Researcher Recommends Taking Baby Steps on Life Changes

baby steps, starting in our thought process, are key to successful change

By Jonny Lupsha, Current Events Writer

In an article for The Wall Street Journal, researcher BJ Fogg recommends starting small with life changes. One of the biggest reasons New Year’s resolutions fail, he said, is because people pledge to make drastic changes too quickly. Changing cognitive behaviors is the first step.

Woman contemplating by window
Experts recommend setting small, achievable goals when initiating behavior change. Photo By Vlad Teodor / Shutterstock

According to The Wall Street Journal, we may be setting ourselves up for failure when we decide to make a change. “Upsurges in enthusiasm in early January are generally followed by flagging commitment in February,” researcher BJ Fogg wrote. “To be effective, change doesn’t have to be hard at all—and shouldn’t be. Tiny adjustments that come easily and make us happy are the ones that work best; it’s our approach to self-improvement that needs to change.”

Fogg says the formula for successful change in behavior is to motivate ourselves with a change we truly want to make, then start with small and achievable activities and goals, make it a behavior that we can trigger or associate with another behavior, then reward ourselves for carrying it out. It all starts with changing how we think.

Greatness from Small Beginnings

Starting small can’t be overstated. In the traditional model of behavior there are antecedents, behaviors, and consequences. Knee-jerk thoughts enter our brain automatically after some kind of inciting event and sometimes we respond without taking the time to think. However, even these seemingly reflexive thoughts are related to behavior and mood.

“If we think about the traditional model, we might say or think something like ‘My spouse made me angry,'” said Dr. Jason M. Satterfield, Professor of Clinical Medicine, Director of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Director of Behavioral Medicine in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, in a lecture for The Great Courses.

“It’s the events or the exchange that caused a particular emotion and then maybe a behavior that followed. But the cognitive model inserts a very simple but important middle step: ‘My spouse did something which I interpreted as insensitive and selfish, and then I became angry and withdrawn.'”

Dr. Satterfield said that taking this middle step during a thought process is far more important than one would imagine, and it’s incredibly simple. In this example, the spouse’s action is still the trigger to our own behavior, but we also must consider how we interpret that triggering event and the meaning we gave to it somewhere between it reaching our ears and the effect it had on us.

Changes: Turn and Face the Strange

In order to change a thought, Dr. Satterfield said, the first thing to do is to catch it. We can use an emotion, like anger, as a warning signal or flare that tells us where a thought ended up, then we can work our way backward in our memories to identify how and why we reached that emotional state.

After catching the thought, Dr. Satterfield said to write it down and think about how we’re thinking about these mental cognitions. This analysis often reveals various mental habits.

“Habits of mind are, by definition, non-normative or just irrational,” he said. “They include things like over-personalization; mind reading, or imagining that we know what another person is thinking or we know their internal motivations; magnification or minimal minimization, [which means] making things bigger or making things smaller; fortune-telling, where we try to make predictions about the future; or sometimes we engage in all-or-none thinking or ‘dichotomous thinking’—it’s either all good or it’s all bad.”

Paying careful attention to these habits of mind help us see where our line of thinking went wrong, whether in an argument or with a life change like a New Year’s resolution. After identifying these mistakes, making small changes to fix them can add up to great results.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Dr. Satterfield is Professor of Clinical Medicine, Director of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Director of Behavioral Medicine in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco

This article contains material taught by Dr. Jason M. Satterfield for his course Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Daily Life. Dr. Satterfield is Professor of Clinical Medicine, Director of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Director of Behavioral Medicine in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). He earned his BS in Brain Sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his PhD in Clinical Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania.

About Jonny Lupsha, News Writer 853 Articles
Jonny is a freelance writer and novelist who lives in Sterling, Virginia. He has written for The Great Courses since 2017 and enjoys studying the courses as much as writing about them. Contact Jonny at lupshaj@teachco.com