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Freeing yourself from failure by designing your next healthy change

Jon Curnow

Have you tried to make a change in your life to better your health and failed? You’re not alone. Whether it’s changing your diet, exercising more, or quitting smoking, one expert says it’s probably because you’re not using something called “design thinking.”

This week on “Take Care,” we interview Dr. Kyra Bobinet. She discussed how design thinking can revolutionize the way you go about making changes in your life in her just-released book, “Well-Designed Life: 10 Lessons in Brain Science & Design Thinking for a Mindful, Healthy, & Purposeful Life.”

Bobinet is a physician, scientist, designer, strategist and healthcare expert and consultant. She's the CEO of engagedIN, a behavior design firm and has a master's from Harvard University in public health.

Bobinet says design skills are the single most important ability humans possess.

What she means by design skills is the ability to repeat something and tweak it over and over again until it works. That theory is aligned with design thinking, a concept many of the inventors in Silicon Valley have used to come up with new technologies and products.

Bobinet says after decades of pursuing the question of why people know what they should do to improve their life, but don’t do it, she realized that some people – she calls them the “haves” -- use design thinking, and some don’t.

Other people – the “have nots” -- don’t have a way to experiment with one thing, and then improve upon it. They just try something, fail and give up. Through many interviews with people trying to make healthy changes, she found that they are disorganized and they feel a lot of self-blame for failing and not changing.

She says it’s what makes the difference in who reaches success in their goals for change, and who does not.

So, Bobinet recommends asking yourself before beginning a self-improvement plan, “what am I expecting here?” She says the process is what your goal should be, not just the outcome.

For example, if the desired outcome is losing 10 pound, a person will be more successful if he or she approaches the goal by saying to themselves, “I’m going to figure out how to get myself to lose 10 pounds over and over again until I get there.” Make it an evergreen process. Don’t approach losing 10 pounds as a sprint, that’s then just done.

Bobinet says if you’re trying to make change and you fail, have compassion for yourself and figure out what you need to tweak about your change process. Don’t participate in a lot of negative self-talk.

She says instead, design thinking frees you from that kind of self-flogging. Your expectation is that you’re going to continue to figure out what’s going on with you that’s causing you to not do what you want to do – whether that’s eating better or exercising more, or giving up something you’re addicted to.

“It frees us from having to fail. We’re never failing, we’re just redesigning the next thing for ourselves, because that didn’t work,” says Bobinet.

She says many people set themselves up for failure because they have a gap between what they think they will do and what they will do.

For example, if you’re buying a treadmill, you may say to yourself, “I’m going to get up at 5 a.m. every morning and work out on my new treadmill.” But the reality is, you’re not a morning person, and you’ve never been able to wake up early every morning to exercise.

Design thinking approaches everything with a sense of compassion, and with an ability to be honest with yourself. You redesign things so that you’ll be happy practicing the change you are aiming for.

“Those kinds of reality checks, if you will, and facing those, and then just being ok with it, is part of this whole process to be successful,” says Bobinet.

Her bottom line advice for those ready to make significant change – realize we’re all in the same boat when it comes to making change. The solution is to think like designers. Bobinet says that gives us the patience and the endurance to get through the hard stuff.

“There’s a way out for themselves and they can be free of these persistent failures through design.”