My current emphasis: how to make good habits and break bad ones (really)

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Questioners, What Questions Do You Ask About Your Habits?

question-mark-headEvery Wednesday is List Day, or Quiz Day, or Tip Day.

I posted the other day about “Are you a people-pleaser?” This question is related to the  Four Tendencies framework, which I develop in Better Than Before, my book on habit change. (To hear when it goes on sale, sign up here.)

A key piece of self-knowledge — which is crucial to habit change — is “What is your ‘Tendency?”  That is: How do you respond to expectations?

-outer expectations (meet a deadline, perform a “request” from a sweetheart, follow traffic regulations)

-inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep a New Year’s resolution, start flossing)

Your response to expectations may sound slightly obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important.

In a nutshell:

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (I’m an Upholder, 100%)
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense, so they make everything an inner expectation
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike

 

I gave a talk at LinkedIn about the Four Tendencies, so if you’d like to see me discuss each category in  a video, you can watch: for Upholders, watch here; Questioners, here; Obligers, here, and Rebels, here.

I’m always trying to deepen my understanding of how the Tendencies play out. So over the past week, I’ve been posing some questions. One day, I focused on Rebels.

Today’s questions relate to the Questioner Tendency.

I have a lot of exposure to this Tendency, because my husband is a Questioner.

Being married to a Questioner is helpful to me, because as an Upholder, my instinct is to meet an expectation without questioning it too closely. My husband always questions an expectation before he’ll do it, and I’ve learned to question more myself. This Tendency saves him a lot of work. Sometimes I admire it, sometimes it drives me crazy.

Last night, I pointed to two small drawings hanging on the wall, and said, “Can you please switch these two?”

He said, “Why can’t you?” He didn’t mean it in a bad way, but just — why can’t you do it?

I gave him a look. As an Upholder, I must confess, this response annoys me. I don’t ask him to do much, and when I do ask him to do something, I have my reasons, and I don’t feel like I should have to justify at length every single request. But that’s what a Questioner wants! Explanations, justifications.

I’m making a list of the questions that Questioners pose, before they meet an expectation. Forming a habit is a form of expectation (whether self-imposed or other-imposed), so to form a habit successfully, Questioners need to have their questions answered. They often ask:

Why should I listen to you? (This question isn’t meant in a snarky way, but literally.) What’s your expertise? A friend told me, “When my son broke his arm, I interviewed four doctors. My husband thought I was crazy, but I can’t listen to a doctor unless I have complete trust.”

–Why should I have to do this, instead of someone else? My husband and household habits. Questioners are great at delegating, unless they think that no one else can do something.

–Where can I get more information? Questioners love information and research. In fact, they sometimes complain of “analysis paralysis”; they want more and more information.

–How can I tweak this habit to suit my individual needs?

–Isn’t there a better way to structure this habit? Questioners like to find better ways to do things.

–What problems has everyone else overlooked, that I can identify? Questioners are good at spotting error.

Questioners, what other questions do you find yourself asking? Questioner-observers, what do you get asked? Does this list ring true?

Do you find questioning helpful, or does it become tiresome at some points?

What am I missing?

I've just finished writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we can make and break our habits. If you'd like to pre-order the book, click here.

“No One Wants to Admit They Were Tricked by the Size of a Scoop or the Shape of a Glass.”

wansinkHabits interview: Brian Wansink.

I’ve been a big fan of behavioral scientist Brian Wansink for years. He does intensely interesting research on eating behavior and consumer habits, and his book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think was a resource for me as I was writing Better Than Before.

For instance, he’s done a lot of research to show how much convenience influences whether and how much we eat. It’s astonishing how much convenience matters. The lesson for habits? Make it easy to do things right, and hard to do things wrong.

Brian Wansink has a new book, Slim By Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life. It’s crammed with ideas to make it easy to eat healthier–without even noticing that you’re making changes. The book is fascinating, and surprisingly lively and funny–this isn’t a dry review of the literature. It’s a fun read.

I so agree with this approach of “mindless eating” to eating habits. Whenever someone tells me, “I need to make healthy choices,” I think, “No, don’t make healthy choices! Choose once, then stop deciding. Use habits. Mindfully use mindlessness to get where you want to go.”

I was very eager to hear what Brian Wansink had to say about habits in general, and about his own habits.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research on the subject of habits and eating. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded?

