The Secret Sauce for Behavioral Change

Dr. Sheri Pruitt offers advice on how to improve total health through behavioral change.

There’s the old adage: The one constant in life is change. So why is it that when you want to make a personal change, it can be so difficult to do?

Sheri Pruitt, PhD

Sheri Pruitt, PhD

That’s where Sheri Pruitt, PhD, comes in. She’s the director of Behavioral Science Integration for The Permanente Medical Group at Kaiser Permanente Sacramento and Roseville in California, the behavioral science consultant for the region’s Medical Weight Management Program, and creator of the Kaiser Permanente Online Health Coach programs. In this preview of Dr. Pruitt’s Health Talks podcast, she offers the skills and strategies you need to make the behavioral change you always wanted.

What is the secret sauce to making a behavioral change?

I wish that there wasn’t really a secret about how people change their behavior because we actually know a lot about the science of human behavior change. We don’t talk about it enough.

The secret sauce is about three things: knowledge, motivation and the skills to change your behavior. People need to know accurate information about the behavior they want to change. An example would be how many calories you should eat to lose weight. Secondly, they need a little bit of motivation — not a lot, but just enough — to actually begin to do something differently. Thirdly, and maybe the most important, is a set of what I call behavioral self-change skills.

Tell us more about those skills.

The skill set may be the secret sauce because that’s where people struggle. When I help patients understand how to change behavior, I use what I call SMART skills. It stands for Setting a goal, Monitoring your progress, Arranging your world for success, Recruiting a support team and Treating yourself. It’s based on decades of science about how people change behavior. The first skill seems simple, but I think it’s the most challenging.

What are a few tips for setting a goal?

Let’s use weight loss as an example. Maybe your goal is to lose 20 pounds, but the goal needs to be a behavior. What behaviors are necessary to lose weight? To lose weight, people need to change their eating or reduce calories, and then people need to change their exercise. We know from behavioral science that the more specific people are about a goal, the more successful they’ll be. For example, reducing my daily calorie intake by 500 calories is specific. It’s also important to make your goals realistic, so you’ll feel confident and motivated when you succeed.

Why don’t people change even when they feel motivated and know what they need to do?

They don’t know how to do it. They need a strategy. That’s where the SMART skills come in. I have the perfect example from my own life. I was motivated to play the piano and I bought one in the summer. By winter it was just sitting there. I would look at the piano and think, ‘Why can’t I get this going?’ A colleague told me, ‘Just use your SMART skills.’ I set a goal to practice 30 minutes a day; that’s all I had time for. I tracked my practice, arranged my world to make that happen, recruited my husband for support, and rewarded myself. I played for two years. It’s about creating a habit and using the SMART skills to get started.

For more about behavioral change and weight loss, glisten to Dr. Pruitt’s Health Talks podcast, “Jump Start Your Weight Loss.” You can also download a one-page transcript of this interview (pdf) suitable for printing.