15 minutes of this, she now realizes, “I’m capable of swimming. I can do this.” And she’s now super-excited, you know, “Let’s go out and swim today. Come on let’s go swim. Let’s go swim.”
That’s a neuro-hack. It just changes how we think of ourselves because it starts with behavior.
Brett McKay: Right. So even if you don’t feel like getting up and exercising, if you don’t feel like flossing or whatever, just make an appointment, and just do it. Treat it like a job pretty much, in the beginning, then the process of doing will basically … You’ll start to feel like doing it because what’s happening is you’re changing your identity. Right? Once you see that you’re running on a regular basis, you start thinking, “Well I’m a runner, and because I’m a runner, what I do is I run. So I feel like running today because that’s who I am.” You don’t want to break that identity you’ve developed for yourself by doing the thing because you didn’t feel like it, if that makes sense.
Sean Young: Yeah, I think one of the biggest problems or disservice in behavior change is all this self-help and motivational stuff that says, “We have to be inspired to change.” So if you want to exercise, “Look at Richard Simmons. Look how much he loves exercising. He just runs around and wants to talk about exercise all the time. If we want to exercise, we have to be like that.” I think it’s just kind of a downer to us. I mean I exercise like four, five, six, times a week, and most of those days, there’s at least some portion of the day where I don’t feel like doing it. But I get myself to do it, then I end up feeling good. I’m glad I do it, and it’s healthy for me.
I think one of the problems that we have is that we think we have to be motivated in order to do things, but it’s really oftentimes, about just doing that first step, getting ourselves to do it, then the mind will kick in and say, “I’m glad I took that first step. I’m not turning around. I’m going to keep on doing this.” That’s what we need.
Brett McKay: Going back to the different behaviors, automatic, burning, and common, where does the neuro-hacks, which one does that help the most? Or what tool would be best for those?
Sean Young: Neuro-hacks is one that actually helps all of them, but it’s especially important for the B and C behaviors. For B behaviors, which are often addictions, people they’ve failed many times at something, like the example of the digital addiction or any kind of addiction. People feel like I’m just stuck to a life of always having this endless cycle of not being able to break free, and I’ve gotta be gaming all the time, or whatever it is. Looking at porn videos or drug use or whatever it is. Once they see that they’re capable of not doing that for a portion of time, it lets them know, maybe I’m not the person that I thought I was, and I am capable of doing this. So neuro-hacks is really important for especially B behaviors.
Brett McKay: Well Sean, this has been a great conversation. We still didn’t get to Captivating and Ingraining habits, so we’ll let our readers go get the book so they can learn about that because that was really great. The big takeaway I got from this book, what I loved about it was that there’s no silver bullet for lasting change. Right? You have to have a whole quiver full of arrows and apply the right arrow for the right behavior.
Sean Young: Absolutely, and I think that’s a mistake that we think that behavior is just all lumped together, and it’s one thing. We think that motivation or willpower or something like that will be all that we need to change behavior. We think that if we change our habits, which are A behaviors, unconscious behaviors, that that’ll allow us to change all types of behaviors. But behaviors are different. There are different forces that are acting on us all the time to be who we are, and act the way we are, and we need to be aware of those forces. Then we can use the right forces to help us change.
Like you said, we’ve got a bunch of arrows that we can use for different things, and the book hopefully sets up a framework for when to use which ones, and how to use it. Hopefully, it also leaves people with, don’t rely on having to feel like you’re inspired all the time because inspiration’s just a temporary thing. If we first change our behavior, we can get inspired to do things by seeing the change that we have through neuro-hacks.
I’ll leave with a story. I mentioned my daughter. I grew up in Orange County, where it was a very relaxed lifestyle in Newport where I grew up. I love that relaxed feel of playing music, of liking reggae music, things like that. But as I got older, and I went to grad school and working in medicine and doing all these things, life has gotten pretty crazy. It’s just there’s so much going on. It’s pretty high-speed, fast-paced, and I can get sucked into things where I’m non-stop working.
So I wanted to change my own life and apply these kinds of things to give myself a break sometimes and go back. I don’t want to forget who I was and how I grew up. I’m still that same person of wanting to be able to relax. What I did is, first with making it easy, I made it so that on Fridays and Saturdays, I put my ukulele next to the bed. So I wake up, and I pick up my ukulele, and I play that for my daughter. I play her some songs on ukulele, and it’s like ukulele just sounds like the beach, so it’s relaxed. I taught her, even though I was in punk/funk bands, and I played punk. I love rock music, all different types of music. I taught her jazz, reggae, and classical music.
Now when I ask her what kind of music she wants to listen to, she’s picking one of those three types of music. She’s like, “Play reggae music.” So when you’ve got someone asking to put on reggae music all the time, it’s pretty hard to not get yourself in that mindset of let me just sit down and have a drink and relax. So, things like that and making that a routine of every weekend and nighttime of playing music to her, things like that is how I’ve been able to apply these forces in my own life, change my own life around, and make sure to have a good work/life balance.
Brett McKay: I love that. Well Sean, is there some place where people can go to learn more about the book?
Sean Young: Yeah absolutely. So website is seanyoungphd.com. Same thing Twitter, Twitter handle seanyoungphd. Book’s available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, support your local independent book stores and definitely get ahold of me. I love talking with people, meeting new people, and got into this to try to connect and help people, so if I can share anything else, hit me up and would love to chat more.
Brett McKay: All right, Sean Young, thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Sean Young: Thanks a lot Brett.
Brett McKay: Like I said Sean Young, he’s the author of the book, Make it Stick. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. To find out more information about Michael’s work go to seanyoungphd.com. Also, check out our show notes aom.is/makeitstick, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness Podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoyed this show, if you got something out of it, I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. That helps us out a lot. Thanks to everyone who has given us reviews. We really do appreciate it. As always, thank you for your continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.