If you want to break a bad habit or institute a new one and you start Googling around for advice, you'll soon come across one of many experts offering this conventional wisdom -- start with baby steps.

For instance, when Stanford University persuasion expert BJ Fogg wanted to start flossing more regularly, he promised himself he'd do just one tooth a day. "Often our grand plans don't work out because they seem overwhelming," he explained, so by starting small we overcome our terror and build momentum.

Sounds sensible, but does it actually work? Maybe not.

Should you shock yourself into starting a new habit instead?

That's the possibility raised by a new study published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience and reported by Gretchen Reynolds on the the New York Times Well blog. For this research, a team at the University of California, Santa Barbara tested a new type of intervention to convince study subjects to adopt a healthier lifestyle. Rather than follow the baby steps approach, they tried to shock their subjects into changing with a short-but-radical life overhaul.

"Every morning, they visited the school for an hour of supervised stretching, resistance training and balance exercises, followed by an hour of training in mindfulness and stress reduction, which included quiet walks and meditation. In the afternoon, they exercised for an additional 90 minutes. Twice a week they completed two interval-style endurance workouts on their own. They attended lectures about nutrition and sleep and kept daily logs detailing their exercise, diets, sleep patterns and moods," explains Reynolds.

When these forced fitness freaks were tested six weeks into the program, unsurprisingly they were healthier and less stressed compared to a control group. The more surprising finding is that the effects seemed to last -- six weeks after they finished they still outperformed those who didn't receive the intense intervention. Their shock lifestyle switch seems to have produced (at least somewhat) lasting behavior change.

Anecdotal evidence for the all-in approach

Of course, if you want to change your habits, you're probably not going to be able to avail yourself of an all-day wellness camp to kick start a new lifestyle. But there is some anecdotal evidence that the all-in approach can be modified to work with less formal interventions too.

On the Crew blog recently, Mikael Cho confessed to struggling to improve his productivity and health with the usual baby steps approach. For instance, he'd vow to keep his daily to-do list short and actually get through each item. It sounds entirely doable, "but I only felt better the first couple of days. Then my list slowly starts getting longer and longer each day. Within a week, I'm left with a list that's 10+ to-do items again," he reports.

So he's trying something different. Rather than gently easing himself into new habits, he is going in for a radical overhaul -- much like the approach used by the UC Santa Barbara team. Instead of vowing to be slightly tidier, he will "keep the house 'Ritz-Carlton-clean'" for one month. Instead of writing a bit more, he's aiming to publish daily, etc.

How is this short, sharp shock approach working out? Cho is still in the midst of his program for self-reinvention, so it's too early to tell whether he'll succeed in building a new lifestyle. But his program proves that at least some folks find going all-in on new habits doable and attractive outside a laboratory setting.

Which do you think would work better for you -- the baby steps approach or the all-in lifestyle intervention?

Published on: Jun 15, 2016