Changing one habit at a time is like pouring water into a leaky bucket

Conventional thinking about changing one’s behavior focuses on working on one thing at a time. This is also the way most science is done — manipulating just one thing and observing the effect. But real changes in people’s lives don’t occur in a vacuum. In a recent study we just published, we wanted to see how much change is possible if you help someone improve many dimensions of their life simultaneously.

It's often more effective to make two or more changes simultaneously, especially when those changes reinforce one another. It’s easier to drink less coffee if at the same time you get more sleep. Our intervention extended this logic by helping people make progress in many ways, which can create an upward spiral where one success supports the next.

We found parallel improvements in more than a dozen different outcomes that truly matter in our lives—strength, endurance, flexibility, focus, reading ability, working memory, self-esteem, happiness. Part of what distinguishes this work is finding such broad improvements across so many different domains, particularly given that the effect sizes were so large. Large effect sizes signify that the results were not only statistically significant but also indicative of substantial changes. Many of these effects were very large—larger than you tend to find in studies that focus on changing only one thing.

We predicted that the intervention would lead to substantial improvements in health, cognitive abilities, and well-being, but we didn’t know how long they would last. It seemed possible that some of the benefits wouldn’t extend beyond the training. So I was surprised that even without any contact and support, participants maintained significant improvements across all measures at the six-week follow up. In future studies we would like to see what happens six months or six years down the road. The best intervention would set someone on a whole new trajectory and help them reach a kind of escape velocity from the bad habits of their past.

Countless experts, coaches, and bloggers claim that the best way to change is one small habit at a time, maybe even taking a month to establish the habit before moving on to the next. I'm all for getting clear about your priorities, but if your habit for this month is taking a multivitamin when you wake up, then what are you doing the other 23h59m of your day? Because every moment counts.

Although the outcomes from this intervention were broad and substantial, I think it’s only a preview of what will ultimately be achieved through future interventions that draw on continual advances in science and technology. The true limits of cognitive and neural plasticity remain a mostly unexplored frontier of scientific understanding.