What we can learn from “The Case of the Missing Pounds”

In their fascinating book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, brothers Chip and Dan Heath extol the merits of making changes bit by bit in order to get lasting results. Again and again they bring up examples of how this can be a very effective way to change.

What I want to talk about here is an amazing study presented in their book. The study involved a large group of hotel maids. As you might imagine these maids were exerting themselves every day in order to get the job done. Unbeknownst to them, they were all exceeding the daily doses of exercise recommended by our beloved Surgeon General. And yet, when asked if they got regular exercise, a whopping 67 percent of the group reported that they did not exercise regularly!

Researchers took half of the group and told them they were exercise super-stars. They were shown a document describing the health benefits of exercise, and how what they were already doing was giving them those benefits (it was true). They were also given estimates of the amount of calories burned doing many of the things they routinely did on the job. The other group was given the same information about the benefits of exercise but they were not told that their work was giving them these benefits, and they did not get the calorie-burning stats.

Four weeks later both groups were checked again. They found a very curious thing. The group that had been told they were good exercisers lost an average of 1.8 pounds! That ‘s almost half a pound a week, which as it turns out is way beyond normal statistical fluctuation. Both groups were checked to make sure nothing had changed with their diet or exercise habits. No differences were found.

The brothers came to a few conclusions/conjectures based on this and many other study findings regarding behavior change. Here’s the essence:

  1. The maids that came to the realization that they were already exercisers now had a different mindset. They now thought of themselves as people who are already in the exercise group. According to other findings in this area, this type of realization is tremendously motivating. It means you are not starting from scratch they way you thought you were.
  2. There could also have been the realization that exercise can come from little things. After all, their activities had been broken down for them into little efforts, each of which burned a small but significant number of calories. The Heath brothers conjectured that once they realized that exercise could come from little things, they started consciously or unconsciously becoming more active. Maybe they scrubbed harder, walked a bit more, or stuck in some extra effort in other ways.
  3. The Heath brothers argue that a sense of progress is CRITICAL. As we all know, it is way too easy to become demoralized. It’s just the way we are. We are often experts at thinking negatively. We sometimes don’t reap the benefits of getting energized from feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment. All too often we focus on our shortcomings (i.e., not an exerciser) rather than what we are already doing. By connecting to what they had already accomplished, the maids went on to accomplish more.

I love the way the Heaths used this research to make one of their favorite points: Instead of “raising the bar,” it can be much more effective to “lower the bar.” It’s much easier to jump over a small hurdle than go for the high jump. It’s easier to stay motivated, because you can sense progress being made and accomplishments piling up.

Your takeaway: there is no action taken without a proceeding thought process or mindset. Look for ways in your own life that you can “lower the bar,” find little ways to make progress, and take notice of your victories. At the end of the day, these things can make a huge difference for you!

© 2016-2020 Kristen Carter. All rights reserved.

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