The Art of Changing Habits
What foods you eat for lunch just today, or the total number of steps you take, will probably have little effect on your long-term health. But if what you do is repeated day after day, year after year – then the effects will be considerable.
For instance, it has been calculated that as little as a 100 kilocalories (kcal) less per day would be enough of eliminate most cases of obesity.1 Getting rid of those excess calories can be done by taking more exercise – walking briskly for quarter of an hour uses up about 100 kcal – or by eating a little less. Actually, 100 kcal represents less than 5% of an adult’s typical daily intake of about 2000-2500 kcal. It is the calorie content of, for example, a matchbox-sized piece of cheddar or 4 heaped teaspoons of sugar. Or three mouthfuls of a hamburger. Or a slice of sponge cake, a small ice-cream or a glass of orange juice.2
So, you might well think that to end the global obesity epidemic should be straightforward. People wouldn’t have to give up very much, surely? If only! But our all-powerful habits get in the way.
Studies have demonstrated that the more engrained the habit the harder it is for the individual to take on board any information that argues against it.3
Studies have demonstrated that the more engrained the habit the harder it is for the individual to take on board any information that argues against it.4 People show a tendency called confirmation bias (’myside’ bias), which means that we strongly prefer information that is in line with our pre-existing beliefs and lifestyle. When our ideas are challenged by new information we tend to avoid it.5
The internet, perhaps in particular social media sites, often strengthen our tendency to look for confirmation of what we think and like doing; we exist inside what has been called ‘filter bubbles’.5 The consequence is that there are many instances of public information campaigns that have only limited effects on the target habits.
Is it possible to change one’s habits?
Modern society works in many ways towards increasing our comfort and satisfaction. But, there are downsides: one is the multiplicity of messages that signal to us, indirectly, to eat more and move less. This in turn causes problems that will take extensive social change to sort out. While we wait, there is quite a lot we can do for ourselves.
Change your habit by changing the signals
Changing fundamental aspects of your life, such as starting a new job, moving house or retiring, offer excellent opportunities for changing your habits.4
But it is perfectly possible to stay put and still break with old habits by changing the signals that trigger them. It could be something as simple as putting the big plates on a top shelf in the cupboard and use smaller ones for everyday meals, or removing the bowl of sweets from in front of the TV set – you might even stop buying sweets altogether – or covering up the left-over pancakes in the fridge and placing the vegetables at eye level instead.
What do your immediate surroundings look like? Which signals could could you change or remove? You will probably need to check your day-to-day life thoroughly to map all the signals, but it will almost certainly pay off.
Allow new habits to replace old ones
Apart from trying to change the signals, you could try to create new habits to replace old ones. Then you can use what has been called ’implementation intentions’, a phrase describing the idea that we can consciously decide how to behave in any given situation. Examples could include: “When I get to the shop then I will use my bike”; “When I watch a film on TV then I’ll do a short exercise program” and “When I take a cup of coffee then I’ll only eat wholemeal bread sandwiches”. Implementation intention have proved to be very effective because they link a specific signal to a new action.6
Lack of time, stress and uneasy well-being make us often chose familiar, simple routes to decision making and fall back on old habits. That is why we have set aside so much space on this site to themes concerned with managing stress, and prioritising and balancing life demands. It is also valuable to think through why you would want to change a habit and to remind yourself every time you carry out the new activity why it is so important.
Changing your habits is a major challenge which will take quite some time. What do you think is important and reasonable to start changing?
Hill, J.O. and H.R. Wyatt (2003), “Obesity and the Environment: Where Do We Go from Here?” Science, 299 (5608), 853–55.
Nordic nutrition recommendations
Lally P et al., How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. Eur. J. Soc. Psychol. 40, 998–1009 (2010)
Verplanken B. Interventions to Break and Create Consumer Habits. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 25(1), 90–103 (2006)
Pariser, Eli. The Filter Bubble - what the internet his hiding from you (2011)
Gollwitzer P. American Psychologist. Vol. 54. No. 7, 493-503, 1999