Want to Know 6 Secret Weapons in the Battle Against Unhealthy Habits?

Every Wednesday is Tip Day, or List Day, or Quiz Day.

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?

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  • Laura

    I definitely do #1 a lot, particularly with chocolate. I keep it out of the house, or I put it in the freezer so it’s not melt in my mouth! :) Great list.

  • peninith1

    I love this analysis Gretchen. I do these things, but have not become fully conscious of them–now I can say:
    * Water–I have a terrible time consuming enough water. I have finally decided it is ok to use and recycle bottled water because it conveniently measures for me what I have to drink each day. After walking in the morning, I bring 3 18-oz. bottles in from the garage, and work my way through them by the end of supper. Job done. I have tried using a glass or designated water bottle. It never works. I have to do what works for ME.
    * Nuts–I measure out a 1/4 cup from the jar of dry-roasted, unsalted peanuts I keep for a high protein snack. That seems convenient enough to keep me in bounds.
    * INconvenience–My Mom’s cookies and sweets are kept on a shelf that she and I both regard as HER stash. I just don’t go there.
    Now on with the day, thinking about what I can do to reinforce good habits with convenience and make bad ones easier to fight with inconvenience.

  • Cindy

    I’ve been working on improving my posture. Does anyone have any ideas on how to use a convenience/inconvenience strategy to change this habit?

    • M

      Cindy -I had a ballet teacher who would tell us to adjust the rear view mirror in our car so that we had to be sitting up straight to see in it.

      • Judy

        I improved my posture by creating the habit of rolling my shoulders back in the car every time I came to a red light. It took a while but really helped.

  • Marie Bee

    I’ve simply stopped buying any unhealthy snacks at the grocery store. If I don’t keep them in stock at home, they don’t get eaten when I’m bored.

  • lolabelle

    100% agree, convenience is my God. Or should I say, my Devil. While I agree, convenience is my primary motivator, right now it only makes me do bad things, like get fast food because I’m too tired to cook, etc.

  • lvistew1

    Hi, I’m really enjoying reading about your research on Habits. The term “foundation habits” is brilliant . I use the “Association” method to help me and my family to keep their habits. I take my morning medications with my coffee. The pill box is right by the coffee maker and I can’t make my coffee without moving my pill box. I fill my coffee cup with water first and take my meds and than I make the coffee!

    • gretchenrubin

      In my vocabulary, this is the Strategy of Pairing. Great example.

  • senseyourenergy

    This is a great tip. It is interesting how this is a form of reprogramming our minds (I work a lot with the mind) to have certain habits we want and eliminating ones that we don’t want. This can even be expanded to traits and moods that we want to have in certain situations. If one was to fully explore this concept they could have full control over their behavior. Great thoughts!
    Thanks,
    Bradley
    http://www.senseyourenergy.com

  • Sylvia

    I agree, convenience is key. Just a few days ago I moved my phone charger away from my bed, to avoid checking email first thing in the morning. Guess what? I don’t check email first thing in the morning!

    • gretchenrubin

      It’s funny how simple the solution can be – you can have a giant daily battle with your will-power – or move the charger!

  • Terri Evans

    I found that if you want to eat less you don’t have to diet. Just do two things. One write down everything you eat. It makes you aware. Two use portion control. Here is the rule. You can eat any thing you want, but not out of a bag, box, carton, ect. If you are sitting on the couch, or table just take one portion with you at a time. You can go back as many times as you want but put it on a plate, and only one portion at a time. For a Hershey bar I only take 1/2 a bar. I break it into pieces and put it on a plate. I enjoy each piece more, and rarely go back for seconds. Knowing you could go back if you want actually seems to make it easier not to go back for seconds.

  • Kathy

    I’ve been trying to make healthy eating more convenient by washing fruit immediately after I get home with it, making hard boiled eggs to keep in the fridge, and making my own iced tea to have handy when I want something more “fun” than water. I also measure out servings of snacks, whether they are nuts, crackers and cheese or even chocolate or potato chips. I know I’ll eat better if I have healthy snacks handy, and I’ll eat less if I don’t take the bag or box with me. I’m still working on this habit, I’m getting better!

