This Year I Will Make Smart Changes! A Q&A with Cognitive Psychologist Art Markman

unnamedThe New Year has reared its ugly head and now it’s time to start jotting down all our ambitious plans to tap into our inner rock stars and become happier, slimmer, richer and more organized! Of course, we can always start anew anytime of the year, but there’s something about January 1st  that evokes a dawn of reckoning. Hey, who am I to judge? I’ve got my own little pink notebook filled a laundry list of lofty ambitions to rock it out in 2014. If it takes the New Year to finally ditch those cancer sticks, or to start volunteering at the local animal shelter – you go with your bad self!

9780399164118In his brand new book Smart Change, UT Psychology Prof Art Markman will show you the way. I was lucky enough to snag an advance copy  (job perk!), so I can tell you that it definitely contains some pearls of wisdom – especially for those who need some help in the self-control department. Read on for more details about the book, which will drop on Jan. 7. If you’re an Austinite, be sure to catch his book signing event at BookPeople on Jan. 9!

Briefly describe Smart Change. 

Smart Change starts with the observation that many people want to change their behavior, but few people really know why their brains make them continue to repeat the same behaviors they have had in the past. The more you understand about how the brain motivates you to act, the more effectively you can help yourself to act in new ways. After exploring the motivational mechanisms in the brain, Smart Change presents five sets of tools that you can use to change even the most persistent behaviors.

Why is it so hard to break a bad habit, such as late night snacking in front of the TV?

Your brain is optimized to continue doing what you did last time without having to think about it. So, when you decide you want to change a behavior, you are fighting against millions of years of evolution that have created mechanisms that want you to maintain your behaviors. The hardest part about these behaviors is that they are habits, and so they are done mindlessly. You are often unaware of when and why you are performing the behaviors.

One of the hardest parts about changing a behavior like snacking is that your first reaction is going to be to replace the behavior with nothing (that is, not eating). But, your brain cannot learn to do nothing. So, you need to start the process by trying to replace an existing habit with a new one. If you typically snack while watching TV, maybe you should take up knitting or do a jigsaw puzzle while you watch. That will keep your hands busy.

You provide a free Smart Change journal online, which includes a 14-Day Habit Diary. Could you share some insight into how journaling helps people change their behavior? 

Much of what you do on a daily basis is mindless. It is hard to figure out the situations in which you are carrying out the behaviors you want to change until you can become more aware of when and where you are doing them. Spending two weeks just observing your behavior gives you a lot of insight into why you do what you do now. Those insights will be helpful when you start generating a plan to change your behavior.

In this age of instant communication, people often feel the pressure of being “always on.” How can this book help us adjust a balance between technology and our daily lives?

If you feel like one of your habits is to carry your work home with you, then you can use Smart Change to find new habits that will create a separation between work and home. In the book, I talk about how I took up the saxophone as an adult. I had to clear time and space in my life to add a new routine. Thirteen years later, though, my life is richer for it (and I even play in a blues band on Sunday nights).

In addition to productivity and time management, how can this book help people with their personal struggles?  

Your motivational system does not care whether the behaviors you are changing are ones you do at work or at home. Your brain helps you live your whole life. The principles you use to help you to be more productive at work are the same ones that engage to give you a meaningful life at home. The book draws on examples of behavior change at work and at home.

In your book, one of the five steps is to engage with people. Why is this important?

Human beings are social creatures. We are wired to adopt the goals of the people around us. If you spend time with people who have the habits you want to develop, it will naturally lead you to adopt the same goals. One important thing you can do is to find a mentor—someone who has the aspects of your life that you want. Then, spend time with that person and get to know how that person succeeds. Use their wisdom to help you make changes in your own life.

Once your readers follow the steps and successfully change their behavior, how can they pay it forward to others? 

After you have your own success changing your behavior, it is time to be one of those people in the community who has the life that other people want. When you become a mentor for other people who are trying to change their behavior, it also helps you to recognize aspects of your own behavior that you still want to improve. Being a mentor can give you added motivation to continue to move forward in your own life.

What sets this book apart from other behavior modification self-help books?  There are a lot of books out there on habits and behavior change. Some of the books describe how people form habits, but they don’t provide specific tools to help you change. Other books present a model of behavior change that is presented as a one-size-fits-all approach to developing new behaviors.

Smart Change is different, because it roots everything in the science of psychology. The first two chapters help you to understand the aspects of your brain that influence your behavior. Only then do I introduce tools to help you to change your behavior. Each of those tools has an evidence base behind it. In addition, each tool requires some work. It isn’t enough just to read about changing your behavior. You have to be active in your own change. The book comes along with a Smart Change Journal that you can use to take a comprehensive approach to changing behavior.

Finally, the book ends by pointing out that all of the tools that you use to change your own behavior can also be used to influence the behavior of the people around you. Real persuasion does not involve constructing arguments to convince people that a particular course of action is the right one. Instead, it requires the development of a plan that will ultimately change people’s behavior.

4 thoughts on “This Year I Will Make Smart Changes! A Q&A with Cognitive Psychologist Art Markman

  1. Psychology really interests me and this sounds like a book that has some good ideas for all of us especially at this time of year when we are motivated to make those types of changes. He has a good point about trying to change habits and not replacing them with something else… food for thought from your review alone.

  2. It sounds really interesting, I have read other works on habits and the science behind them is fascinating. I always wonder though about the social aspect. I don’t have a mentor and many of the people that I work with don’t have the habits I want to develop. Not really sure how you go about finding these new social relationships. For example, if one of the things you want to change is shopping, yet all of your closest friends love to shop and that is how you socialize…what do you do about that?

    1. That’s a really good question! It can be tricky when your friends all help you engage in bad habits…believe me, I know! I’m no expert on behavior change, but I found that joining a running group has filled up a lot of my free time (aka happy hour time). There’s a lot of meetup groups for all sorts of hobbies that perhaps you may want to look into. Just a thought. 🙂

  3. Thanks for the comment! I’ve found the most effective strategy is keeping tabs on behavioral patterns through journaling. You can download free journal prompts on the Smart Change website if you’re interested. Happy 2014!

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