The tide has definitely turned against New Year’s resolutions with researchers finally acknowledging that with an 80 percent failure rate, it’s probably better not to make those January 1 promises at all.
“These resolutions aren’t just useless but they’re potentially damaging since you feel a sense of defeat when you fail and may be less likely to try again,” said BJ Fogg, director of Stanford University’s persuasive technology lab where he studies ways to create healthly habits. But, he added, that doesn’t mean you should use this as an excuse to stay the course with health-damaging behaviors like smoking or inactivity.
Instead of setting abstract goals to lose 10 pounds, sprout six-pack abs, or never lose your temper, make a small behavior change that you really want to do and won’t demand too many hours of your day. In essence, you’ll be training yourself to form a new habit in the same manner that bad habits form: slowly and over time.
“Studies indicate that the right sequence of baby steps can lead to significant new habits,” said Fogg, just like the once-obese marathon runner who began with a daily walk around the block.
Sadly, most of us can’t break out of our well-ingrained routines to handle even the baby steps. Fogg believes that technology could help us take those steps by personalizing a change program that’s easy to follow and built into our day. I’ve come across a number of smart phone apps and websites designed specifically for changing health habits, but I’m wondering if any of them really work.
MeYouHealth, a Boston-based subsidiary of the medical education company Healthways, offers a free iPhone app called Munch 5-a-Day where users can record and track their fruit and vegetable intake throughout the day, challenging themselves to eat more as the weeks progress. They also offer the free Monumental iPhone app to track flights of stairs climbed. And, yes, the company this year took a stand against New Year’s resolutions launching a new website called Anti-Resolution where users pledge not to resolve to, say, lose weight, and instead pledge to make a small behavior change -- like sleeping seven to nine hours a night -- that can help them achieve weight loss.
“Instead of committing to an end goal, we want you to commit to take a step that, if done consistently, will help you realistically accomplish that goal,” said Dr. Nathan Cobb, science advisor of MeYouHealth.
Many of the apps and websites designed to change health habits remind you several times a day to accomplish a small challenge, rewarding you with badges, points, and more challenges if you fulfill the task. They also work on the notion that social support from virtual friends is key, that we need validation from others that we’re making progress. MeYouHealth, for example, tells you which of your friends completed a daily challenge that’s emailed to subscribers and alerts your friends if you’ve completed yours.
“Extensive observational research shows people are more likely to pick up a habit when they’re exposed to other people who pick up the habit,” Cobb explained. And other studies have shown that new habits are best adopted one small step at a time.
But do all these apps, websites, and social networking devices really help us stick with new habits? A quick search of medical studies revealed a lack of evidence to make this claim.
“You’re right about that,” said Fogg. “At this point, we’ve seen mostly failures when it comes to proving that apps change health behaviors.”
MeYouHealth hasn’t published any studies showing that its technologies work, but Cobb told me the company was planning to launch a study over the next few months to measure whether those who complete its daily challenges wind up with more improvement in their health and well being compared to those who don’t.
Fogg, though, countered that technologies to improve our health habits still need to be refined to identify those exact small challenges that we, as individuals, would enjoy doing every day -- and to know when and how to make them progressively more difficult. The ideal app should also find the right time to remind us to do that daily task, when we’re not, say, in a meeting or helping kids with their homework.
“The ultimate goal of these apps should be to make a behavior change as simple as possible to incorporate into our lives,” Fogg said. “The technology isn’t there yet, but it’s heading in that direction.”