Brian: After conducting hundreds of food studies, I’m increasingly convinced that our stomach has only three settings: 1) We either feel like we’re starving, 2) we feel like we’re stuffed, or 3) we feel like we can eat more. Most of the time we’re in the middle, we’re neither hungry nor full, but if something’s put in front of us, we’ll eat it. I all but guarantee that most people with a few spare pounds would lose 20 pounds in a year if every time they had a craving they would announce – out loud – “I’m not hungry, but I’m going to eat this anyway.” Having to make that declaration either prevents you for eating, or if you do indulge, it prevents you from overindulging.

A second finding is that most people think they are too smart to be influenced by candy dishes, television, or the shape of a glass. When we show someone that they ate 30% more because we gave them a large scoop at the ice cream social, they will deny it. That’s what is so astonishing. No one wants to admit they were tricked by something as mundane as the size of a scoop or the shape of a glass. That’s what makes these cues around us so dangerous to our diets.

What aspects of habits would be most helpful for people to understand?

Most people believe they are Master and Commander of their food choices. They aren’t, but I want them to see that they can make small changes that can put them back in the driver’s seat. I want people to see that making small changes in their kitchens and routines will make all the difference with no real sacrifice.

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Before both breakfast and lunch, I think of one thing that’s happened so far that day that I’m grateful for. At dinnertime – if I’m home and not traveling – I have a slightly different routine. Each person in the family (including me) shares what happened that day by answering 4 questions: 1) their high point, 2) their low point, 3) who they appreciate most and why, and 4) their plan for tomorrow.   It gives them a chance to celebrate the good things that happen, realize that each of us has daily disappointments, thank a person who helped them out, and to raise their eyes toward the future. All three of my daughters get their moment in the sun, and it makes me happy to see each one shine.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

When you get up in the morning, you can say “This is going to be a tremendous day,” “This is going to be OK day,” or “This is going to be a terrible day.”   Regardless of what you say, you’ll be right.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

The most top of mind that gets in the way of my happiness is very vivid right now:   It’s thinking my work is more urgent than my young daughters.

I’m in DC now because I gave a House and a Senate Briefing on something related to Slim by Design. An hour ago, I was on the phone with my middle daughter, and she asked if I knew these people and I said, “No.”

She replied, “But Daddy, why do you have time to read your book to strangers but not to us. We’re more important than strangers. We’re your little girls.” I’m still choked up and wiping my eyes.

Which habits are most important to you? (for heath, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

Dreaming big, staying positive, building other people up, laughing as much as possible and making other people laugh.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

The only way I can do it is by avoiding what I call the Tyranny of the Moment.

Generally speaking, we can commit to making a small change in life, such as not eating sweet snacks before dinner. We can write it down, cross our heart, and announce it to others. We can really, really mean it. But fast forward two days. It is been a hard day at work; you finished a 45 minute commute; you are drained, and you know frozen Snickers bar is waiting in the right corner of the freezer door. It is easy to break your cross-the-heart commitment. After all, today is an exception – it was a tough day and, come to think of it, you did not have a very big breakfast. Your plan of the year has just been thwarted by the tyranny of the moment. And the moment – this one exceptional moment – tyrannically wins every time.

Sometimes that inner voice actually whispers to us, “I know I said I’m not going to eat out of vending machines at work, but today’s different – it’s been crazy,” or “I know I still have to do my sit-ups today, but it’s late – I’ll do twice as many tomorrow when I wake up.” I know I should have had only one glass of wine but this is really a great dinner and a really good wine.” [I talk about this problem in the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting.]

There is only one thing that is strong enough to defeat the tyranny of the moment.

Habit.

As mentally disciplined as most of us like to think we are, nothing beats having to face facts each night and check off a box. We have very selective memories, but I use tools such as this checklist to let us know just why – or why not – we have painlessly lost two pounds on the 31st of the month.

This basic approach works for well or other habits also.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

80% Upholder, 20% Rebel.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

Since I try to invest heavily in other people, I’m tripped up when a key relationship isn’t going well — it’s tremendously disorienting. A while back, my wife and I were having difficulties, and it threw me out of balance so much that it distracted me away my mindlessly healthy routines. One day I woke up and realized I had gained over 20 lbs.

I went back to these routines (they’re in Mindless Eating, chapter 10), and lost the pounds in about 4 months. It was an unfortunate reminder about what happens when we let healthy habits (and relationships) slip.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

You were raised in Kansas City [wow, good memory, Brian!], and I was raised up the Missouri River in Sioux City, Iowa. My parents were extremely loving and supportive, but there wasn’t an expectation I would go to college or the means to very easily make it happen. I did go to college, and to try and support myself, I struggled selling Amway. I worked all the time, but I blamed my lack of success on being too shy, not smart enough, not having a suit, and so on. One day a friend gave me a copy of an old book called The Magic of Thinking Big by David Schwartz.

