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How to Stick With Good Habits Even When Your Willpower is Gone

How to Stick With Good Habits Even When Your Willpower is Gone

Most people think that building good habits or changing their actions is all about willpower or motivation. But the more I learn, the more I believe that the number one driver of better habits and behavior change is your environment.

Let me drop some science into this article and show you what I mean.

Willpower vs. Environment

Anne Thorndike is a primary care physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Recently, Thorndike and her colleagues completed a six month study that was published in the American Journal of Public Health.

This study secretly took place in the hospital cafeteria and helped thousands of people develop healthier eating habits without changing their willpower or motivation in the slightest way.

Here’s what happened…

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Thorndike and her team proposed that by changing the environment and the way that food was displayed in the cafeteria, they could get people to eat healthier without thinking about it. There were multiple phases of the experiment, but the portion that really interested me focused on what Thorndike refers to as “choice architecture.”

Choice architecture is just a fancy word for “changing the way the food and drinks are displayed.” But, as it turns out, it makes a big difference.

The Impact of Choice Architecture

The researchers started by changing the choice architecture of the drinks in the cafeteria. Originally, there were three main refrigerators, all of which were filled with soda. The researchers made sure that water was added to each of those units and also placed baskets of bottled water throughout the room.

The image below depicts what the room looked like before the changes (Figure A) and after the changes (Figure B). The dark boxes indicate areas where bottled water is available.

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choice-architecture

    What happened?

    Over the next 3 months, the number of soda sales dropped by 11.4 percent. Meanwhile, bottled water sales increased by 25.8 percent. Similar adjustments and results were made with food options. Nobody said a word to the visitors who ate at the cafeteria. The researchers simply changed the environment and people naturally followed suit.

    The usual argument for sticking to better habits is that you need more willpower, motivation and discipline. But studies like this one showcase just how important your environment can be for guiding behavior.

    Environment design becomes even more important when you understand the daily fluctuation of willpower.

    The Willpower Muscle

    Decades of research have discovered that willpower is not something you have or don’t have, but rather it is a resource that can be used up and restored. Like tired muscles at the end of a workout, your willpower can become depleted if you use it too much. Much of this research is explained in excellent books like The Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal and Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney.

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    A classic example can be found by looking at college students. During finals week, students use all of their willpower to study and everything else collapses as a result. People eat whatever they can find, students who haven’t smoked all semester start lighting up outside the library, and many people can’t even muster the strength to change out of their sweatpants. There is only so much willpower to go around.

    We don’t typically think about willpower and motivation as a finite resource that is impacted by all of the things we do throughout the day, but that’s exactly how it works.

    And this is where choice architecture and willpower come together.

    Choice Architecture in Everyday Life

    When your willpower is depleted, you are even more likely to make decisions based on the environment around you. After all, if you’re feeling drained, stressed or overwhelmed then you’re not going to go through a lot of effort to cook a healthy dinner or fit in a workout. You’ll grab whatever is easiest.

    And that means that if you take just a little bit of time today to organize your room, your office, your kitchen, and other areas, then that adjustment in choice architecture can guide you towards better choices even when your willpower is fading.

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    For example, in Richard Thaler’s best-selling book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, he discusses research that reveals that items on the top shelf of supermarkets (near eye level) tend to sell more than items on lower shelves.

    It’s easy to apply this discovery to everyday life: simply place healthier foods in more visible spots in your refrigerator, pantry, and around the kitchen. Meanwhile, you can tuck away cookies, treats, and other unhealthy choices down on the lower shelves. This is one way to use choice architecture to make it more likely that you’ll grab healthy food, even when your willpower is fading.

    To Change Your Behavior, Change Your Environment

    Like the visitors in the hospital cafeteria, choice architecture can help you automatically do the right thing without worrying about willpower or motivation. If you design your environment to make the default choice a better one, then it’s more likely that you’ll make a good choice now and have more willpower leftover for later.

