Hack your health with behavioural economics
Updated: May 10
This post was originally published on my LinkedIn on April 24, 2020.
We all have that friend that polishes off a pizza with a pint of beer, never works out, and somehow manages to stay impossibly fit and skinny. I used to be her…until I wasn’t.
The first 6 months of 2016 were hard on my body. I split my time between NYC and SF, which meant I spent a lot of time on airplanes, sick. I ate out a lot. I didn’t have time to workout even if I wanted to — and I definitely didn’t want to. Couple that with a slowing metabolism and the next thing I knew, I’d gained 10 pounds. That may not seem a like a lot, but it was about 10% of my body weight at the time so I absolutely felt it.
Clearly, I needed to make a change. But I felt stuck. And because I was so unhealthy, I didn’t have the energy required to make the changes I needed to. After work, all I wanted to do was go home, pour a glass of wine, and chill out. Which—big surprise—exacerbated the issue.
I’m a big fan of behavioral economics and incorporate it into my work to help people make better choices in hard to impact areas such as health and finances. “Why not incorporate this into my life?” I thought.
I started small. I wanted to prove to myself I could make a new habit and stick to it before launching back into exercise, because exercise was really daunting to me. Research varies on the subject, but conventional wisdom says it takes between 3 weeks and 3 months to form a new habit. What habit did I pick? Making the bed in the morning.
Once making the bed became second nature, I was ready to jump into the real challenge. Here’s how I did it.
First: Figure out your motivation Nobody acts without sufficient motivation. Product designers are great at subtly feeding consumers intrinsic and extrinsic motivators to get them to engage, but no one was trying to deliberately reach me. So, I did some soul searching and realized that, well…I’m extremely vain. My clothes weren’t fitting the way they should, and I didn’t like what I saw when I looked in the mirror. I didn’t just want to lose weight; I wanted to firm up and have my clothes fit properly again.
Second: Set a measurable goal. “I want to work out more” isn’t going to cut it. The goal needs to be specific, measurable and attainable. For me, it wasn’t about the number on the scale. I wanted to fit into my designer dresses that I was struggling to zip up. As goals go, it’s very specific, definitely measurable, and something I hoped would be attainable. I therefore focused my efforts on my measurements, not my weight. After all, if all went as planned, I’d probably gain weight due to increased muscle mass.
Third: Identify barriers to action. Once you’re sufficiently motivated to act…you actually have to act. And that’s hard. The Fogg Method, from behavioral scientist B.J. Fogg, has simplicity as a key component to success. You have to make it easy to act. And to make it easy to act…you have to remove barriers.
For me, there were a lot:
It couldn’t be early in the morning, because I like to sleep too much
It couldn’t interfere with my social life after work
I’m really lazy
I hate working out
Fourth: Remove barriers to action “It couldn’t be early in the morning, because I like to sleep too much”
Okay, no early morning classes meant it needed to be in the middle of the day or after work. Any solution that required me to get up before 7am was not a solution, and got crossed off the list.
“It couldn’t interfere with my social life after work”
Gee, LK, you won’t work out in the morning and you’re too busy at night. Whatever will you do? Well, I found a studio within 10 minutes of my house and office that offered 40-minute classes about every 50 minutes throughout the day, so I realized I could attend class easily in between client meetings or evening activities. Do I show up to class tipsy sometimes after HH? Or to events a little sweaty from spin class? (Or both in one night?) Sure. But I’m fitting it in.
“I’m really lazy”
I’m also really competitive in addition to being lazy, so I decided I needed to find a class to push me hard and keep me honest. That meant I needed to find studios and working out at home or on my own was not going to cut it — and any solution that wasn’t a class or with other people also got crossed off the list.
By this, I mean I’m price conscious, not necessarily that I won’t pay for quality. So if I had to call a car to get to class, it got crossed off the list, because class is expensive enough. I also wanted a little extra motivation, so I threw some loss aversion into the mix. I wanted a place that would charge me for missing a class I had signed up for to give me that extra incentive not to cancel at the last minute.
“I hate working out”
No getting around this, other than maximizing time in the class and finding classes under an hour. Loss aversion also really helps overcome this. I’d rather suffer through a 40 minute class than pay $25 on top of everything else.
The solution for me: An unlimited membership to Core40 Core40 is a San Francisco gym (with a few locations in San Diego, I think) that offers full body workouts and spin classes that are only 40 minutes long. An unlimited membership costs $249 a month. Ouch. So, I’m motivated to go at least 20 times a month to drop the per class price down to about $10 — which is super cheap. Plus, that $25 fee for missing class HURTS when you’re already paying that much.
I also book all my classes for the week on Monday mornings when I have a better idea of my schedule and am feeling motivated. Then it’s on the calendar and that’s that. Plus, it’s only 40 minutes long and a 10 minute walk from my office and house. I can commit to that.
A few other tips:
I really watch carbs. It makes a difference.
Drink less. It makes a HUGE difference.
Sugar is the devil, but I never liked it anyway. But if you’re reading my tips, well, it doesn’t hurt to reiterate that fact.
Wear sunscreen. This isn’t body related, but trust me on this one.
Diet-wise, make a Ulysses contract with yourself. Ulysses didn’t trust his future self to show restraint on his journey, but wanted to hear the famed sirens’ song. So, he had his men put wax in their ears and tie him to the mast so he couldn’t act on the song and jump to his death. Well, when I’m at the grocery store, I don’t trust future me not to eat the cheese and drink the wine in my house…so I tend not to buy it.