When it comes to our health, most of us know what we need to do to improve it -- more movement, more vegetables, less sugar, less stress, etc. Despite the messages we hear and tell ourselves, health isn't complicated and, while I realize the irony, we don't need to read another book or blog post to know how to do it.
While we may gravitate to "7 easy tips to get more sleep" or "12 quick ways to get healthy," (and I do mean "we" as I am fully culpable), articles that offer easily digestible health advice are often distractions from the one -- and unfortunately only -- way to achieve all that we read about: practice.
Like health, the concept is elementary and intuitive. Practice is the actual application or use of an idea or method as opposed to theories about such application or use. As the saying goes, "In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is." Based on popular headlines, much of what we read about health is strikingly similar to the food we try to avoid: a lot of what we don't need more of with just a bit of what we do.
This is not to say there isn't value in seven sleep tips. If you are, in fact, having trouble sleeping and not sure what to do about it, a list of seven ideas may be a good place to start. However, if we're honest with ourselves, is that what we're doing?
What if we stopped hiding behind well-disguised excuses that offer quick fixes and, instead, admit that our challenge is most often not the lack of knowledge, but rather the action itself? Perhaps we could move away from consuming the empty calories of why we need to move more and impractically long lists of "50 simple ideas," and replace them with nutrient-dense prompts and inspiration to propel us to act and implement change.
What will it take to actually make this shift? As consumers we have to start voting with our clicks so that our content serves up more of what actually nourishes us. Instead of messages that echo fast food commercials like "easy" and "quick," constructive messages would be simple (which, is worth noting, is not the same as easy), actionable and positive. More specifically, they would reinforce:
Health is simple. Drink more water, eat one portion, take the stairs. The list of ways to live a healthier lifestyle is long but the actions are simple. The science of behavior change, led by Stanford psychologist and researcher BJ Fogg, shows the best way to promote change is not to increase motivation but to increase ability through small, micro actions. We don't need 12 ways when only one is applicable.
Health can be triggered. Made popular by New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg in his book the Power of Habit, we know that habits have three parts: the cue or trigger, the routine or behavior, and then the reward. We need to start looking for opportunities, or cues, in a typical day -- it's 3 p.m. or you're on a conference call or driving home from work -- to provoke practicing healthy behaviors. Perhaps every time we see a two-digit number in a headline, we could stand up or drink a glass of water?
Health can be tasty. Too often, people think that "healthy" requires some amount of deprivation. Practicing healthy actions, like meditative breathing before breakfast or integrating a moment of gratitude before dinner, should feel good. Like authors Chip and Dan Heath highlight in some of their work, let's explore ways to make healthy practice and habit change a positive experience.
Despite the abundant suggestions to the contrary, the wisdom that repeated action is the path to learning is not new. Just as author Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book Outliers in 2008, "Practice isn't the thing you do once you're good. It's the thing you do that makes you good," Aristotle wrote in Nichomachean Ethics in 350 BC, "For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them."
As consumers, we need to trade the habit of clicking for short cuts for the habit of practicing behaviors that will truly serve our health. As a health and wellness industry, we need to trade our habit of telling people why they should do something or overwhelming them with a dozen ways to do it, and instead, invite them, inspire them, and propel them to try one way, to practice.