Change Gradually: The Art of Gradation

By: Ken Streater | Physical Health | Action Resources

In 1998, an Indiana University freshman was living the college life, hanging with his friends, wandering his eye towards young coeds, gorging on hamburgers and cheap Chinese food, taking general studies classes, and embarking on the next stage of his blossoming life. All was well except for one thing: he weighed 425 pounds and could not walk to his classrooms. Hanging with his friends did not mean playing ultimate Frisbee in the dorm courtyard. Glancing at the ladies did not engender return looks. And devouring the double deluxe only meant more weight, more emotional and physical distress. He routinely consumed 10,000 calories a day, five times the normal amount. Recognizing his predicament, this 20-year old knew something had to give. So, he made one change and the rest is history. It was a small investment about six inches long.

Today, the former student is a wealthy, wise, and a seemingly content father and businessman, with an estimated net worth of $15 million. He has rubbed elbows with President of the United States, run marathons, lobbied Congress, created a foundation to prevent childhood obesity, and stood unabashedly before us, his entire body fitting into one leg of his previously grossly oversized pants. In 1999, he lost over 200 pounds, which works out to about a half of a pound a day. His transformation is incredible and laudable, and it did not happen overnight. He changed about one-half of one percent a day.

Gradation is defined by as “any process or change taking place through a series of stages, by degrees, or in a gradual manner.” Innumerable studies show that true change takes time and shifting by degrees, whether it is losing weight, quitting smoking, developing a workout routine, saving money, or becoming a better partner. In order to truly change behavior—such as how you react or how you perceive something—first forgo the desire to be different in one giant swoop. Immediate change does not promote long lasting habits. It does manifest a return to undesirable behaviors. Gradation is a cornerstone to creating new habits that bring successful long term change.

Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit,” explains that most recurring behaviors are the result of a three-step process. Habit forming has three stages: the cue, a trigger that causes a reaction; the routine action, or the behavior itself; and the reward, “which is really how the brain learns to save the habit and encode it for future use.” Eventually, this cycle creates an automatic response pattern that becomes a huge unconscious backbone of your life. With habits, says Duhigg, "The brain can almost completely shut down. ... And this is a real advantage, because it means you have all of this mental activity you can devote to something else." Ironically, this “something else” can include replacing bad habits with good ones, bad habits such as perceptions that are not serving you well.

Exhaustive research by University of Southern California Psychology and Business professor Wendy Wood, Ph.D., concludes that forming a brand new habit is what changes behavior, not changing a habit. While this may seem like semantics, the differentiation is physiologic: once a habit is formed the neural pathway of that habit is forever entrenched in the brain. It is not possible to undo that pathway. Creating a new route around the old route is how you “break” a habit. And the key to developing a new neural pathway that will engender true, lasting change is to establish a new behavior between the cue and reward. For example, if the cue is a workplace break whistle, the behavior is stepping into the cafeteria to eat a cookie, and the reward is that rich chocolate flavor that floods your body with endorphin-infused sense of pleasure, then the habit process of cue-behavior-reward looks like whistle-cookie-pleasure. And, if you are a 425 pound college freshman it won’t be long until you are 430 if you follow this routine every day. To create change, you must change the behavior.

According to both Wood and Duhigg, in order to create a new habit to shift away from an old habit that you recognize as unwise, when the cue remains the same it is important to find a “substitute” behavior that is different from the one being replaced, but is still rewarding. In order to most effectively do this it is helpful to understand why a specific pleasure was realized in order to realize similar levels of pleasure—but with emotionally, spiritually, physically, socially or financially healthier outcomes.

If endorphins or some other hormones are fueling the reward (which most likely is what is happening) then the new behavior should include a like-hormone infused reward—such as going for a run or walk instead of eating a chocolate chip cookie. Running and eating chocolate each release endorphins. As such, the cue and reward remain the same but with a different behavior sandwiched between that is better for you (as your heart knows it is) courtesy of a new habit. Think of the behavior as the meat between the buns. You see an ad for a restaurant you frequent several times a month (top bun or “cue”) and head over for dinner. You have
always ordered a double deluxe cheeseburger with bacon and gobs of secret sauce (old behavior) but now you order a hearty turkey sandwich with no cheese and hold the mayo (new behavior). Either way you end up with a full stomach (bottom bun or “reward”) but the impact that the two different meats and condiments have on you will be very different. One is simply better for you than the other. Which brings us to Jared.

The six inch investment made by the 425-pound college student was a half-foot-long sandwich instead of plate after plate of Chinese buffet. Unless you didn’t watch television, never went online, or did not pick up a magazine during the past 15 years, at some point in your life you were introduced to Jared Fogel, the sandwich franchise spokesman known as the “Subway Guy”. For a full year Jared stopped eating mountains of sweet and sour pork with fried rice, hamburgers, and pizza for lunch and dinner and instead ate a small Subway turkey sandwich.

He changed one small behavior, gave himself time for the change to take hold, and became a healthier, wealthier, and wiser person.

By gradually changing, healthier habits are formed. Shifting by degrees—whether eating your first and then second and then third mayo-free Subway sandwich, going for a work- break run once a week instead of having a cookie during the first month of trying to lower your cholesterol, or having an open mind when you walk onto a plane—allows for positively reinforcing events that create indelibly beneficial new behaviors and perspectives.