Creating New Habits Means Doing New Habits

January 5, 2016 in Exercise, Fitness, General, Health, Psychology of Food, Uncategorized, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

Since only 8 percent of Americans achieve their New Year’s resolutions, many are discouraged to try. But there is a considerable amount of new research that can help us learn how to get better at identifying a goal and actually reaching it. Often our goals are related to habits – lifetime habits that are taking us to destinations we do not want to reach. There’s a nice little piece by Wendy Wood (a Provost Professor of Psychology and Business at the University of Southern California) regarding Five myths about our habits. It is found in the December 31, 2015 Washington Post. I’d say it’s definitely worth the two minutes that it will take to read it.

  • What’s really nice is that Wood jumps right in with a discussion of self-control. When I used to teach classes on weight management, I’d try to help the class members recognized that self-control is not a muscle that benefits from exercise. When you want to build a new habit, think of all the ways you can make it easier to begin doing the new habit, while taking away time and thought about the old one. Don’t rely just on what most of us commonly consider self-control – meaning NOT TO DO something. What works best really is developing the new habit – doing the new habit, again and again, gives us what we can properly call self-control. Half of what we do is merely habit – good or bad – productive or unproductive. We may as well have good, productive habits, replacing those that lead us to dissatisfaction, poor health and unhappiness – replacing them with good ones.
  • One of my favorite ideas that Wood wrote about is simply; “Habits are made by doing. We can be motivated to change a habit; but the way to change a habit is by doing (repeatedly) the desired new habit.”
  • Make the desired new habit routine – same time of day, same location, same type of meal, for example.
  • In my experience, environmental control is a vital skillful new habit to develop. Those of you, who read this blog frequently, realize that I write about environmental control or refer to past articles where I have written about it recurrently. In Wood’s piece, she discusses (myth #4) a choice between goal-setting and environmental change books. Wood has included a link to a USC doctoral dissertation for those of you who really want to get into the meat of the dual roles (friend or foe) of habits (or as she calls them, routinized behavior).

While I would agree that starting with environmental change is optimal, I do believe that setting proper, specific and realistic goals is helpful; otherwise, some may not really have a good idea where to start. In our family, we call them “Doable Dreams.” For example, if your goal is to get healthier in the New Year and that’s it; then where do you start? Getting healthier is too vague, too “dreamy.” Make it specific by making some core aspect of it doable. For example, if you want to ‘clean up’ your environment, to better position yourself to be healthy, knowing which food will support your goals and which will not is useful. So certainly, this business of controlling our environment is a little more complex than we may think at the beginning. Without doubt, however, you should begin taking steps to modify your surroundings. If one of your goals is to eat healthier, and you can’t bear to throw out grandma’s cookies; the stack of processed meat; the barley-touched bag of chips; the gallons of ice cream that no one ate; and the gifts of candy, then consider a trip to the food bank or a neighbor with a large family. Note: I’d like to remind you: your health is worth far more than what you’ve paid for that food (using the word loosely here). Though I do not like to waste food, my doable dream, now becoming a habit, is to make throwing out or giving away food a virtue. I’d say it’s better to learn from the experience; buy less next time; waste what you can’t give away, than it is to ‘waste’ your health.

If you want to improve your life this year, then jump in and begin setting Doable Dreams and practicing to make them new habits. This will lead toward the outcomes you desire. Sending my best for a wonderful 2016.