Emotional Health

On the Bright Side: NEW HABITS—Small Steps/Big Changes

Letting GoIllustration by C.A. Martin

There has been a lot of focus lately on the idea that behavior is largely habit-driven and that negative actions may be just a collection of smaller bad “habits” strung together. This way of looking at things suggests that if you analyze your actions and break them into the smaller components that compose them, you can change yourself by focusing on each small step.

Take, for example, overeating. This “behavior” is actually governed by a series of smaller actions linked together into a final action. It involves shopping, storing, preparing, presenting, and even chewing your food, and interventions at each and all of these points can help change the behavior. Experts advise that you begin by shopping with a prepared list and stick to it. When storing your groceries, put the healthy food at an easy reach and avoid displaying the less optimal ones (or don’t buy them at all). Studies have shown that people who keep fruit easily accessible, such as apples in a bowl, weigh less.

Other studies have shown that having pre-arranged meal plans helps, and even the presentation of food makes a difference: smaller plates can lead to less consumption. And the more slowly you chew your food, the less you are likely to consume.

Charles Duhigg, in his best-selling book The Power of Habit,  explains how small changes in his life led to big results. For example, he was able to increase his morning gym workouts by putting out his running clothes the night before, and keeping his gym bag right by the door. He cut down on his TV viewing by simply putting the remote control across the room rather than on the table right next to his favorite chair.

Sometimes we have a “cornerstone” bad habit, and when we change that, other behaviors change too. One woman wanted to stop smoking, but was afraid of gaining weight. In advance of her stop date, she began running as a hedge against the possible new pounds. Much to her surprise, once running became an established behavior, it became a pleasurable activity and an end unto itself. When she stopped smoking, she had the added benefit of being able to run better. And running also served its original purpose of keeping her slim.

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