How to Turn Good Intentions into Positive Results

January 25, 2016


WE’RE all pretty good at making New Year’s resolutions… perhaps because we’ve had lots of practice making the same ones, year after year.

The fact that our resolutions rarely stick tells us something very important: most of our flaky behaviors aren’t the result of lousy intentions. Instead, such behaviors often go hand in hand with good intentions that stay dormant.

Emerging brain science offers a clue as to why this happens. Of the 10 million bits of information each of our brains processes per second, only 50 bits are devoted to conscious, deliberate thinking. (The rest is devoted to automatic stuff like processing what we see.) As a result:

  • Human attention is scarce and brittle
  • We are naturally inclined toward inattention and inertia
  • This inclination causes a gap between our good intentions and our actual behaviors

Not understanding the “fifty bits” challenge leads us to make the same mistake over and over. We earnestly plan on good behavior, and when we fail we chalk it up to flimsy motivations or weak character. As a result, we pledge to knuckle down and try even harder next time. Sadly, not much changes.

Not much changes because we’re barking up the wrong tree.

The key to producing better results isn’t to strengthen our underlying intentions; they aren’t the problem. Instead, we’re far better off employing proven strategies that activate the good intentions we already have.

In my new book, I share seven strategies that successfully address our natural tendencies toward inattention and inertia. These strategies fall into two main categories:

  1. Leverage inertia: Whenever possible, change the default behavior to the one that you find desirable. For example, if you’re spending too much time watching television, consider removing all of the TV sets from your home. By re-engineering your environment, you’ve made not watching television the new default. As a result, wasting time watching television becomes much less likely.
  1. Demand attention: Sometimes poor behaviors happen simply because we forget to engage in better ones; our brains are not built to remember everything all the time. For example, if you fail to take your daily blood pressure medication, consider putting your pill bottle in a place you’re sure to see it (e.g., inside your coffee cup).

These approaches are powerful not just for personal growth but for organizational success and improved public health as well. For example, PetSmart stops its customers during the checkout process and requires them to make a decision about donating to help save homeless pets. This interruption activates the latent interest many of their consumers have in making donations. (From 2007 to 2011, PetSmart Charities’ individual donations grew a whopping 85%; nationally, individual charitable contributions during that same period sagged 3%.)

Similarly, long-acting reversible contraception (i.e., IUDs, implantable hormones) work far, far better than “refillable” methods such as oral contraceptives. Why? Because once these long-acting methods are put into place, preventing unintended pregnancies becomes the default. The long-acting methods work because they leverage inertia and are completely forgettable.

Building a better world – for our customers, our coworkers, our loved ones, and ourselves – requires that we improve behaviors. We can get there, but only if we shift our focus away from strengthening good intentions and toward practical methods that activate the good intentions we already have.

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About The Author

Bob Nease, PhD, is the author of The Power of Fifty Bits: The New Science of Turning Good Intentions into Positive Results” (HarperBusiness, 2016). He is the former Chief Scientist of Express Scripts, the nation’s largest pharmacy benefits management company, and has authored and published more than 70 peer-reviewed papers.

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