If you’re trying to kick a bad habit — or pick up a good one — conventional wisdom suggests that the incremental approach is the way to go. Gradually cutting down on junky snacks is easier than going cold turkey on sugar; if you want to go from couch potato to long-distance runner, start with shorter jogs, not a marathon. If the goal is to floss your teeth more often, as writer Belle Beth Cooper explained earlier this year in Fast Company, start with a single tooth and work your way up from there.
“When I first started to focus on building healthier habits a few years ago, one of the biggest mistakes I made was to ask too much of myself,” she wrote in a story titled “How I Became a Morning Person, Read More Books, and Learned a Language in a Year.” “I would go from reading hardly ever to attempting to read one book per week. Or from getting up at 9 a.m. most days to trying to roll out of bed before 6 a.m. every morning. The distance between where I was starting and where I wanted to be was so great that I would fail a lot.” Once she started making tiny adjustments, though, the successes came more easily, and they mounted.
But recent research in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience suggests that maybe we’re all underestimating ourselves: Perhaps we can make those sweeping overhauls more easily and more successfully than we think — and maybe we’re shortchanging ourselves by taking baby steps instead. As the New York Times reported, the study authors followed two groups of college students over the course of six weeks to examine the effects of sudden, dramatic lifestyle changes:
Roughly half the students served as a control group and continued their daily routines; the other half overhauled their lives completely. Every morning, they visited the school for an hour of supervised stretching, resistance training and balance exercises, followed by an hour of training in mindfulness and stress reduction, which included quiet walks and meditation. In the afternoon, they exercised for an additional 90 minutes. Twice a week they completed two interval-style endurance workouts on their own. They attended lectures about nutrition and sleep and kept daily logs detailing their exercise, diets, sleep patterns and moods.
At the beginning and the end of the study, participants took a series of tests to measure emotional and cognitive changes, and also went through exercises to test their flexibility, strength, and endurance. When the six weeks were over, the ones who’d received a crash course in healthy habits were fitter, less stressed, had higher self-esteem, and reported better memories, a pattern continued even six weeks after the classes and workshops had ended.
The caveats: The study was run on undergrads, whose schedules are a little more flexible than the average worker’s. The participants in the change group also made over their lives in the context of a structured, tightly controlled program — and it’s a lot easier to take up exercise and meditation and a healthier diet all at once when the time is already carved out and the info is handed to you. Results from a set curriculum, in other words, may not translate to applicable lessons for self-directed habit formation. And as the Times noted, there were plenty of factors at play here, making it hard to know which of the many changes contributed to which of the many positive effects.
But on a broader level, the study authors argued, the findings suggest that we’re surprisingly adaptable, and that future research may help us get a better sense of what we’re capable of in terms of forming good habits. “The true limits of cognitive, affective, and neural plasticity remain a mostly unexplored frontier of scientific understanding,” the authors wrote. Or, as lead author Michael Mrazek, the director of research at the Center for Mindfulness and Human Potential at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told the Times, “the limits of the human capacity for change may be much greater than we, as scientists, have given people credit for.”
At any rate, there’s an interesting challenge here: Try approaching your goals with full-throttle effort rather than measured caution, and success may come faster instead of not at all. If you’re really throwing caution to the wind, maybe even floss two teeth in the same night.