Everyone seems to know what’s good for us: eat more veggies, drink for water, get more exercise. Scientific studies have shown that eating more fruits and vegetables is associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, increased water intake with less kidney stones, and those who exercise more live longer. Given how easy and accessible each of these three are, why aren’t more of us doing what we know to be good for us?
While people are more informed about knowledge and possess intentions to practice a healthier lifestyle than ever, majority of attempts to change result in short-term success and people tend to revert back to old habits. We’ve all heard it before: “I’m going to start exercising when I have more time.” or “After the holidays, I’m going to start my diet. I just can’t miss out on all of the delicious home cooking!” Despite knowledge of their hazardous lifestyle, some people continue on the familiar, habitual path. If the idea that you’ll change sooner or later resonates with you, but making significant progress has been a slow process, you’re not alone.
In 1991, the National Cancer Institute put into motion a nationwide health campaign: 5 A Day for Better Health Program. Before this program, only 7% of the US were aware that they should have at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. With this program and another national push in 2007, three times as many people, about 20% of the US population, knew this. Though, from 1988 through 2010, the number of people eating their share of fruits and veggies did not change, and only about 11% of population actually ate 5 A Day. Similar obstacles were observed by the anti-tobacco and exercise movements. Why?
One reason for the Knowledge-Doing Gap is the high proportion of our day-to-day actions are habitual. Habits are responses that are automatically activated by an environmental context. Habits aren’t the worst thing; without them, people’s mental bandwidth would be plagued by guiding and monitoring every, single action from cooking to driving a car, consciously. (Ever wonder what happened during that 10 miles stretch of highway?) Approximately 45% of everyday behaviors are driven by habits. When we allow habits to take over the parts of our lives we want to change, that’s when we can lean into our understanding of habits to change them.
Three components of habit formation:
You want to increase the frequency of your new habit by reducing the amount of friction needed to complete your new habit. For example, if you’re trying to workout in the mornings, getting out of bed is already hard, not to mention changing and getting to workout attire. Try getting in a routine of decreasing the friction (or number of steps) that will get you to get to the gym. Lay out your workout clothes the night before or even try sleeping in your workout getup so that you decrease the resistance or excuses that you can’t make it to your workout.
Associated context cues
Some context cues include, though are not limited to, time-of-day, location, prior sequence of action, or other people. Piggybacking can be a powerful tool for creating new habits. By tying a new, healthy habit to an existing habit, the already habitual responses can serve as a cue to trigger the new habit you’re trying to build. For example, when you’re eating meat, try to piggyback eating a green vegetable with your meal.
When forming new habits, unique rewards associated with a specific completed action or habit work best. When people get rewards, their brain floods with dopamine. It’s important to pair a special or unique reward with a habit you’re building. Tying together context cues and rewards, when people are in a context associated with a past award, the brain floods with dopamine, even without the presence of the reward. By piggybacking a new habit with an already established habit, you could associate the new habit with the dopamine release in the brain.
Habits can persist even when we know they’re bad (tasting)!
One social psychology study demonstrates the power of habits and friction. Researchers brought in participants and offered them popcorn to eat during a movie trailer. The popcorn offered was either fresh-popped or one-week-old, stale popcorn. Researchers recorded if the participants normally ate popcorn at the movies or not. When offered the fresh-popped corn, all of the participants ate their popcorn. When offered the stale popcorn, only people who typically ate popcorn continued to eat the old popcorn. On the other hand, those who normally did not eat popcorn during the movies stop eating after they tasted how bad it was. Funny enough, the people who ate the old popcorn were asked if they thought it tasted bad, and indeed they did. Even though they didn’t like the popcorn, the continued to eat it out of habit!
How can you change?
By being more conscious of our daily habits, the contexts in which we perform our habitual actions, and the associated rewards, you can take steps toward a healthier you! See a place you normally have a habit you want to kick? Try to create more friction to that habit. For example, do you find yourself opening the fridge door whenever you go by it? Try taking a kitchen towel and tie the door closed so that you have to untie it whenever you need to open it. That way, you’re adding one more level of friction between the context and the bad habit. See a new habit you’re trying to implement? For example, are you trying to take your Jetson supplements on the daily? Couple it with something you’re already doing. While filling your water bottle in the morning, you could get your bottle of Jetson out of the fridge and place it next to your water.
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