This Wednesday: 6 secret weapons (well, really, it’s six varieties of one secret weapon) in the battle against unhealthy habits.
When I’m not gearing up for my book tour for the launch of the paperback of Happier at Home, I spend my time pondering the nature of habits — one of the most fascinating subjects in the world, and highly relevant to happiness — as I work on my next book, Before and After.
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.
I use the Strategy of (In)Convenience to control my consumption of almonds. I eat a lot of almonds. Being able to stick my hand in a bag made it too easy to eat tons of almonds, without even realizing it. So now I buy almonds in one-ounce packs. I feel bad about all that extra packaging, and my mother-in-law teased me for not just making my own one-ounce bags out of reused baggies, but for me, that extra bit of in/convenience means I eat the right amount of almonds. One ounce is plenty for a snack — even though it may not seem that way, at first!
This method is both inconvenient (I have to fetch and open up a pack, and if I want more, I have to fetch and open another pack) and more convenient (I don’t have to measure anything). Now that I do this, my eating habits are better.
This also makes use of the very powerful Strategy of Monitoring. It’s hard to know how much I’m eating when I’m eating out of the bag, or even pouring into a bowl; pre-measured servings help me keep track. Am I going to eat six packs of almonds in a day? No.
What have I overlooked? Have you found any good ways to harness inconvenience to help yourself stick to some desirable habit?