One Doctor's Four Simple Steps for a Healthier Life

This piece appeared in The Wall Street Journal on September 18, 2018.


Physicians know that most of the time what we can do for our patients pales in comparison to what they can do for themselves. But we also see firsthand how hard it is for people to make the changes that can result in better health. It’s not just eating better, exercising and getting enough sleep. There’s plenty of low-hanging fruit that could bear outsize rewards in terms of our health—from ridding ourselves of our smartphone addictions to taking 10 minutes each day for meditation or other mindfulness activities.

Most people generally know the right things to do, but for many, the gap between knowledge and action can seem insurmountable. Based on my experience as a doctor, research done at my university and other schools, and my own personal experience, I tell people there are four simple steps they can take to live a healthier life.

·       Create a vision of your success: Though you can’t achieve your goals in one day, you can and should envision them from the start. Imagine yourself in 20, 30 or 40 years playing with the youngest member of your family as the result of your healthy habits. Imagine yourself feeling energetic enough at the end of the day to take a walk just for the pleasure of it, as opposed to feeling stuck to your couch. Visioning can help make changes stick, even during bouts of depleted willpower. Putting your vision, and the values driving this vision, to paper can help, too. Indeed, studies have shown that writing about core values gives people a better sense of well-being and self-control and makes them more likely to achieve their goals.

·       Establish habits…with flexibility: Personally, I strive to work out early in the morning at least three times per week. Now, I know what it feels like to wish I could just stay in bed on those mornings. But I’ve put it on my calendar, so I’m committed. It’s a habit, not a daily decision. My colleagues in psychology recommend linking established habits to desired behaviors. Even baby steps can help: Putting on sneakers every time you start the dishwasher may eventually lead to walks, for example.

·       Encourage self-empathy: Too many people start with a resolve to change their habits, make a go of it for a while, falter once, and then give up entirely. It’s important to recognize your humanity and accept that some slippage is inevitable. Missing a workout due to needing more sleep, career demands or other needs doesn’t mean overall failure, as long as you remain committed to your goals. According to my Stanford colleagues Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and leading expert in the new field of “science help” and BJ Fogg, a behavior scientist and director of the Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab, “Research shows that when people give themselves positive messages in the face of short-term failure, they can often start again and have a greater chance of success.”

·       Continually re-evaluate your position: John W. Gardner, the founder of Common Cause and former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, once wrote that we need to occasionally pause for introspection to identify if we have become “accomplished fugitives from ourselves.” That’s particularly true when it comes to unhealthy behaviors, for instance saying we exercise regularly when we know we don’t. Staying focused on goals and forming new habits requires constant self-evaluation.

There are no shortcuts to a healthier life. But these four steps can make a difference, no matter the changes you’re trying to make.