Tinker, Tweak, Adapt: The Secret To Being Unstoppable

How do some people seem to take charge of their lives while others struggle? How are these people always in a productive, easy groove and seemingly immune to adversity?

People like this apparently buck the trend of “just getting by,” maybe possessing a top-secret formula for success. Somehow, they found a way around roadblocks to take charge and thrive—and you can do the same using the following little-known wisdom from an unexpected group of people.

Achieving Lasting Change

About 10 years ago, I conducted research on frontline workers for a Fortune 5 retailer. Each of these people had achieved long-term weight loss and health improvements. I was fascinated with their success and wanted to know what they were doing differently than others, as research shows nearly all current weight loss programs today have relapse rates up to 97%.

I wanted to understand how these remarkable people were making it out of the bewildering maze of complications, social determinants, and other barriers associated with attaining and, more importantly, maintaining a healthy lifestyle. My hope was to learn their secrets to success so these could be shared with the vast majority of people who either struggle to achieve their health goals or maybe had initial success that backfired long-term.

In my research, this small subset of exceptional people was unstoppable—able to change their behavior how they wanted to and sustain their lifelong health improvements.

You might assume these were the hyper quantifiers, the data-hungry that wear or tap into multiple devices to track their sleep, every step, every bite of food. But surprisingly, it wasn’t those people. Instead, these champions of healthy change were everyday men and women who lived through iteration, the art of adjusting and tweaking their healthy habits.

For example, instead of failing a habit, these unstoppable people iterated on everything from adding spices to their food to using small plates to walking one more minute daily than the day before. Each of them found what worked for them, creatively modifying every aspect of their healthy behaviors until they were easy and personalized to their lifestyle and schedule.

In fact, among people who lost weight and kept it off long term (two-plus years), the only common practice they shared was that they iterated through adversity, self-doubt, negative peer pressure, and other would-be adversities.

Failure of Current Approaches

As a clinician and scientist, I have tried everything for decades to help people achieve their desired health and weight. I have conducted clinical studies on everything from goals and tracking-based diets to texting and cognitive behavioral therapy-based and mindfulness-based programs.

What I found over and over was that people did well for the duration of the program (usually 16 to 20 weeks), only to relapse back into old habits, regain the weight, and lose their cardiovascular gains.

This is supported by many published studies that show only 4% of people after a heart attack maintain their healthy changes long term, with only 1% difference in weight loss maintenance between the gold standard of weight loss programs, the Diabetes Prevention Program, after six years, and that the health benefits of using the most popular diet programs are lost after one year.

After one such research study I directed, one of our participants, Lisa, said of her experience, “I know what I should do—I just don’t know why I don’t do it.”

This was my wake-up call that something in our conventional programs was missing. I became well-acquainted with the know-do gap, the psychological term for what Lisa described. We know what we should do; we just don’t do it. It is the inability to act in your best interest, like gravitating toward the dessert table when trying to stick to a low-carb diet.

Left unattended, the know-do gap can cause a great deal of damage to our psyche, disempowering us until we lose all motivation to keep trying.

Iteration Is the Secret

But this is where the secret of iteration, revealed to me by the frontline workers, is by far the most powerful strategy I have ever seen. Individuals from the frontline worker research group balked at rigid, quick-fix solutions and chose a “let’s see if this works” approach instead, practicing new habits like you would a sport or learning to play an instrument.

Then, to keep their practice going, they tinkered, tweaked, and adapted, like walking Swiss Army knives of steadfast perseverance. If one attempt at change didn’t work, they smoothly pivoted to a different one. Most importantly, they kept going by iterating because they didn’t believe they had failed.

Failure was never as much as a passing thought. Tinker, tweak, adapt.

And even when things were flowing well, sometimes they wanted to know how to make it more enjoyable, easier to do, or find ways to improve. These gritty, inventive, experimental people iterated to optimize their lives, and if life threw a curveball, they iterated again to reduce or dodge the impact.

Why did this work? These inspiring people intuitively found a way around the habenula, the brain’s potent failure detector that, when activated by failure, is also a motivation kill switch. If the habenula is triggered and left activated, it puts the brakes on any progress you’ve made and any motivation, you have to keep trying.

This means that the current approaches and programs I tried and studied for years are somehow triggering the habenula, resulting in motivation loss—leading to relapse and reversal of healthy changes.

However, for my iterator group of frontline workers—and you can follow this conviction too—such powerlessness was not a part of the equation. They left their habenula to lay dormant, used iteration to sidestep any failure, and became unstoppable.

This article was written by Kyra Bobinet, MD, MPH, who has passionately pursued and studied the truth about behavior change for nearly three decades as a physician, public health leader, healthcare executive, and behavioral expert. An award-winning health innovator and thought leader, Dr. Bobinet has an MD from UCSF School of Medicine and an MPH from Harvard University.

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