Use Your Head, Not Google’s

Use Your Head

After my last email, I received a number of questions about the best way to come up with behavior ideas for a given goal.

In general, I suggest old-fashioned brainstorming: get a pad of paper and just write out everything that comes to mind for 3-5 minutes without stopping. Sure, you can get inspiration from Google and various online forums, but I’ve always found it best when the ideas come from your own brain. Ideas you create will generally be a better fit for your context since you understand your situation and will subconsciously factor that info into your brainstorming.

I generally recommend against using Google or any other search engine for idea generation.

Why? Because the ideas that normally rank highly on Google tend to be the ones that everyone has tried and failed at. In general, the people seeking out habit formation or health information are the ones that aren’t succeeding with the well-known, mainstream suggestions.

In addition, the information that’s most commonly disseminated is either boring, vague, or wrong.

I’ll give you an example. Let’s say that you want to figure out what you should do in order to lose weight. You go to Google and type in: “best ways to lose weight”.

The first result is from the National Health Service in the UK. It has the following ideas:

  1. Do not skip breakfast

  2. Eat regular meals

  3. Eat plenty of fruit and veg

  4. Get more active

  5. Drink plenty of water

  6. Eat high fibre foods

  7. Read food labels

  8. Use a smaller plate

  9. Do not ban foods

  10. Do not stock junk food

  11. Cut down on alcohol

  12. Plan your meals

Are any of these compelling? Do any of them excite you?

The list is populated with boring (1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 10, 11), vague (4, 6, 9, 12), and discredited (8) advice.

For example: “Get more active”. Can you think of anything more generic? It would be much more helpful if the authors of this article listed out a number of different ways you can be more active under that suggestion. Same thing with the “high fibre foods” suggestion. What are some tasty high fiber foods that I should add to my diet? Are there any high fiber foods that most people love? List those out. That would be much more useful.

Then there’s the advice to use a “smaller plate”. This tactic hasn’t held up in well-designed studies. In this 2019 pre-registered study, no difference in consumption was observed between the small and large plate groups. The researcher who originally came up with and championed this idea, Brian Wansink, lost his job as a researcher and professor because of wide scale research misconduct.

Instead of relying on sites like this, use your own mind or talk to your friends and family. The people who know you and care about you have much more knowledge about your situation, preferences, and talents than any blogger or researcher out there.

You may be surprised if you talk to your mom or dad about the topic. They may remind you of how much you loved soccer or swimming as a kid–which may have slipped your mind in the busy, work-focused decades since.

And your friends may know about a fun local sports league they’ll invite you to.

The point being: habit formation is an immensely personal process, and your solution needs to be tailor-made for you and your situation. You may be able to gain some inspiration from generic advice in books or on the Internet, but the best solutions will come from your mind and the people who know you best.

In the next week or two I’ll post over some more information about a step-by-step method you can use to come up with good habit behavior ideas, and will also write up some advice about how to gain self-insight. If any questions pop into your head, don’t hesitate to shoot them over. I get a lot of emails but will try to respond as soon as I can.

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Here’s a great article on the impact of plate size on consumption: https://theconversation.com/do-smaller-plates-make-you-eat-less-no-74181