  • Jeanne

    I LOVE convenience. I think of it as a commodity and am willing to pay for it. Like paying an exorbitant price to park in the museum garage in Golden Gate Park rather than circling for half an hour to find a free street spot and then walking half a mile in the rain. I think I’ve always used convenience and inconvenience to control my behavior, but I’ve found that lately I’m starting to use avoidance of inconvenience as an excuse to not do things I’d really like to do, but I have to go out of my way for. I need to watch out for this creeping tendency. Lots of things in life are not particularly convenient, but well worth the inconvenience. I don’t want to shelter myself too much in a cocoon of convenience at the expense of service and social interaction. Someone told a story of how in his younger years, when he thought about skiing, he thought about shushing down the slopes and all the fun. Now he thinks about the expense, traffic, driving in the snow, etc. Oh skiing, it’s so inconvenient! What a hassle!

    • gretchenrubin

      I SO battle this in myself. I hate inconvenience so much that I absolutely over-opt-out of things. It’s really something to watch out for.

  • BKF

    Thanks, great tips! I would put off writing Christmas cards because I dreaded scrounging around for addresses. But in recent years, I have been placing the envelopes of cards we receive in a folder. I also put cards, envelopes, stamps, pens, stamper etc in a crate with the folder. So now it’s all convenient and easy. I don’t procrastinate any more with this task, at least.

    I also realized after reading this post that physical discomfort can also discourage an action (and vice versa). I make green smoothies in the morning. I drink a glass and take the rest to work. I keep the flasks cold in my fridge ( to keep them fresh) but usually keep putting off drinking the smoothies until it’s time to go home. I often end up lugging them back home. I just woke up to the fact that I hate drinking ice-cold drinks and this is why I mentally fight drinking the smoothies. Perhaps I should set them on my desk and this way, I WILL drink them at some point. It’s a bit of a “duh” but I have been struggling with this for a while! Thanks. :-)

  • http://healthyactivist.com/ Healthyactivist

    These are great tips. I was thinking of learning to knit so I’d have something to do in the evenings in front of the TV instead of snacking. (Not watching TV would be better, but I really like to unwind in the evenings sometimes with TV). Anyway,some of these tips – liking hiding the video game controller and not keeping snacks in the house – will only work if we have complete control over our environments. I’m interested in the ways our environments impact our habits. Hope you’ll write more about that in the future!

  • Theresa Welch

    The one that I had tried (and need to get back to) is moving the alarm clock away from the bed. I currently use my cell phone, which is right next to the bed charging. However, by moving it away, I would need to get out of bed and walk to it just to press the snooze button. By getting up, then I would be UP and it would be easier to begin the day.
    I also like being held accountable for habits — I used to use a site called Habit Forger, but have moved to an app called Way of Life. Just as you mentioned in The Happiness Project, tracking successses is a great incentive!

  • Tracey

    This is so helpful! Thank you!

  • http://www.worklifenation.com JudyMartin

    Yes, yes the Strategy of Inconvenience… first, (yup it’s true) I DO NOT keep almonds or large bags of Smart Cheddar Popcorn in the house. Period. In the spirit of not being a complete hard nosed masochist I allow myself to buy the small bags for a treat on occasion. This might sound like a small gesture, but it alleviates a lot of lousy self talk and stomach aches. Again, sounds like a small thing but little rewards of comfort go a long way. Complete abstention just makes me cranky. Happy new year!

  • Blissinger

    At the ripe age of 71, I’m trying to become a better musician so I can be my own accompanist, and I found I was kidding myself about how much I was practicing my guitar. So I signed up with a website, compoundtime.com, that offers a timer to keep better track. When I do put in plenty of time, it’s nice to get that feedback,

  • Erin

    Proving that a quality can be both good and bad, I’m someone who feels compelled to finish things. This means I’m incredibly productive but also that I feel compelled to finish things like bags of chips and bottles of wine! Either I don’t have them in the house at all or portion out chips into a bowl and then hide the rest in the back of dark cupboard. Simple but effective. It’s amazing how simple we are.

  • Katy Tranter

    I would love to have no chocolate/unhealthy food or a TV in the house…. somehow I don’t think the boyfriend would agree to any of these things!