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Volume 11, Number 5

The benefits of a healthy lifestyle accrue over time, as behaviors that promote health are repeated day after day for years. On the other hand, the “rewards” for behaviors that are not necessarily health-promoting are typically immediate (e.g., the pleasure of eating a large desert, watching a movie late into the night instead of going to bed, playing a video game instead of doing a workout). Making healthy behaviors habitual is extremely important, because the rewards are not immediate.

By definition, habits are automatic responses to contextual cues, formed over a period of time as the behavior is repeated in the presence of these cues. Once a habit is established, the impulse to initiate the behavior automatically occurs when the cues are present. Much of human behavior is habitual. Intentional decision-making is unnecessary for many of the daily routines that people follow.

Self-control (or willpower) is necessary to override a habitual tendency, or to repeatedly initiate a behavior that isn’t habitual. However, repeated expenditures of self-control can deplete this limited resource, so that this process is difficult to sustain over long periods of time, if the new/desired behavior doesn’t become a habit. That is, to simply rely on self-control for making healthy choices on a daily basis is largely doomed to failure. Maintenance of a healthy lifestyle requires healthy habits.

Persons differ in how much self-control they have.

This is partly due to nature (inherited tendencies) and partly due to nurture (self-control can be strengthened and managed). What is fascinating about persons who score higher on measures of self-control is that they use it less during typical days than do persons scoring lower on measures of self-control. Higher self-control persons report fewer instances in which they have to inhibit the urge to give in to temptations, or to push themselves to initiate desired behaviors. Investigators have learned that an important reason for this is habit. These persons expend self-control to establish healthy habits, so that once habits are established, expenditure of self-control isn’t necessary to maintain these behaviors.

An investigation recently published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Drs. Brian Galla and Angela Duckworth) found that persons with better self-control indeed had stronger habits for eating healthy snacks, stable bedtime and wake times, and exercise. Furthermore, these individuals reported less effort to initiate these behaviors. Habitual behaviors are less susceptible to disruption by lapses of attention, variability in motivation, or stress.

One of the common mistakes people make when trying to develop healthy habits is to underestimate the importance of contextual cues. A new behavior is less likely to become a habit if it isn’t paired with some cue(s) for the new behavior. Cues can include having a predictable routine, a set time, scheduled interaction with another person (e.g., meeting a friend to walk together), or the presence of items (e.g., banana vs. candy bar). Related to this can be eliminating cues for undesired behavior, when possible (e.g., taking a different route to work to avoid driving by the bakery). Successful behavior change and habit development is sometimes more about changing cues than it is about finding motivation, especially since we live in environments replete with cues for unhealthy behavior (e.g., commercials for unhealthy foods, convenience items that eliminate physical activity, etc.).

In their manuscript, Galla and Duckworth quote William James, considered to be the father of American psychology, who wrote the following about habits in 1890: “…there is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation. Full half the time of such a man goes to the deciding, or regretting, of matters which ought to be so ingrained in him as practically not to exist for his consciousness at all.” James’ vision of the healthy lifestyle would have been one which was so habitual that it required no conscious effort.

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1 comment for “Habit

  1. Michael Jacobson
    May 7, 2015 at 1:53 pm

    Dr. Paul –

    Very good insights on habits and self-control. A concept discussed in addiction medicine that has direct bearing on your presentation is known as “discounting,” which refers to an ‘addict’s’ tendency to “discount” the value of anything that does not provide an immediate reward. This is thought to be secondary to repeatedly choosing a substance for its ability to produce an instant “high” over other longer term goals, such as saving money, keeping a job, relationships, etc. Thus, trying to use something in the ‘distant’ future (e.g. “Don’t you want to be sober for your daughter’s graduation from high school next year?”) to motivate immediate change is generally futile, when in the presence of a severe substance use disorder. Once the substance use is in the ‘rear view mirror,’ the ‘addict’ will tend to once again value those things that are only secured over the long haul (e.g. good health, relationships, etc.).

    All the best,

    Dr. J

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