This book gave me a transforming level of confidence in myself and my mission.  I reread that book 10 times within the first month and at least 30 more times since. Within a semester my grades went from a 2.5 to a 3.8, I met my wonderful college sweetheart, my college money worries disappeared, I ran for the student senate, and I committed myself to become a professor who changes eating behavior – oh, and I bought a suit.

I’ve given that book to over 200 people over the past 25 years.   Most think it’s pretty hokey, dated, or simple-minded. I understand that, but I would also understand if their thinking – as a result – never grew any bigger than the thinking they inherited from their parents.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

Embrace. That was the theme of Mindless Eating, and that’s also the theme of Slim by Design: “For 90 percent of us, the solution to mindless eating is not mind­ful eating—our lives are just too crazy and our willpower’s too wimpy. Instead, the solution is to tweak small things in our homes, favorite restaurants, supermarkets, workplaces, and schools so we mindlessly eat less and better instead of more. It’s easier to use a small plate, face away from the buffet, and Frisbee-spin the bread basket across the table than to be a martyr on a hunger strike. Willpower is hard and has to last a lifetime. Rearranging your life to be Slim by Design is easy.”

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

Absolutely. This happens all of the time. I am a very coachable person. Sometimes that coach is a 5-year old daughter who tells me drink less Diet Coke, and sometimes it’s an author whose book I’ve read over 40 times.

Do You Treat Yourself? Why You Should.

treat-yo-selfI offer free, signed bookplates to readers, and after I’ve signed them, my younger daughter helps me get the envelopes ready to mail. While we do this, we watch endless re-runs of the brilliant TV show, Parks and Recreation. (Before Parks and Rec, we watched The Office. What show should be next?)

She’s thrilled, because if she helps me, she gets to watch extra TV. I get free labor. Everybody wins!

Last night, we were watching the Parks and Recreation episode “Pawnee Rangers” in Season Four. In it, Tom and Donna celebrate their annual “Treat Yo’ Self!” day. They spend the entire day in treating themselves.

Watch here.

But perhaps surprisingly, there’s a real skill in “treating yourself.”

When they’re getting ready to set off, Donna suggests that they ask their friend and co-worker Ben to come along on the treat-yourself adventure day. She explains, “He really seems like he could use a day off. He’s like a skinny, little rubber band that’s about to snap in half.” It’s true: people who go too long without treats often become brittle, drained, and impatient.

But Tom protests (in a line I love), “There’s no way Ben can slow down enough to keep up with us.”

Now Tom and Donna treat themselves to a lot of flashy, expensive purchases, and they give each other permission to indulge. And that doesn’t seem like such a great idea. Secret of Adulthood for Habits: Make sure the things we do to make ourselves feel better don’t make us feel worse.

But as the show unfolds, it becomes clear that “Treat Yo’ Self” day is about having a fun day, two friends spending time together, doing their favorite things. “It’s the best day of the year!” as Donna sings. They share this day. They have little traditions. I bet even Tom and Donna would admit that the day together matters more than the fine leather goods or the massages.

I would love to plan a “Treat Yourself” day with a friend, with lots of healthy treats, all loaded into one terrific day.

And the fact is, when it comes to sticking to our good habits, the Strategy of Treats is a very important tool in the habit-change toolbox. When we give more to ourselves, we can ask more of ourselves. When I’ve gone on a perfume adventure with a friend, I’m better able to get myself to keep going to the gym.

When we feel that we get no treats, when we feel deprived, we start invoking loopholes like “I’ve earned this,” “I deserve this,” and “I need this.” These loopholes often get used to justify breaking our good habits — but when we get healthy treats, we don’t feel justified in our unhealthy habits.

I write about the delightful Strategy of Treats, and hilarious Strategy of Loophole-Spotting, in my new book,  Better Than Before, about how we make and break habits. In it, I reveal the secret of habit-formation — really! Sign up here to be notified when it goes on sale.

Can you imagine planning a “Treat Yourself” day with a friend? And what healthy treats do you have for yourself? We all need as long a list as possible.

“Habit Change Is Easiest When People Move House or Undergo Some Life Transition.”

wendywoodHabits interview: Wendy Wood.

