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  • Writer's pictureDerrick W. Spell, MD FACP

Shaping the Path to Success!

Updated: Feb 12, 2020

You can help both the rider and the elephant along their course by shaping the path. By clearing the path for them, you make the journey less arduous. The first suggestion to help shape the path is to tweak the environment. We are often blind to the power and influence of situations. Psychologists have named this tendency the “Fundamental Attribution Error.” The error lies in accrediting people’s actions to “the way they are” instead of “the situation they are in.” In his book The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli explains that we are not “perfect, self-governed individuals” and that we frequently “tumble from situation to situation.” Appreciating this knowledge about situations, you can apply a few simple techniques of self-manipulation that will facilitate your weight loss.

Tweaking the environment entails making good behaviors easier and bad behaviors harder. Dr. Kurt Lewin is considered one of the pioneers of American social psychology. He once stated that the secret for behavioral success was to make the actions that you want to encourage easier and to make the actions that you want to deter more difficult. There are countless methods by which you can manipulate your surroundings to help with healthy living. You can encourage morning exercise by laying out your workout clothes the night before. If you exercise at home, you can make sure the equipment is in a highly visible location. In addition, there are many tricks that can drastically alter your food consumption. Dr. Brian Wansink describes many methods to make more mindful food choices in his book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. I will reexamine his book in a later post, but effortless ways he describes to alter your food intake include using smaller plates or bowls and eating with smaller utensils or chopsticks. He also recommends placing healthy foods, like fresh fruit, in more conspicuous places as well as hiding (or eliminating) more tempting foods.

Another recommended approach to shape the path is to build habits. When a behavior becomes habitual, it no longer burdens the rider. Behavior gurus advocate building mental plans called “action triggers.” Action triggers entail imagining both a time and a place to do a specified activity. Evidence shows that action triggers protect goals from distractions and inspire people to “do the things they know they need to do.” In the aforementioned The Art of Thinking Clearly, Rolf Dobelli elaborates on the concept of the Zeigarnik Effect, which is the notion that uncompleted tasks persist in the conscious mind. Uncompleted tasks are difficult to forget and can be somewhat taxing to the rider. Fortunately, completion of a task is not absolutely required to remove it from memory. All that is needed for the mind to move forward is an action trigger. I found action triggers especially useful in creating consistent exercise habits. For example, I walk every Monday and Wednesday afternoon when I arrive home from work. I also exercise every Saturday morning. Exercising on a consistent schedule creates an instant habit or the equivalent of “behavioral autopilot.”

Another constructive method to build habits is to use a checklist. Checklists are black-and-white instructions. They work because they make good behavior more consistent and bad slip-ups less likely. One thing that should be on every person’s healthy lifestyle checklist is “no fried foods.” This doesn’t exclude any specific food, only how it is prepared. Other useful checklist entries include “no sugary sodas” or “no white bread.” Utilizing a checklist serves both as a reminder of the dietary rules you are following as well as a positive reinforcement when you can check off those items for the day, either literally or figuratively.

The last recommended action to shape the path is to rally the herd. If the elephant is heading down an unfamiliar path, it is very likely to follow the herd. Likewise, we humans are innately biased toward wanting to be part of a group or social structure. We often look to others for cues with behavior and we all do things because we see others do them too. Behavior is contagious. Unfortunately for some of us, obesity may also be contagious! Social network data from the renowned Framingham Heart Study reveals that obesity may “spread” through social connections. If someone became obese on the study, that person’s close friends were almost twice as likely to become obese. For married couples, if one spouse became obese, the other spouse was 37% more likely to become obese. Dr. Nicholas Christakis from Harvard proposed that “you change your idea of what is an acceptable body type by looking at the people around you.”

Do not infer that you should abandon your overweight friends, or that they should leave you. Conversely, you should use this information about social networks to help encourage positive health behaviors. Notify everyone in your life about your desire to lose weight. Encourage your spouse to eat healthier foods with you. Ask your friends that exercise regularly to intermittently inquire about your workouts. Give your co-workers permission to caution you if you try to eat an unhealthy snack. Use peer pressure to your advantage! Positive reinforcement from those around you will help tremendously during the first few steps of your journey.

Remember, change is a process and not an event! When change occurs, it typically follows a pattern. People who effectively change have crystal clear direction, plentiful motivation and an encouraging environment. To return to the previous metaphor, change works when the rider, the elephant and the path “are all aligned in support of the switch.”

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