Starting healthy new habits is hard. Catching the latest virus going around (as we've all been reminded the past few years) is incredibly easy. Wouldn't it be nice if establishing an exercise routine or system to keep up with your email was as easy as catching Covid?
Maybe it can be (or at least nearly). New research from top researchers including Wharton's Katy Milkman and Angela Duckworth of Grit fame tested a simple self-improvement hack called the copy-paste technique. The study demonstrated that one of the easiest, most effective ways to change your life is to simply catch new habits from friends and associates.
The easiest route to healthy habits is to catch them from others.
Most of us have experienced the phenomenon of catching habits from other people in our own lives. Maybe your college roommate was the tidy type and living with them helped break you of your own more messy ways (that's my personal example -- thanks, Jenn!). Or maybe you started eating lunch with a colleague and her homemade salads inspired you to do better than a Coke and bag of chips.
We're all naturally influenced by the people we spend time with, but the researchers wanted to know if this innate human characteristic could be deliberately leveraged to help people with their self-improvement projects. They designed a series of studies to find out.
In one they assigned more than 1,000 volunteers to one of three groups. One was simply instructed to make a plan to get more exercise. One was told to see what their acquaintances were doing to stay fit and copy one of their techniques. And the third was given a suggestion -- say rewarding yourself after every exercise session with a short period of an activity you enjoy -- that they were told was sourced from other people.
Which group made the most significant progress improving their lifestyle? "We saw that having any new exercise-boosting technique to copy worked better than just making a plan, regardless of where the technique came from. But interestingly, it was more helpful if people found strategies to copy and paste themselves than if the strategies came from someone else," reports Milkman in Behavioral Scientist.
Stealing self-improvement hacks from people you know seems to work better than just reading up on random advice for a handful of reasons. "Seeking out exercise hacks to copy and paste led people to ﬁnd tips that best ﬁt their own lifestyles. What's more, taking a more active approach to information gathering increased the time participants spent with their role models, increasing their exposure to good habits," Milkman explains.
The closer people are to you, the more likely they are to have a lifestyle at least somewhat similar to yours. What works for them is therefore more likely to work for you. Plus, there is the element of a healthy dose of shame. If they're much like you and they can manage this healthy habit, surely you can too? And last but not least, when you need advice on the finer points of implementation you have a built-in expert to ask.
Minimum effort, maximum reward
We've all heard the old saw that you end up becoming the average of the five people you spend the most time with. Usually it's meant as a cautionary tale -- be careful about the company you keep, because they might drag you down. But this research reminds us that your social circle is also one of the easiest ways to improve yourself, as long as you actively remind yourself to mine the people in your life for good ideas and useful life hacks.
Which makes the practical takeaway from this study as easy as it is useful. "The next time you're falling short of a goal, look to high-achieving peers for answers," concludes Milkman. "You're likely to go further faster if you ﬁnd the person who's already achieving what you want to achieve and copy and paste their tactics than if you simply let social forces inﬂuence you through osmosis."