I was very pleased to get the chance to interview Professor and Vice Dean Wendy Wood, because she’s one of the top experts in the field of habits, and has done much of the most interesting research in the area.

For instance, it was her research that showed that about people repeat about 40% of their activities almost daily — and usually in the same place.

I read a lot of her work as I was writing Better Than Before, my book about how we change habits. (To hear when it goes on sale, sign up here.)

I was very curious to hear more about Wendy’s ideas about habits, and how she thinks about them in the context of her own life.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research on the subject of habits. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded?

Wendy: Habits are a simple, basic form of learning. Even rats form habits.  It’s amazing that this simple form of learning underlies so many of our daily activities.

People repeat about 40% of their activities almost daily and usually in the same location (shown in a  study I conducted at Texas A&M Univ–not Duke, as often reported). Given this high level of repetition, people easily form habits for daily activities.

Once habits form, the habitual response comes to mind automatically when you are in the familiar context.  For me, walking into my kitchen first thing in the morning brings to mind making coffee. And I usually just go ahead and make it without asking myself whether I particularly want to drink coffee this morning. It’s just my habit to do so, and I find myself doing before thinking—that’s the hallmark of habit.

What aspects of habits would be most helpful for people to understand?

Habits develop slowly, across many experiences. So they don’t shift easily when people change their goals and preferences. This means that we can actually be of two minds about something.  Your habitual mind might suggest one activity whereas your preferences and goals might suggest another.

The two minds were evident in a study I conducted with people at a movie cinema. We gave some cinema-goers stale, week-old popcorn and others fresh popcorn. And no surprise, people reported really disliking the stale popcorn. But those who had a habit to eat popcorn at the cinema ate the stale popcorn anyway. It was as if, even though they told us they didn’t like it, they were propelled by the cues of being at the cinema to keep eating it. People without popcorn-eating habits didn’t eat the stale popcorn, only the fresh.

Usually, our habits and our preferences are more in line than with the cinema study. But this study is important because it reveals the two minds problem. Habit learning (in that case, a cinema-popcorn habit) doesn’t integrate easily with our current goals and plans (disliking the stale popcorn).

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Ah, there’s the rub. With repetition, action tendencies become stronger.  The more often you drive to work the same way, the stronger your habit to drive that particular route. When habits are really strong, then you are even repeat them when you don’t intend to. On a Saturday, when not thinking about what you are doing, you might find yourself inadvertently taking the route to work when you meant to go to the store.

Feelings, however, become weaker with repetition. So, the more often you eat ice cream, the less pleasure you get from eating it.  Philosophers refer to this as the difference between the “active” and “passive” components of habit. With repetition, our action tendencies get stronger but our feelings habituate and weaken.

The bottom line is that, if you really enjoy something, you don’t want to repeat it in a routine way so that it becomes a habit. You lose the pleasure in the experience. Instead, you want to make habitual the necessities in life….that is, regular exercise, a healthy diet, saving money and paying the bills, and working. The pleasures in life should be savored and not performed in a habitual way…..including time with family, a great glass of wine, and the sunset over the ocean.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

Oh, jeez, we all have bad habits. These are habits that are inconsistent with our goals. Some bad habits were probably learned unintentionally, and others may have even been intended at one point, but no longer fit with our current goals and plans.

Many habits are tough to change. They become really resistant when they get tied up with physiological addictions such as smoking, drinking, and taking drugs. But even habits that are not addictive are tough to change. When you are in the context in which you performed the habit in the past, that behavior automatically comes to mind. You may have decided to change that behavior. Not to do it anymore. But it takes energy to inhibit the habit in mind and to choose to do something new. Often, we don’t have the willpower to make these decisions, and it’s just easier to act habitually.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Yes, I’ve had several points in my life when I was overweight, especially after both of my pregnancies. Me at 200 lbs was not fun. But I was fortunate to be able to lose that baby weight. That experience was partly how I got interested in habits. In the U.S., most of us know what we should do to be healthy—exercise, eat lots of fruit and veg, and avoid sweets and fried foods. But few of us do this. I started to believe that researchers are focusing on the wrong thing when trying to get people healthy (think, the “Strive for 5” health campaign). Psychologists are very good at changing people’s beliefs—or at changing behaviors for a short period of time. Many people can lose weight briefly, but longer-term change is tough. That’s been the focus of much of my research—to figure out why habits are so tough to change and to identify strategies to change them.

