We are all accustomed to receiving instructions for improving our health. We know these directions by heart: eat more fruits and vegetables, get 8 hours of sleep each night, consume less sugar, stay hydrated etc.
Somehow these repeated commands fail to inspire many of us to change our behavior, even though we accept their scientific validity and know that we would benefit from following them.
The problem is commands tend to mobilize our resistance to feeling controlled- our brains just don’t like being told what to do. On the other hand, our brain is built to love questions. Questions create a mental environment that welcomes playfulness and creativity. As a result, questions tend to be much more productive for shaping behavioral changes than commands.
Questions are like puzzles that intrigue our brains. See for yourself by persistently asking yourself a question about your health like:
- If health were my first priority what would I be doing differently today?
- What is one way I can remind myself to drink more water?
- How could I incorporate a few more minutes of exercise into my daily routine?
Asking the right questions about your improving health, in turn, often generates ideas for small changes you can make in your daily routine. Small behavior changes are easier to achieve and as a result they evoke less anxiety and fear of failure. In other words, you are more likely to try small changes and to stick with them.
Let me give you an example taken from the pioneering work of Dr. Robert Maurer (I highly recommend his book One Small Step Can Change Your Life). He talks about Julie, a divorced mother of two seeking help at the UCLA medical center for high blood pressure and fatigue. She was 30 pounds overweight, feeling highly stressed by her job, finances and the demands of single parenting and at high risk for diabetes, heart disease and depression.
Dr. Maurer knew there was a proven solution available to help Julie: regular physical exercise would improve nearly all of her health problems and give her more energy to cope with her challenging life. But Dr. Maurer also knew, from long clinical experience that if he told her she needed to exercise 30 minutes a day she would both feel misunderstood (“I don’t have 30 extra minutes in my day to exercise!”) and guilty.
So Dr. Maurer took a different approach. Knowing that Julie’s one personal break in a full day of work and parenting responsibilities was the half hour of TV watching Julie allowed herself after putting the children to bed, he said: “How about if you just march in place in front of the television, each day, for one minute?”
When Julie returned for her follow up visit she told Dr. Maurer that she had indeed marched in front of the TV each night. Dr. Maurer was well aware that Julie wasn’t going to change her health status significantly with just one daily minute of low intensity exercise. Yet the success that she experienced had subtly shifted her attitude and she began to ask herself questions like “what other small improvements can I make to improve my health?”
Within a few months Julie’s resistance and pessimism towards a fitness program dissolved as a result of her building an exercise habit minute by minute. She began looking at her life through a different lens. She began looking to capture every possible opportunity for physical activity, like choosing the stairs instead of the elevator or parking a little farther away at work.
She began to enjoy the challenge of asking questions about how she could squeeze a little more healthy behavior into her daily routine.
Think about it. What may seem like an embarrassingly trivial change at first might be the gateway to big gains down the road.