If you walk by the checkout counters at most supermarkets,you might come to believe that changing your behavior is almost impossible.  Every month, the headlines from countless magazines scream out with advice to lose weight, get in shape, and help yourself to feel better.   Apparently, everyone is constantly struggling with their weight and fitness.

Yet, there are notable success stories. For example, the Cleveland Clinic has had incredible success helping their employees to stop smoking, eat well, and stay fit. They start with a specific definition of wellness involving five normal health measurements including normal blood pressure and body-mass index (BMI). They instituted a comprehensive wellness plan that includes smoking cessation classes, farmer’s markets, banning smoking, trans-fats, and sugary drinks from the work environment, free yoga classes, and counselors to help people who are trying to lose weight.  It turns out that changing behavior doesn’t require one trick, it requires many.

Why is behavior change so hard?

As I discuss in my upcoming book Smart Change: Five Tools to Create Sustainable Habits in Yourself and Others (Perigee), much of your daily behavior is driven by habits that have been learned over a period of years.  Habits are maintained by structures deep in your brain that we share with most other animals.

Image credit and link: Softball Excellence

These structures are extraordinarily efficient at learning the behaviors that you repeat and then helping you to perform those behaviors in the future without having to engage the conscious decision to do them.

The habit learning system allows us to engage behaviors quickly and without extensive deliberation. Because the brain is an energy intensive organ, the less time we spend deliberating about behaviors, the lower the energy cost of behavior. So, the brain typically operates to minimize the amount of time spent making decisions.

In order to overcome the power of past experience, you need a comprehensive approach to change your behavior that helps you avoid the old behaviors and perform the new ones often enough to allow them to become habits.

To see these processes in action, let’s look a bit more carefully at why the Cleveland Clinic has been successful at changing people’s behavior.

First, they optimize people’s goals by focusing them on specific health targets that are measurable. The five normal values are all targets that people can influence through their daily behaviors. 

Second, the Cleveland Clinic changes people’s environment to make the behaviors that people should perform easy and those that they should avoid hard. By making the campus smoke-free, they require smokers to walk along way if they want a cigarette during work hours. By banning trans-fats and sugary drinks, they make healthy food options more easily available than unhealthy ones.

Third, the clinic engages people’s social network. People are a powerful source of motivation to change behavior.  Sharing a yoga class with colleagues is a great way to reduce stress along with your colleagues. Weight-loss counselors provide a friendly face who can provide instant personal advice on eating right.

By removing lots of temptations from people’s lives, the Cleveland Clinic reduces their employees’ reliance on willpower to overcome temptations and instead focuses them on positive behaviors that can be turned into habits. Research demonstrates that willpower is prone to failure.  In addition, studies suggest that new habits are learned only when a behavior is repeated in a context.  You cannot create a habit not to perform an action. 

If you are lucky, of course, a large organization like the Cleveland Clinic will come along and help you to structure your world to succeed at changing the behaviors that have resisted your previous efforts.  If not, then learn more about the way your motivational system operates. Describe your goals in positive terms that your habit system can learn.  Set up your environment to make desirable behaviors easy and undesirable ones hard.  Engage with people who will help you achieve your goals. And don’t give up, even on the days when you fail.


Art Markman is a professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and Director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. He has written over 150 scholarly papers and is currently the executive editor of the journal Cognitive Science. He is the author of Smart Thinking and Habits of Leadership. Art’s next book, Smart Change, will be published in January of 2014.