A strategy called "design thinking" has helped numerous entrepreneurs and engineers develop successful new products and businesses. But can design thinking help you create healthful habits?

Bernard Roth, a prominent Stanford engineering professor, says that design thinking can help everyone form the kind of lifelong habits that solve problems, achieve goals and help make our lives better.

"We are all capable of reinvention," says Dr. Roth, a founder of the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford and author of the book, "The Achievement Habit."

I’ve applied design thinking to my own life the past few months, and it seems to be working. I’ve lost 25 pounds, reconnected with close friends and refocused my energy on specific goals and habits.

Design thinking has helped me identify the obstacles that were stopping me from achieving my goals, and it’s helped me reframe my problems to make them easier to solve.

In the words of Dr. Roth, design thinking helped me "get unstuck."

To get started, design thinkers focus on five steps, but the first two are the most important. Step 1 is to "empathize" — learn what the real issues are that need to be solved. Next, "define the problem" — a surprisingly tough task. The third step is to "ideate" — brainstorm, make lists, write down ideas and generate possible solutions. Step 4 is to build a prototype or create a plan. The final step is to test the idea and seek feedback from others.

Design thinking is normally applied by people who are trying to create a new product or solve a social problem or meet a consumer need.

For instance, Stanford students went to Myanmar to work on an irrigation project. The first two steps of design thinking — empathize and define the problem — meant that the students spent time with the farmers to understand their problems with watering crops.

In doing so, they discovered that the farmers’ real problem was not irrigation but light. The farmers used candles or kerosene lanterns, and the fumes filled their small huts. Managing their needs for light without electric power consumed a great deal of time and income.

As a result, the design-thinking students used empathy to shift their focus to the actual problem that needed solving. They developed affordable, solar-powered LED task lights. They have since provided millions of lights to 42 countries, creating an affordable lighting solution in parts of the world that don’t have electricity, or have spotty service.

Dr. Roth says the same type of thinking that solved the lighting problem for the poor farmers can be applied inward. To start, think about the problem you want to solve. Then ask yourself, "What would it do for me if I solved this problem?"

One example Dr. Roth uses is a person who wants to find a life partner. Ask yourself, "What would finding a partner or spouse do for me?" One answer might be that it would bring you companionship. The next step is to reframe the problem: "How can I find companionship?" There are more and easier answers to the new question — you can meet friends online, take classes, join a club, take a group trip, join a running group, get a pet and spend time at the dog park.

"Finding a spouse now becomes simply one of many possible ways to find companionship," Dr. Roth says. "By changing the question, I have altered my point of view and dramatically expanded the number of possible solutions."

For years, I would have told you that my biggest problem was being overweight, but I simply could not find a diet that worked. But design thinking helped me reframe my problem.

It happened a few months ago when I declined an invitation to a party with many of my favorite people who I hadn’t seen in years. I didn’t go because I was embarrassed by my weight, and I just didn’t feel up to seeing people who knew me when I was thinner. I realized that my issues with my weight were getting in the way of me living my life.

It was time for design thinking. At this point, a design thinker would ask "What would losing weight really do for you?"

The answer surprised me. I wanted to feel better about myself, feel less tired and have more energy and confidence to socialize and reconnect with friends. Conducting my own personal empathy exercise helped me realize that weight loss was really not my problem. Instead, I needed to focus on my friendships, on boosting my energy and getting better sleep.

So reconnecting with friends and getting better sleep became my focus. I bought new clothes, which made it easier to make social plans.

And surprisingly, this new, more empathetic approach to my own needs also illuminated some ways to improve my diet. I realized a carb crash around lunchtime was making me very tired during the day, so I eliminated sugar and processed carbohydrates and immediately had more energy. In shifting my focus away from weight loss to the real issues weighing on my life, I ended up losing 25 pounds.

I still have a long way to go, but developing empathy for myself was truly a breakthrough made possible by design thinking.

"Design thinking on the highest level is a way of reframing the way you look at the world and deal with issues, and the main thing is this idea of empathy," Dr. Roth says. "If you have tried something and it hasn’t worked, then you’re working on the wrong problem."

By Tara Parker-Pope
Image credit Chris Gash