If You’re Trying to Keep a Good Habit, Do Other People Help or Hurt?

Assay: For my book on habits, Before and After, I’ve identified the multiple strategies that we can use to change our habits.

One of the most powerful? The Strategy of Other People. We exert enormous influence on others, and they, on us; one way we influence each other is by providing mental energy to support (or thwart) someone else’s efforts.

I find that people fall into three gears when it comes to supporting (or opposing) other people’s healthy habits.

Drive: People in “drive” mode add energy and propulsive force to our habits. They can be very helpful as they encourage, they remind, and they join in. However, if they’re too pushy, they may be a nuisance, and their enthusiasm can rouse a spirit of opposition.

 

Reverse: Some people press others to reverse out of a healthy habit. They may do this from a sense of love, such as food pushers who argue, “You should enjoy yourself!” or “I baked this just for you!” Or their behavior may be more mean-spirited or undermining, as they try to tempt, ridicule, or discourage us from sticking to a healthy habit. But just as people in Drive can sometimes provoke opposition, so, too, can people in Reverse. They may ignite a helpful “I’ll show you” or “You can’t stop me” spirit. (Especially in a Rebel.)

 

Neutral: These folks go along with our habits. They’re not in reverse—which is itself hugely helpful—but they’re not in drive, either. They support us whatever we do. Sometimes this is useful, and sometimes this support makes it easier to indulge in habits when we know we shouldn’t. My sister told me, “If I say to my husband, ‘Let’s go out for dinner,’ he says, ‘Great!’ And if I say, ‘Let’s stay home and eat very healthy,’ he says ‘Great!’ to that, too.

It can be tricky to know how to help people keep their good habits. I’m a bit of a habits bully, and sometimes my “drive” mode probably bugs the people around me.

I have a lot of zeal for healthy habits—in myself and in others—but even I find it surprisingly difficult to stay in “drive” mode. It feels so festive and friendly to encourage people to treat themselves in some way. “Just one won’t hurt!” “You deserve it!” “This is a party!

As the examples illustrate, people also influence us in how they suggest loopholes for us to follow. Just look at all the different types of loopholes invoked above. So one way we can avoid the negative influence of other people is to keep in mind the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.

Do you do things to help others keep their good habits? Do you feel the influence of other people on your habits?–for good or for ill?

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  • cleanfairy

    Im a neutral. When I decide to embark on a new habit I dont usually feel overly influenced by others. Its all about me and my desire to change. So when somebody tells me of their desire to change a habit, I make it all about them, offering support if they request it of course, but otherwise leaving them to it.

  • Randee Bulla

    I had thought that I really wanted a driver to help me keep my eating habits, yet just yesterday I noticed that I give them the eye of death if they try to hold me to the habits I want to keep. Apparently, I’ve inadvertently trained my habit helpers to be neutral.

  • http://www.aterriblehusband.com/about/ ATerribleHusband

    I’m a member of a few mastermind groups where we all support and encourage each other to achieve their goals, which often involve cultivating positive habits. We hold each other accountable and share resources (and more) to help. It’s POWERFUL.

    • Edna

      You are SO fortunate! I would LOVE to find a supportive group like this!

      • gretchenrubin

        Start your own!

        A Before and After group!

        • http://www.aterriblehusband.com/about/ ATerribleHusband

          So awesome! I was actually away at a mastermind event and planned on coming back here to encourage you to start your own, but it looks like Gretchen already did. Almost every really successful person in history was in a mastermind group. It’s so empowering! And there’s no need to wait for permission to join one. It doesn’t have to be anything complicated. Just start with a few friends and make clear that the format is to support and encourage each other to achieve their goals.

          If you have questions or would like some guidance, reach out to me. I’d be happy to help you. It’s so powerful to be surrounded by that much support and encouragement.

  • Maureen Schlosser

    There are some friends who are encouraging, especially with fitness/sport-related activity. I love these people, who remark about every little thing that I’ve improved on. However, I find that comments from my spouse really set me on edge. I don’t know if it’s too much pressure or what it is, but I’d rather that any self-improvement type things be done without the spouse even knowing that I’m doing something.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    I find that what matters most in this arena is the relationship I ALREADY HAVE with the person.