One insight has to do with performance contexts. Habits are activated automatically by context cues. So, change the context. We find that habit change is easiest when people move house or undergo some other life transition that changes the contexts in which they live (e.g., start a new job, get married). This is perhaps why people often report that they started a new, healthy behavior when on vacation. Away from familiar cues to bad habits, people are freed to act in new ways. Beware, though, that changing everyday contexts also removes cues to good habits. And in my research, people who were exercising habitually didn’t continue to do so after they moved and the cues to exercise changed.

People also can take charge of some of the context cues in their personal environments. For example, many people keep cookies, candy, and chips on their kitchen counter. Removing these cues to eating can help to stop habitual snacking. In restaurants, even something as simple as moving desserts to the end of a cafeteria line can reduce people’s consumption of sweets. Obesity is really an environmental problem.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

Yes, as described above, out of familiar everyday contexts, people are freed-up to act in new, nonhabitual ways.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I had a speech teacher once who said she tried to do everything in a new way each day. She claimed to walk to school a new way, eat different things for lunch every day—you get the idea. To me, it sounded exhausting. She was clearly resisting habit formation, or at least the habituation of feeling that comes with repeating activities.

To me, habit formation is beneficial. Through habits, I pay my bills and I write for a couple hours every morning. I do those things automatically. They aren’t a struggle and so don’t take too much energy and decision making. Instead, I want to think about the activities that are important to me, especially spending time with my husband and sons.

This idea of doing some things habitually and others in a more thoughtful way follows from the two minds problem I mentioned above. We all have a habitual mind (even my old speech teacher, although she fought it). Might as well make it work for you—it is reliable at doing the same thing as in the past. And some tasks don’t require more than this. Of course, when I say that my writing is habitual, it’s really making time to write that is habitual. The writing itself requires effort and thought. But if you have a habit to write at a certain time every day or to write a certain amount every day, then you don’t have to struggle to make yourself do it.

Are You a “People-Pleaser?” What Do You Feel Obliged To Do?

blue-number-four-mdI posted yesterday about “Do you resist when anyone asks or tell you what to do?”, about some questions I had about the Rebel Tendency, as part of the Four Tendencies framework I’ve created.

The  Four Tendencies are part of what I discuss in Better Than Before, my book on habit change.

A key piece of self-knowledge — which is crucial to habit change — is “What is your ‘Tendency’?”  That is: How do you respond to expectations?

-outer expectations (meet a deadline, perform a “request” from a sweetheart, follow traffic regulations)

-inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep a New Year’s resolution, start flossing)

Your response to expectations may sound slightly obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important.

In a nutshell:

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (I’m an Upholder, 100%)
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense (my husband is a Questioner), so they make everything an inner expectation
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves (they often describe themselves as “people-pleasers”)
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike

 

I gave a talk at LinkedIn about the Four Tendencies, so if you’d like to see me discuss each category in  a video, you can watch: for Upholders, watch here; Questioners, here; Obligers, here, and Rebels, here.

I’m always trying to deepen my understanding of how they play out. So this week, I’m going to pose some questions. Yesterday, I focused on Rebels.

Today’s questions relate to the Obliger Tendency.

Obligers, and Obliger-observers, I’m curious: what do you feel obliged to do? It seems to me that Obligers vary tremendously in their standards. They often describe themselves as “people-pleasers” but some do much more to please than others!

Some Obligers seem to feel obliged to do all sorts of things — perhaps even things that no one is actually expecting from them. “I have to make a homemade dessert for the bake sale.” “I can’t go to sleep with dirty dishes in the sink, because someone might see.” “I have to do the yard work myself.” They may exhaust themselves meeting obligations for others — and feel burned out, and also resentful, because they don’t meet their expectations for themselves.

Other Obligers seem to feel obliged only to do things if they’ll actually get in some kind of trouble if they don’t. “I won’t work on the report until my boss comes looking for it.” “I won’t clean up the kitchen unless someone is coming over.”

Another variety: I have a friend who is an Obliger, and very ethical. She feels obligated to anything that she considers morally necessary. So  she feels obliged to be on time, because that shows respect for others, which is morally worthy, but she feels no obligation to go to the gym. I said, “What about your duty to yourself?” (That’s the Upholder perspective.) She just waved her hand and said, “Meh.”

Note: For Obligers to meet expectations for themselves, they need to create systems of external accountability. This is key! Essential! And makes an enormous difference.

What do you think? Does this ring true? What spectrum of Obliger behavior have you noticed or experienced?

If you want to know when Better Than Before goes on sale — and of course you do — sign up here.