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5 expert tips for behavior change in 2024

Looking to eat better? Exercise more? Get unstuck in life or career? Stanford scholars offer this research-backed advice for making moves in the new year. And a reminder from Graduate School of Business Professor Szu-chi Huang: Embrace process and reflection. “Health, well-being, success, love – these are journeys,” she says, “not destinations.” 

1. Think like a designer 

Bill Burnett co-teaches a legendary course at Stanford that applies design thinking to the “wicked” problem of planning life and career. When approaching big decisions, he recommends using these power tools of his trade: Embrace curiosity – it’s the mindset that gives you the energy to overcome fear and procrastination; prototype your way forward, through conversations and experiences; and reframe as a way to get unstuck from seemingly unsolvable problems.

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2. Build habits to last

BJ Fogg is the author of Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. In addition to focusing on bite-size objectives, he says it’s critical to be flexible in your quest for change and to lean into positive emotions. Specifically: Help yourself do what you already want to do; help yourself feel successful; and invest time and energy (and money) to design your environment in a way that makes “good” behaviors easy and “bad” behaviors hard or impossible.

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3. Embrace friendly competition 

Szu-chi Huang’s research has shown that while positive feedback motivates you to start a goal, negative feedback is more likely to motivate you to finish it. As such, she says it’s wise to leverage friendly support as you start to pursue a goal and then lean into friendly competition later on. Doing so can help you push through to the end. 

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4. Maintain momentum with “good enough” 

Marily Oppezzo is a behavioral and learning scientist and a registered dietitian, and she frequently provides advice to faculty and staff through the university’s wellness programs. She emphasizes the importance of doing something, even if the action falls short of a loftier objective. Make a “good enough” version of your goals, she suggests, and give the ones you miss a head nod. (Not going to make that run happen? Just put on your tennis shoes.) “Some people, when they can’t make their goal at all, they put on blinders and try not to think about it,” Oppezzo says. “Instead, look your goal in the eye and say, ‘I see you and I’ll get you tomorrow.’ Maybe drive by the gym. Or take a bite of the celery before you have your ice cream. What this does is it gives your brain some practice, some mind share, and it adds to the rhythmicity of the habit that you’re starting to build.” 

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5. Don’t get distracted by false controversy – and eat less meat

There’s more expert consensus than you’d think – especially when it comes to nutrition. If you’re confused by seemingly contradictory advice, Christopher Gardner suggests asking the questions “With what?” and “Instead of what?” (Eggs instead of Pop-Tarts = good; eggs instead of oats? Maybe not as much.) He also recommends the protein flip. Instead of putting steak or chicken at the center of your dinner plate, put grains, beans, and veggies there, with meat as a condiment or side dish.

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