    Environment design works. Talking about tiny changes like moving your healthy foods to a more visible shelf might seem insignificant, but imagine the impact of making dozens of these changes and living in an environment designed to make the good behaviors easier and the bad behaviors harder.

    When you’re surrounded by better choices, it’s a lot easier to make a good one.

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    Last Updated on December 13, 2018

    12 Practical Tips To Stay Fit For Christmas

    12 Practical Tips To Stay Fit For Christmas

    Christmas is approaching fast, and lots of people not only tend to ruin their usual diets, but they also gain a few extra pounds. Based on studies, the majority of people tend to gain additional weight during the holiday season that starts at the Thanksgiving Day and ends with the New Year celebrations. Excessive eating is claimed to be the main cause for the additional weight gain, but it is also due to lack of physical activity and exercise.

    A lot of individuals out there tend to set aside their fitness routines during the holidays since they believe that they do not have enough time to perform their workouts. And because they feel guilty after the holiday season, most of the gyms and fitness centers are packed with fresh members. Always bear in mind that you can still enjoy the holidays and stay fit at the same time. If you want to stay fit during the holiday season, especially during Christmas and the New Year’s Eve, here are some useful tips that might help you:

    1. Eat Before Heading Out

    First, it is best that you eat something before heading out to visits, trips or family dinners. By doing so, you will no longer be tempted to eat a lot or overindulge yourself since you have already eaten. Skipping on meals is not a good idea either, because you will only be forced to eat more later.

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    2. Select The Treats

    Make sure to select the treats that you eat in a wise manner. You should choose something that you can only enjoy during the holiday season and not something that is readily available all the time.

    3. Avoid Skipping Meals

    Don’t skip meals, especially breakfast! Even though it can be tempting to skip on certain meals, believing that it will make up for the treats you consumed in the previous day, don’t do it because it will only lead to counterproductive results.

    4. Drink With Moderation

    It is best to regulate your drinking since alcohol, coke or other juices will only add more calories to the ones you already eaten!

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    5. Be Active

    You should still perform your fitness routine whenever possible and if you can’t do that, simply walk more, park your car some distance away from the store or just use the stairs!

    6. Get Out Of The House

    Make the holidays a family affair and plan outdoor activities where everyone is involved. Even a snowball fight in the backyard will burn a lot of calories and will keep the children entertained.

    7. Don’t Skip Your Strength Workouts

    Always remember to perform your strength training in order to maintain that muscle mass you worked hard to get. You might be tempted to use lightweights and just do some cardio, but you can burn just as many calories by lifting weights. And with all of those extra stakes you had on the holiday meals, you might even gain some extra muscle. And this is much better than gaining some extra fat.

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    8. Set Realistic Goals

    You should set realistic exercise objectives. Aim for at least half an hour per day and you will be very happy when you will achieve that. If you plan one hour or more and not achieve it, you will only end up disappointed.

    9. Enjoy Yourself

    Also make sure to set realistic diet plans! Trying to restrain yourself totally from some foods will only make you eat more. Feel free to enjoy the treats that you really love, but in small portions.

    10. Drink A Lot Of Water

    This can satiate your appetite as well as keep you hydrated at all times. And it will also prevent a possible hangover if you overdo it with alcohol.

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    11. Eat Less And More Often

    Distribute your meals evenly throughout the day, and do not eat everything at once.  Instead of having 2 enormous meals, have 5 small ones.  Eat your dinner earlier and have a nice walk before going to bed.

    12. Prioritize Your Workouts

    Try to do them early in the morning while everyone else is still sleeping. This way you will also avoid remarks like “Oh, come on! It’s Christmas…”

    So there you go! Twelve simple tips that will help you avoid gaining weight during the winter holidays, but will also allow you to enjoy yourself and have a great time with your loved ones.

    Happy Holidays everyone!

    Featured photo credit: rawpixel via unsplash.com

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