Self-Help Programs Must Acknowledge the Elephant in the Room.

The often unmentioned elephant in the room for those of us who are promoting self-help is “How do we effectively help people to actually DO what we know will help them?” And to be frank, “How do we get ourselves to do what we know will lead to a better life?”

Harvard happiness guru, Shawn Achor, emphasizes that we need to make sure we have arranged to minimize the effort it takes to carry through on our decisions. We need to minimize the “activation energy’ required to get going.

Achor uses his own failed effort to learn how to play the guitar to explain the use of activation energy. He kept his guitar in the closet, but never got around to taking it out to practice. He even timed how long it took to get the guitar out and sit down to practice. It was only 21 seconds!

So, he set things up so the guitar was no longer in the closet. He put it right where he couldn’t avoid contact with it. Result? He now plays the guitar.

Debbie and I have done a similar, though reversed, version of this. We usually eat a pretty low fat diet. With that kind of diet, it’s not unusual to get hungry before bedtime. We decided to include nuts in our diet. But once before we had tried an Atkins-like diet, and used peanuts as our snack. We decided to drop that diet, but kept on eating the peanuts. I, she, and our dog, Sam, all gained weight.

So now we put the nuts on a shelf in the basement. When we decide to eat them, we take a small container (designed to hold spices) downstairs and fill it. I think it probably takes less than a minute to get the nuts, but I don’t think we have ever gone back for a refill.

It strikes me as a quirk of the mind that manipulating such small expenditures of energy can have so much influence on what we do. One answer to the self-improvement’s elephant-in-the-room issue may lie in understanding these “quirks”. We will have more to say about this in our next post.


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