The five step secret to becoming the person you want to be

We all have our own ideas of success – perhaps climbing the career ladder, becoming fitter and healthier, or embracing new personal experiences – but there’s one thing we all have in common. We want to make the impossible possible.

​How can we do that? By setting workable goals to keep us focussed, every step of the way.

Experts in behavioural psychology say there’s an art to goal setting. Like George T. Doran, a city planning hotshot who made a name for himself by helping lacklustre managers get their projects off the ground. Doran pointed out that by using a specific technique, which he called S.M.A.R.T goal setting, we can create a practical structure for achieving things that aren’t easy to achieve.

The technique is invaluable for the Changing Health behavioural change coaches. We’ve found that it’s one of the best ways to help our clients lose weight, feel better and ultimately, transform their lives.

This is what S.M.A.R.T goal setting looks like:

  • SPECIFIC: target a specific area for improvement
  • MEASURABLE: quantify, or at least suggest, an indicator of progress
  • ACHIEVABLE: agreed and attainable
  • RELEVANT: reasonable, realistic and resourced, results based
  • TIME BOUND: time-based, time limited

Here’s an example: let’s say you want to lose weight. That’s great – but you could define your goal more clearly to boost your chances of success.

That means applying the S.M.A.R.T method:

  • SPECIFIC: “I want to lose weight so I can feel good in my favourite dress again”
  • MEASURABLE: “To fit into my dress I’ll need to lose around 3kg”
  • ACHIEVABLE: “If I can reduce my portion sizes, and cut-out sugary drinks, I can accomplish my goal”
  • RELEVANT: “I know I can do this. I lost some weight two years ago, so I know this is a realistic target”
  • TIME BOUND: “I’d like to wear my dress at the summer party on August 20th”

And suddenly, a vague ambition to “lose some weight” becomes a clearly structured goal with a timeline to make it happen. Showing off your lovely summer dress at the party just became five times more likely.

So remember: when you’re setting out your goals, think SMART!

Author Carl Lumsden is a Changing Health Behaviour Change Coach with a background in health and fitness.

Nudging for good: How health psychology can tackle child obesity

It’s a curious paradox that as the Western world becomes more prosperous and its population lives longer, some of the most preventable health crises are rapidly escalating. One of the first and foremost among them: childhood obesity.

The stats make for alarming reading: one in three UK children are overweight or obese before they finish primary school. Of these, 40% will become obese adolescents. The vast majority of whom – 75-80% – will become obese adults at severely heightened risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and other health issues.

The causes of child obesity aren’t homogenous; hereditary, physiological, social and environmental factors can all play a role. But there’s no doubt that ever since the end of WWII in the West, and more recently in developing countries, there’s been a surplus of calories in the food we consume. As Susan Jebb, professor of Diet and Population Health at the University of Oxford put it this week, the situation in which food is readily available for most people has arrived in the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms.

Industry appears indifferent. Take Starbucks, for example, which pledged to slash added sugar in its drinks in alignment with the Government’s Childhood Obesity Plan. That didn’t stop them marketing a “short-sized” hot chocolate for kids with a whopping 20.1g of added sugar – more than the entire recommended daily limit for 4-6 year olds. Starbucks is by no means alone.

So how can we address the problem? If the corporate world is unable or unwilling to step up to the task, we’re left with two options: ‘hard’ measures (regulation), or ‘soft’ measures (promoting, assisting and allowing healthier choices).

There’s a strong case for the latter. By applying psychological insights, or ‘nudge theory’, we can encourage or guide behaviour without mandating or instructing. “’Nudging’ has been used by advertisers for decades,” says Dr Leah Avery, Head of Health Psychology at Changing Health. “That has contributed to an over-consuming society, and in turn, the obesity epidemic. In a sense, we need ‘counter-nudges’ to combat those used by advertisers.”

Even the subtlest of nudges can be highly effective in facilitating positive behaviour change. In New Mexico, USA, a simple change in the design of a shopping trolley was shown to help people make better decisions about the food they buy. Researchers marked a line with yellow duct tape across the width of the trolley, and added a sign asking shoppers to place fruit and vegetables in front of the line and everything else behind it. The result was a 102% increase in sales of fruit & vegetables (at no loss of profitability to the retailer).

In Iceland, LazyTown, a popular childrens’ TV show, features a healthy superhero motivating children to eat healthily and be active. In partnership with the Icelandic Government, children aged 4-7 were sent a LazyTown “energy contract”, signed with their parents, in which they were rewarded for eating healthily, going to bed early and being active. One supermarket chain rebranded all its fruit and vegetables “Sports Candy” – LazyTown’s name for healthy food – and saw a consequent 22% increase in sales. Since LazyTown hit the airwaves in 1996, Iceland has become one of the only countries in the world in which child obesity levels have fallen.

There’s promise closer to home too. A partnership between LazyTown and the UK Nudge Unit led to the launch of the Change4Life programme, Public Health England’s flagship initiative for preventing childhood obesity. This year’s Change4Life campaign, encouraging parents to look for ‘100 calorie snacks, 2 a day max’ provides parents with money-off vouchers for healthier snack options including malt loaf, lower-sugar fromage frais, and drinks with no added sugar. A survey of 1001 mums who used the Change4Life Sugar Smart app found 96% of those with children aged 5-11 had reduced their families’ sugar intake.

