An article by Professor Wendy Wood at the University of Southern California, about myths regarding how to change habits, makes it clear that much of what we think we know on the subject isn’t true.
Here are some useful tips if you have a habit that you want to change.
- Don’t depend on willpower. Instead change the daily “cues” in your environment.
Habits are often things we do without thinking, so willpower has little to do with it. If you want to eat less candy or smoke fewer cigarettes, for example, make them less available and at least out of sight. A plate of cookies or bowl of candy located near where you are sitting or walking is going to be eaten. (Just as the snack food next to the cash register of your grocery or convenience store is more likely to be purchased). But if snack foods are hiding behind a cupboard (or better yet, not in your home or office) you will eat fewer of them. That is guaranteed.
- Knowing more about the risks will help you or your loved ones change bad habits
Unfortunately, there’s a huge gap between knowledge and behaviors when it comes to habits. If knowing the risks made a difference, only a small fraction of current smokers would smoke, and the obesity epidemic would disappear.
- Setting realistic goals is not enough
It’s true that if you set realistic goals (losing one pound this week, instead of losing 100 pounds by the end of the year) you are less likely to get discouraged and give up. But making small physical changes can be even more important. For example, people who have a bowl of attractive fruit near where they prepare food eat it tend to eat more fruit and to weigh less. Having a small, healthier snack prepared and ready to eat (carrot sticks, nuts, etc at your desk at work) can help you get into healthier habits. And don’t watch TV or work online while eating, and especially not in the kitchen! TV or other screens can become a cue for eating more, and eating can become a cue for watching more TV, etc.
- Can apps help?
Fitbit and other apps don’t seem to help most people change their habits for more than a few days, but the information they provide can be useful. If you don’t change the daily cues in your life, apps won’t be much use. Try to figure out what works for you. Will putting exercise equipment or exercise clothes in a place where they will be a more obvious reminder that you should exercise actually change your behavior? Does using a smaller plate for meals or snacks help you eat less? If ice water is in your refrigerator instead of caloric soft drinks, will you save 150 calories per glass because you will be more likely to drink the water?
- It takes time to establish a new habit or to replace older ones.
You will probably need to start with will power and strong cues to get a new habit started. The goal is for the new habit to become automatic, requiring neither thinking nor will power. But that will only happen over time.
The first step is to motivate yourself to establish one new, attainable goal and figure out what habit you need to attain it. If the goal is weight loss, pick at least one habit that will get you there. But, you might find it more useful to pick a very specific habit as the goal, instead of the vague goal of doing something more or less often. For example, a specific habit related to weight loss or health could be drinking more water and fewer soft drinks or alcoholic beverages at dinner or not smoking in a favorite room in your home, a specific habit related to getting more sleep could be to not go online after 9 pm, and a specific habit related to being more organized could be signing up for automatic payments of each of your monthly bills.
For more information about the research behind some of these tips, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/five-myths-about-our-habits/2015/12/31/1f3ab244-ad93-11e5-9ab0-884d1cc4b33e_story.html
All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.