    I really do NOT like my Mom to be up in my business about anything I am trying to do to change. She is into disconcerting, bizarre combinations of enabling, shaming, and encouraging that make me just want to fly into a rage. In the past this has led me to opposite-to-my-intention behavior that destroys my efforts. I honestly try not to tell her for quite a long time (until I feel secure in a new regime or habit, or until she happens to notice) that I am doing anything different. My personal privacy about regime change is important to me, and this is difficult to maintain since we now live together. But I have learned to be guarded.

    I decided, in my current effort to make a genuine and permanent change in my eating and activity pattern, to entrust the power of knowing about it and encouraging me along the way to a professional. I joined an on line diet program and took advantage of their offer to work with a registered dietitian. Having an accountable person who is really and truly in my corner, not ambiguous about it, and not involved in day-to-day social interactions is a huge help.

    Other friends have been ‘getting in on the secret’ as my progress becomes noticeable. They are very good at being neutral and non-judgmental. My contemporary female friends have mostly been down this road before, or are themselves trying to make changes. My kids and significant other are very supportive but not oppressive.

    My learning then, is: pay attention to the quality of the relationship before you divulge a big goal. Find a single person, probably not too closely related to you, to be your ‘accountability’ person or your ‘coach.’ Remember always that this is truly between you and your hopes for your own future.

  • Kristen Cavanagh

    I have had experiences with reverse drivers! A few years back, I went on a cleansing food plan—I had some blood allergy testing done and had a list of things to eliminate for six months. It made people at work very uncomfortable. I declined donuts, coffee, anything with wheat, eggs, pepper—people kept saying “but it is just a little..come on” or “so you are drinking green tea? What about if I buy you a coffee”. I was doing for me what they knew was right for them. It was one of those things we know. We know we should eat right. I was following my naturopath and had tons of things I could eat. It was no hardship —just change. People felt MY change in a very personal way. They teased, they mocked, some asked questions—some actually got angry and dismissed what I was doing as a “fad”. I was suddenly a mirror and when they faced me, they saw themselves. Sounds like you may be experiencing the same. Stay strong to you. (I will say when I had my first coffee after the six months, people said to me …Oh you are having coffee!!!! Thank goodness! (so weird…)

    • Penelope Schmitt

      I have found that no longer working in an office setting makes my efforts easier. Work places are definitely ‘infested’ with loopholes, lurking on the secretary’s desk, the candy machine, the coffee bar, the group lunches, the little bake sales and lunchtime fund raisers, the birthdays with cake, the holidays with treats. Congratulations to you and all who are able to fend off the blandishments of chocolate-peanut-whipped cream-retirement party-Christmas snacks.

      I wonder if a perpetual mantra of ‘no thanks, not today’ would work better than giving the reason WHY you are not participating in the food fest?

      • youonlylawonce

        I think when people push for a justification, it helps to say something like “It’s just my preference (or policy) not to have any caffeine or sweets at work.” That way people feel less like they are being personally rejected.

        • http://adpwip.blogspot.com Kristen Cavanagh

          That is a good idea! For some reason, people do take it personally!

      • http://adpwip.blogspot.com Kristen Cavanagh

        I think you are right! consistent messaging will encourage them to stop asking! LOL

  • youonlylawonce

    I definitely feel the influence of other people on my habits. Usually it is at the beginning when I’m not really certain whether or not I “like” the habit. At that point the benefits are not so clear and the costs are very salient. I feel like I’m more likely to get off track. After the habit really “kicks in” then it’s much easier for me to fend off people who try to derail me either explicitly or implicitly.

  • Shannon

    Hm. This gives me a lot to think about regarding a friend of mine that I am doing Weight Watchers with. We are neutral with one another – we cheer each other’s victories, we say “that’s ok, you’ll do better next time” if the scales go up one week. We offer advice to each other only when it’s asked for.
    But this friend and I also hang out a lot, going to movies and dinner together. Which means that often when we are in places where we are tempted to sabotage our healthy eating habits, it’s together. It makes me realize that I can be neutral without being a push-over – I can always say “sure, I can eat out but let me look at the menu of a few places and find somewhere that I can find something light,” or “are you ok with this place? I don’t want to undermine the progress you’ve made.”

