Instead of succumbing to the habit of snacking while sitting on the sofa… (Jim Corwin / Getty Images )
What does it really take to change a habit? It may have less to do with willpower and more to do with consistency and a person's environment, researchers have found.
A 2009 study in the European Journal of Social Psychology had 96 people adopt a new healthful habit over 12 weeks — things like running for 15 minutes at the same time each day or eating a piece of fruit with lunch. The average number of days it took for participants to pick up the habit was 66, but the range was huge, from 18 to 254 days.
Those who chose simple habits, such as drinking a glass of water, did better overall than those who had more involved tasks, such as running. Skipping a day here and there didn't seem to derail things, but greater levels of inconsistency did. Erratic performers tended not to form habits.
The same study also found that having a cue for when or where you performed the habit acted as a reminder and helped to make the habit stick. By always exercising in the morning you're reminded that when you get up, it's time to head to the gym. Consistently eating meals at the dining table takes away the urge to eat while sitting on the sofa with the television on.
Contrary to popular belief, adopting more healthful routines may have little to do with how much resolve someone has, says Wendy Wood, provost professor of psychology and business at USC.
"We tell ourselves that if only we had willpower we'd be able to exercise every day and avoid eating bags of chips," she says. "But those behaviors are difficult to control because we have patterns that are cued by the environment" — patterns that we've learned from past bad habits.
We've learned to associate being in the car with eating from fast-food restaurant drive-throughs, so that when we're out running errands we find ourselves wanting a burger and fries, perhaps when we're not even hungry.
We've learned to associate arriving home with collapsing in front of the TV, and arriving at work with taking the elevator.
We go to the movies and automatically purchase a giant drum of buttery popcorn — and once the habit is formed, we'll eat the popcorn even if it tastes bad, Wood has found.
In a study she coauthored that was published earlier this year in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, moviegoers were given fresh or stale popcorn to snack on while watching trailers.
People who were avid popcorn-eaters ate the same amount of stale popcorn as fresh: They evidently were snacking mindlessly. In contrast, those who didn't have a movie-popcorn habit ate less stale popcorn than fresh.
"Once these habits become cued by the environment," Wood says, "they tend to continue whether people are enjoying them or not."
Wood suggests devising new activities to link to our environmental cues.
At the movie theater, instead of getting a large popcorn, get a small one or drink water instead. Soon you'll associate movies with those new choices. Take the stairs the minute you walk into the building where you work — soon you'll associate arriving at work with stair-climbing.
Instead of succumbing to the habit of snacking while sitting on the sofa and watching TV, use the time instead to do some simple exercises. After a while … you get the idea.
It takes some thought in the beginning, Wood says, "but once you've figured it out, it runs on its own. You've outsourced your behavior to the environment."