Today: 6 secret weapons (well, really, it’s six varieties of one secret weapon) in the battle against unhealthy habits.
Habits surprise me in many ways, and one thing that continually astonishes me is the degree to which we’re influenced by convenience—by the amount of sheer effort, time, or decision-making involved in completing an action. One of my twenty strategies of habit-formation is the Strategy of Convenience.
We’re far more likely to do something if it’s convenient, and far less likely to do something if it’s inconvenient, to an astounding degree. For instance, in one cafeteria, when an ice-cream cooler’s lid was left open, thirty percent of diners bought ice cream, but when diners had to open the lid, only fourteen percent bought ice cream, even though the ice cream was visible in both situations. People take less food when using tongs, instead of spoons, as serving utensils.
Accordingly, we can strengthen or weaken habits by making them more or less convenient to follow. One familiar example? The advice to pack your gym back the night before. When it’s more convenient to head to the gym, you’re more likely to do it.
Inconvenience can also be our annoying friend. There are six obvious ways to make an activity less convenient, to help us stick to habits that entail avoiding some behavior:
- increase the amount of physical energy required—stand up to use the computer, never allow yourself to go to the doughnut shop across the street from your office but only the one eight blocks away
- hide any cues—put the video-game controller on a high shelf, put your cell phone on the floor of your car’s back seat
- delay it—read email only after 11:00 a.m.
- engage in an incompatible activity—to avoid snacking, do a puzzle; hold a drink in one hand and a napkin in the other hand so you don’t have a free hand for hors d’oeuvres
- raise the cost—work out with a trainer who charges you whether or not you show up; one study showed that people at high risk for smoking were pleased by a rise in the cigarette tax
- prevent it altogether—keep cookies out of the house; give away the TV set; take the Ruzzle app off your phone
Once an action is a habit, it unfolds automatically, but in my experience, some habits always stay slightly fragile (for me, for instance, exercise) so it’s helpful to take convenience into account. Also, convenience/inconvenience can be a powerful aid when we’re initially trying to make or break a habit.
It’s funny; even a trivial bit of extra inconvenience can make it dramatically easier or harder to keep a good habit.
From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.