  • Jeanne

    Guess I’m a neutral. Could not possibly count the number of times people have not made any effort to stick with their eating intentions when we’re out to lunch together. I never say anything. I figure they’re adults and will do whatever they really want to do. They need not justify to me. Nothing more tedious to me than to dine out with someone who endlessly analyzes the menu for what’s “healthy.” Invariably they end up eating a big bowl of gooey pasta or the like. None of my business. If someone asks for reminders of intentions, I will offer reminders. If not, I just shut up. I suppose part of it is me wanting to be liked and not make others mad at me when they’re going to eat whatever they want anyway.

  • Lynn

    This is an interesting question. Habits are easiest for me to form when people don’t obstruct me. It’s not really helpful when they try to help me, because that has some sort of judgement attached. Several of the changes I’ve made do impact others, and I’ve had to learn to hold onto my boundaries. Once I take action and make the change – and make it not negotiable – it’s much easier to keep the habit and not hear the noise of other people’s opinions.

    I have a friend who has a great method that does help me. Even goals she doesn’t care about personally she can help me with because she knows it’s my goal and that she supports me in pursuing it. So asks what I am learning, and what I think is successful, or a good next step. She also supports boundaries, and helps me when I feel uncomfortable. With her help I was able to develop a mantra for dealing with not-so helpful feedback from people. Depending on circumstance I find a kind way to say “So is it your life or mine, the
    life I am living? I’m pretty sure it’s mine, and so I don’t live it the way you would. How about if you chose to be happy for me because I’m happy about the change?” That shift has been the most helpful one for me.

  • Veronique

    In general I’m not a person who really cares too much what other people think and am not influenced by others. How I eat, exercise, or keep a habit is really only affected by my own inner voice but I do find that there is a type of person who irritates me intensely when i do try something new. I refer to them as the ‘cubby hole person’. This is the type of person who thinks we keep the same interests, habits and hobbies our whole lives and question you if they see you deviating from the cubby hole they have put you in. If you engage in a new activity they act as as though it is somehow wrong. Example: If I decide to say try spinning every other day in addition to running on the off day they look at me with a questioning eyebrow and a deep look of concern and say, spinning? ‘I didn’t know you even liked cycling’ or if I go to a different art exhibit, I’ll get something like, “Huh, I didn’t think you even liked xxx type art.”
    I’m not sure what it’s about. I think it has to do with them feeling threatened by change but I find it intensely irritating. I love trying new things and switching routines to keep them fresh, having to explain that is just off putting to me.

  • BKF

    Great characterisation. It’s complex , isn’t it? Sometimes I find myself tightening and actually doing what I am trying to achieve – for e.g. swimming regularly as a means to mastering the activity- when my spouse tries to discourage me because he wants me to do something else instead. A friend who is neutral but just keeps me company to go and swim with me is a huge supporter of my habit (even though she is passive and never initiates the outing.)

    If the outer voice is echoing what the devil within is already saying (“eat that chocolate cake, it won’t matter this once”), then it’s harder to resist. I guess the “tightening” happens when the outer voice is contrary to the one in my head (“I must go swim” etc.)

  • Jean N

    Now that you’ve got me thinking in the “Tendencies” framework, I”m seeing this question through my Rebel filter as well. I cannot stand accountability. I try not to tell anyone my goals until after I’ve already accomplished them. By your model, I tend to be fairly neutral toward others, and the only people in my life who I ever trust with my goals are those who can be trusted to react neutrally in return. The “drive” or “reverse” people can derail me altogether if I’m not careful, with the “drive” people being infinitely more difficult to deal with. Their encouragement, however well-intended, makes me feel undermined, like I lose sovereignty over the accomplishment. Also, regardless of whether someone reacts my goal at all, the simple fact of someone knowing that i intend to accomplish something amounts to them expecting me to do so… which presents a problem. I then feel stuck, like I want to avoid the person who knows that I’m working toward something until after I’ve accomplished it. I usually find it much easier to just keep my mouth shut than to selectively omit supportive people from my life. Probably doesn’t make sense to anyone not *ahem* gifted with this particular tendency, but there you are.