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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 November 11, 2019

    How to Improve Memory and Boost Your Brainpower

    How to Improve Memory and Boost Your Brainpower

    Have you ever noticed that some people are able to effortlessly remember even the most mundane details and quickly comprehend new things? Well, you can too!

    To unlock the full potential of your brain, you need to keep it active and acute. Wasting time on your couch watching mindless television shows or scrolling through facebook is not going to help.

    Besides getting out flashcards, what can you do to help remember things better and learn new things more quickly? Check out these 10 effective ways on how to improve memory:

    1. Exercise and Get Your Body Moving

    Exercising doesn’t just exercise the body, it also helps to exercise your brain. Obesity and the myriad of diseases that eventually set in as a result of being overweight can cause serious harm to the brain.

    Furthermore, without regular exercise, plaque starts to build up in your arteries, and your blood vessels begin to lose the ability to effectively pump blood. Plaque buildup leads to heart attacks and it also reduces the amount of oxygen and nutrients that your blood carries to your brain. When the nutrients don’t make it there, the brain’s ability to function is compromised.

    To prevent this from happening, make sure you get moving every day. Even if it’s just a brisk walk, it’ll help you maintain and increase your mental acuity. Brisk walking, swimming and dancing are all excellent activities. Take a look at these 5 Ways to Find Time for Exercise.

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    2. Eliminate Stressors and Seek Help If You’re Depressed

    Anything that causes you major stress, like anger or anxiety, will in time begin to eat away the parts of your brain that are responsible for memory. Amongst the most brain-damaging stressors is depression, which is actually often misdiagnosed a a memory problem since one of its primary symptoms is the inability to concentrate.

    If you can’t concentrate, then you might feel like you are constantly forgetting things. Depression increases the levels of cortisol in your bloodstream which elevates the cortisol levels in the brain. Doctors have found that increased cortisol diminishes certain areas of the brain, especially the hippocampus which is where short-term memories are stored.

    Prolonged depression can thus destroy your brain’s ability to remember anything new. Seek professional help to combat your depression – your brain will thank you.

    3. Get a Good Night’s Sleep and Take Naps

    Getting a consistent 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night will increase your memory. During sleep, the brain firms up memories of recently acquired information.

    Getting enough sleep will help you get through the full spectrum of nocturnal cycles that are essential to optimal brain and body functioning during the waking hours. Taking a nap throughout the day, especially after learning something new, can also help you to retain those memories as well as recharge your brain and keep it sharper longer.

    4. Feed Your Brain

    Fifty to sixty percent of the brain’s overall weight is pure fat, which is used to insulate its billions of nerve cells. The better insulated a cell is, the faster it can send messages and the quicker you will be thinking.

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    This is precisely why parents are advised to feed their young children whole milk and to restrict dieting – their brains’ need fat to grow and work properly. Skimping on fats can be devastating even to the adult brain.

    Thus, eating foods that contain a healthy mix of fats is vital for long-term memory. Some excellent food choices include fish (especially anchovies, mackerel and wild salmon) and dark leafy green vegetables. Here’re more brain food choices: 12 Foods that Can Improve Your Brain Power

    Deep-fried foods obviously contain fat but their lack of nutritional value is not going to help your brain or your body, so think healthy foods and fats.

    5. Eat Breakfast and Make Sure It Includes an Egg

    According to Larry McCleary, M.D., author of  The Brain Trust Program, an egg is the ideal breakfast. Eggs contain B vitamins which help nerve cells to burn glucose, antioxidants that protect neurons against damage; and omega-3 fatty acids that keep nerve cells firing at optimal speed.

    Other foods to add to your breakfast include fruits, veggies and lean proteins. Avoid trans fats and high fructose corn syrup. Trans fats diminish the brain cells’ ability to communicate with each other and HFCS can actually shrink the brain by damaging cells.

    Having a healthy breakfast in the morning has been shown to improve performance throughout the day. If you’re too busy to have a healthy breakfast, this maybe just right for you: 33 Quick And Healthy Breakfasts For Busy Mornings

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    6. Write it Down

    If there’s something you want to remember, writing it down can help.

    It may sound like a no-brainer, but do you really know why? Writing it down creates oxygenated blood flow to areas of your brain that a responsible for your memories and literally exercises those parts of it. Here’s How Writing Things Down Can Change Your Life.

    You can start a journal, write yourself emails or even start keeping a blog – all of these activities will help to improve your capacity to remember and memorize information.

    7. Listen to Music

    Research shows that certain types of music are very helpful in recalling memories. Information that is learned while listening to a particular song or collection can often be recalled by thinking of the song or “playing” it mentally. Songs and music can serve as cues for pulling up particular memories.

    8. Visual Concepts

    In order to remember things, many people need to visualize the information they are studying.

    Pay attention to photographers, charts and other graphics that might appear in your textbook; or if you’re not studying a book, try to pull up a mental image of what it is you are trying to remember. It might also help to draw your own charts or figures, or utilize colors and highlighters to group related ideas in your notes.

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    Here, you can learn How to Become a Person Who Can Visualize Results.

    9. Teach Someone Else

    Reading material out loud has been shown to significantly improve memory of the material. Expanding further upon this idea is the fact that psychologists and educators have found that by having students teach new concepts to others, it helps to enhance understanding and recall.

    Teach new concepts and information to a friend or study partner, and you’ll find you remember the information a lot better.

    10. Do Crossword Puzzles, Read or Play Cards

    Studies have shown that doing crossword puzzles, read or play cards on a daily basis not only keep your brain active but also help to delay memory loss, especially in those who develop dementia.

    So pick up the daily newspaper and work on that crossword puzzle, read a book or enjoy a game of solitaire.

    Pick one to two of these tips first and start applying them to your everyday life. Very soon you’ll find yourself having better memories and a clearer head!

    More About Boosting Memory

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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