This Online Class Wants to Help You Keep Your New Year's Resolutions

An interview with Harvard professor Lisa Lahey about her upcoming EdX course, "Unlocking the Immunity to Change"

Gary Hershorn/Reuters

Lots of us have had the same New Year’s resolution for as long as we can remember.  Losing weight, drinking less alcohol, and spending more time with family tend to top New Year’s resolution lists—but they are also among the most commonly broken resolutions. Although about 40 percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, only eight percent of us manage to achieve these goals.

Harvard School of Education professors Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey think we need to use a different approach to change. In their upcoming online EdX course, “Unlocking the Immunity to Change: A New Approach to Personal Improvement,” Kegan and Lahey apply their psychological theory that traditional approaches to making changes can ignore the more complicated underlying reasons people behave the way they do. I spoke with Lahey about why change is so difficult, and how her new course could help people overcome the maladaptive assumptions that are getting in their way.

Why is it so hard to change?

I think that when people can’t change, or can’t sustain the change, it’s because they are using an improper approach. They kind of set themselves up from the start to not succeed. I love this Mark Twain quote: “I don’t know why people say it’s so hard to quit smoking. I’ve done it hundreds of times myself!” This idea that, actually you can change, but it’s sustaining the change that matters.

What is the approach most people take? And what is wrong with it?

Most intentional efforts to change take what we call “the New Year’s resolution approach” or “the dieter’s approach.” That’s an approach where the person has a very clear, pretty reasonable goal. People then come up with very principled plans for changing those behaviors. But the reality is for most people, a diet doesn’t work. I have asked this question to audiences, “How many of you have ever gone on a diet?” 90 percent of the people raise their hands. So then I ask the next question, “How many of you have ever lost weight on a diet?” And I’d say about 85 percent of the hands go up. And then I ask people, “How many of the people who just raised their hand gained the weight back?” And everybody raises their hand. And that is quite consistent with what the studies show, that the average dieter gains 107 percent of the weight that they lost.

From our perspective, what has happened is people in the dieter’s approach or the New Year’s resolution approach are just going directly at trying to change their behaviors. For the majority of people, those 85 percent of the people who are going to raise their hand again, it is just not going to work because it is not fundamentally a behavior problem: It is a mindset problem. The mindset is the thing that has to change in order to alter the behavior. And that is really the biggest insight that we’ve come to in this work.

What do you mean by "mindset problem"?

If you cannot change the behavior in a long-term way by going at the behavior change directly, it is almost always because those behaviors are serving some other very important purpose. Some way, they are protecting you from something. So in the weight loss example, someone has a goal to lose weight, but they also have a goal to never be deprived. And they don’t realize that their goal to never be deprived is actually keeping them in a place where they are never are going to be able to sustain restricting what they eat because they are actually wanting to not be deprived. So their behaviors of overeating and not exercising enough are helping them to not be deprived.

When people do not succeed in making change it’s because they’ve got something that is going on inside of them. They have another goal that they are trying to accomplish at the same time they are trying to accomplish the more apparent goal of, for example, losing weight. So of course, ultimately, the behavior does need to change.

So how do you change, then?

The approach is to understand. First of all, the thing we have just been talking about is this thing we call the immune system. Right now your immune system is taking over in a way that is a mistake. It’s mistaking something that you need or that would help you and it is making a problem out of it. So you have one foot on the gas saying, “Yes, I want to lose weight” and one foot on the brake at the exact same time that is saying, “Oh no, no way, I never want to lose control” or “I never want to be depriving myself.”

Once you’ve identified what your immune system is, our approach says now the next step is: What other core beliefs do you have that lead you to be protecting yourself like that?  Here is a classic example: Somebody wants to be more collaborative. They recognize they are not really listening to people, they cut people off, they insert their own ideas, and so on. So they try to be better listeners, but they can’t. Why? What’s happening is they need to be in control. They need to be the person who is kind of the big cheese. They need to be the person who is getting the credit. They really do have the goal to be collaborative, but at the very same time they have this goal which is to be the person who is getting all of the credit and having it go their way.

Perhaps this person’s belief is, “I assume that if I really allowed other people to have their handprint on things, I would reduce my value, I reduce my exceptional kind of identity.” Now the exploration begins, which is basically: Is it possible that by you being a listener, you can actually still be valuable and still be providing something for people in the organization which is very important for them, but it’s not your thumbprint or idea that is getting out? But now you are cultivating lots of people’s ideas so you become maybe open to the possibility that your value is about creating the container for great ideas to emerge. People see you as incredibly valuable for orchestrating the conversation in such a way where everybody is bringing their best stuff to their work. That would be a pretty amazing thing to find out, right? But you can’t know that if somebody just goes at it at a behavioral level and says, “Okay, I am going to listen more” and say they have none of this understanding of the deeper stuff that is going on there, behind the scenes.

How should someone go about setting a New Year's Resolution?

There are two fundamentally different kinds of goals that people can make. We are drawing on work of colleagues of ours here at Harvard in the Kennedy School. They talk about “adaptive goals” and “technical goals.” If you have a resolution that is about a technical goal, that is something that you develop, a skill. If you have access to information, you can probably actually pull up how to learn this new skill. Technical goals make for really good New Year’s resolutions for people because that you can go at in a much more behavioral, sequential, logical level.

But an adaptive goal, that’s the kind of goal that in order for you to accomplish it, it really requires that something inside of you has to be altered. A belief system and the feelings that go with it, those may not be right for New Year’s resolutions. Using a New Year’s resolution approach, the best goals to go for are the ones that are just technical for you. For example, for some people, losing weight is a technical goal. They figure out how they are going to reduce calories, they learn how to say no in situations they can predict they are going to overeat, and they can lose weight and they can keep the weight off. And that’s terrific and you can say it was a technical problem. But for the vast majority of people, losing weight is an adaptive goal and they’ve got to examine what are the other things that are going on inside of them.

Now some people don’t know, is it a technical thing or adaptive? One way to answer that is to say, go with it and if you are able to succeed but then slip back into your default, that is a pretty big sign that it is an adaptive goal and you have to approach it differently.

How will such a personal topic work in a large format like a MOOC?

I know from having done workshops with people in a group as large as 500 or 600 people that the process in of itself is built so people can basically make it very insightful. The actual process is designed so that you can go personal and have the insight of what your immune system is and identify your big assumption. I think that what we’ve done is going to be more powerful in that the MOOC is putting material in people’s hands so they can make good judgement calls about about whether they are on track in the process or not, give them lots of good examples and lots of questions that allow them to test out whether they are on track or not, and if they are not, how to get back on track. I am hoping we’ve got really good big clear scaffolding for people.

One of the main and very exciting features of the MOOC is that we are having electronic personal diary built for the course. The change diary supports your learning: Depending on how you answer a question, it will give you a different kind of response. The very first thing we do, for example, is we ask people to identify a powerful improvement goal for themselves. And once somebody has done that, we then give them an opportunity to answer a bunch of questions to let them know if they are on track. Is the goal really true for you? And if they say “yes,” they get one response, and if they say “hmm I’m really not sure,” they get another response and if they say “huh maybe, I think so,” they will get a different response. So in that respect we are helping people who are not clear about a particular dimension to be clear and people who are clear to move on to the next point. So we hope those are the kinds of scaffolds that will help people get more on track.