Tesco, the chain which first embraced the behavioural insights approach by removing sweets and chocolate from its checkout aisles, has this month devised another way to nudge people into making healthier choices. Its ‘little swaps’ basket comparison will be displayed at the front of stores to highlight lower sat fat, salt and sugar alternatives to the most popular childrens’ products. The comparison busts the myth that healthier choices cost more too.

Image: Tesco PLC

Nudges alone, however, will not suffice. Government policy must also play a role. “Regulation is a powerful influence on behaviour,” says Stephen Greene, Past President International Society of Pediatric and Adolescent Diabetes. “Just as Government was central to the banning of smoking indoors in public places, the supply of food to children in schools, labelling, the use of unhealthy products – they should all be looked at both locally and centrally to influence what’s going on.”

“Legislation, nudges and group and individualised interventions are all needed to tackle the public health challenges we’re facing,” agrees Dr Avery. “Efforts on these fronts should be co-ordinated and robustly evaluated.”

Professor Greene adds that we need to see some real cultural shifts in how industry produces and distributes food, and how consumers eat it. Perhaps that’s not too far out of sight. “In the same way one dinner lady inspired Jamie Oliver to change attitudes to food in schools across the country, we’ll see a shift in attitudes to sugar over a generation. The understanding is dawning that sugar has played such a big role in childhood obesity.”

In a world in which the next generation is set, for the first time, to be less healthy than the last, that understanding can’t come soon enough.

Government: Take A Stand. Stop Junk Promotions. Stop The Diabetes Epidemic

With almost two thirds of the UK adult population now either overweight or obese, there’s universal recognition that something must be done to avert a full-blown public health emergency. Many policymakers, on the recommendation of leading public health experts, are looking first to junk food marketing for dealing with the obesity epidemic.

It’s clear that marketing has played a central role in our steady weight gain over the years; Public Health England estimates 40% of food bought in the UK is done so at a discount, increasing overall consumption by 22%. That’s more than anywhere else in Europe. Viewers of family TV shows like The Voice see 12 adverts for junk food within an hour.

What Is The Government Doing To Avert The Obesity Crisis

The Government’s role in averting the obesity epidemic, however, is subject to dispute. A number of measures have been floated; alongside the sugar levy, which came into force last month, a cross-party proposal to ban “buy one get one free” offers on junk food is gaining momentum, as is a plan to curb junk food TV advertising before 9pm, while a mandatory traffic light labelling system appears to be almost certain. London mayor Sadiq Khan last week opened consultations on a ban on junk food advertising on London’s public transport network.

But free marketeers argue that such “nannying” by the state restricts consumer choice with no benefit to public health. Some even suggest that the rising figures of the obesity epidemic are artificially inflated to justify these “intrusive” policies. “Who benefits from over-egging childhood obesity rates? As usual, powerful people with killjoy aspirations are the most likely to spread bad data far and wide,” wrote Kate Andrews of the strongly free-market Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) in City A.M earlier this month.

Is The Obesity Epidemic Fabricated?

Who are these ‘powerful people with killjoy aspirations’? Have Jamie Oliver, Sadiq Khan et al fabricated the obesity epidemic just to spoil the party? Meanwhile, who benefits from suggestions that controlling the marketing of harmful products is detrimental to consumers? For a start, many of the conglomerates that fund the IEA, including, British American Tobacco, Philip Morris and Japan Tobacco International, amongst others, although the organisation is notoriously opaque in this regard. Perhaps understandably.

“Such policy proposals make it harder for adults to live their lives freely,” Ms. Andrews continues. Again – questionable. If we can’t make ‘free choices’ without the influence of a marketing campaign, rather than a rational assessment of the facts, aren’t they actually quite the opposite?

Controlling junk food marketing more tightly is about limiting the number of times we’re prompted (be that a supermarket offer, a daytime TV ad, or a billboard on the tube) to buy unhealthy food we don’t need on a whim. The odds of being obese are more than twice as high for young people who report seeing junk food advertising every day. These policy proposals will restrict exposure to such advertising,  but they don’t curtail our freedom to buy what we want to.

The sugar tax doesn’t prevent us from buying six-packs of Coca Cola, but it’s shown promise elsewhere in reducing overall sugar consumption; in Mexico, where 70% of the population is overweight or obese, it’s already driven a 7.6% fall in sales of sugary drinks. If the trend is replicated in the UK, that’s a clear win for public health at very little expense to the everyday consumer.

Lifestyle Intervensions Can Curb The Diabetes Epidemic

The obesity epidemic is a multidimensional issue and so must be the approach to reversing current trends. As I argued in a previous Linkedin post, mandating alone will not change behaviour at a national level. A combination of ‘hard’ legislation, ‘soft’ nudges and individual and group interventions are all needed to encourage people to make healthier choices.

What’s certain is this: we’ve been bombarded with junk food promotions for decades. We’re consuming more calories than ever before, with disastrous results. The only real opposition to the proposed regulations comes from those who stand to lose out on profit. Government should boldly ignore the protests of the corporate lobby and curb the constant and ever-present influences to buy high-calorie, sugary foods. To the benefit of us all.