Instead, I now believe that the answers lie in adapting our lifestyle to trigger healthy behaviors in the first place.
“Ability” to Choose Healthy Food
When it comes to choosing food, the research validates that our decisions rest primarily on
Finding small, measurable, high-yield, and controllable ways to improve taste, cost and convenience of healthy food will likely go a long way in creating wellness habits.
The extent of how these factors control our choices is still largely situation and person-dependent (and still sabotaged by STRESS).
For instance, if you are a 42-year old making a great income, yet find yourself working 12-hours a day and commuting daily to New York City – quick, convenient foods may be much more important to you than cost alone.
Your focus would be on creating new habits that make eating healthy, convenient even if it cost you extra money.
We intuitively recognize these factors and we offer excuses…
- “I don’t have the time“
- “I don’t have the money“
- “I don’t know where to start“
- “I don’t know who to trust for advice“
But how do we identify these limitations, and more importantly, how do we create new habits that overcome them?
Behavior Change in the 21st Century
Before I outline the six factors that outline your ability to perform a new activity, here’s a quick lesson on where this research began.
BJ Fogg, PhD heads the Persuasion Technology Lab at Stanford University and is considered the “Father of Captology” – a new science of how to trigger specific behaviors in a digital age.
Fogg argues that while most people look to “motivation” as the primary factor, we should really look to “triggering” the habit in the first place.
For example, instead of having to log-in to Facebook, copy-and-paste a web address, and manually share a website address to your Facebook wall, you now simply click “Like” or “Recommend” and the article is shared in a single click…
Facebook turned three steps into just one step to achieve the same behavior.
Which process is easier to repeat: a three-step process or a one-step process?
Behavior change works when you make things SIMPLE.
You can use the same science to find simple ways to trigger and automate healthy behaviors in your life.
Although the specific steps toward health are simple, the results can be profound.
Practical Triggers to Spur Health Behavior
We know it’s important to work out at the gym, but actually getting there in the first place is 80% of the battle.
Triggering yourself to go to the gym in the first place may be what’s keeping you from getting there. Once you’re at the gym, we tend to follow through with a workout.
You might trigger yourself to go to the gym by putting a gym bag at the foot of your bed so you can’t miss it when you wake up.
You might plan to go to the gym with a friend on a specific day and time of the week.
These simple acts may be the difference between going to the gym one day a week or going there three days a week.
Triggers are most effective when placed in the direct context of an action.
If you are advised to take a vitamin upon waking, storing it in the medicine chest in the bathroom next to your toothbrush is a great place to trigger the habit.
If your goal was to floss your teeth daily, it is much easier to add the habit directly after brushing your teeth.
But here’s what happens instead…
Why the Old Approach Fails
Most people try to initiate health behaviors by increasing motivation or depending on will-power alone.
- “I need to go to library and start reading about healthy people…“
- “I’m going to try harder this time...”
- “I swear this time will be different...”
Research has proven that focusing on motivation is the least effective way to increase a behavior, but it’s often the first place we turn.
“Willpower” itself has been shown to be an exhaustible resource. “Wanting” or “Trying” to do something immediately shifts the focus to some “undetermined” future with no consideration of the “six factors” described below.
What I have found personally and professionally, is that you can do really well with a new habit for a short period of time.
When push comes to shove, if we do not start with simple habits, we quickly revert right back to where we started from.
Triggering Changes in Behavior
You cannot will yourself to change, but you can TRIGGER yourself to change..
Instead of focusing on motivation, research out of Stanford suggests that focusing on situational “triggers” is much better use of your time and energy.
BJ Fogg’s go-to advice is to “Put HOT triggers in front of motivated people“.
This means you may already be motivated to become healthier, you just need to find appropriate triggers that spur you to action mindlessly.
Automate extremely basic habits starting with triggers, then expand – that’s the science of behavior change.
But when triggers fail to work, where do you turn next?
1. It might mean choosing a better trigger. A billboard advertisement that advertises a website address is an ineffective trigger for someone listening to the radio while driving their car. Instead, a highly visible address and phone number, or actual picture of the business location would be much “hotter” triggers to spur familiarity and action.
2. We can focus on improving our “ability” to incorporate new habits in the first place: the secret is that your goals must be made with respect to the six ability factors explained below. As these factors shift, your goals must shift!
Again, motivation is still not the primary problem!
How Do I Improve My “Ability” to Create New Habits?
“Ability” can be better described as the SIMPLICITY of creating a new habit.
While limiting factors (such as taste, cost and convenience of food choices) may be shared among a large group, what makes a particular action “simple” is still person and context-dependent.
- A food item that tastes good is simple to eat.
- A food item that costs less is simple to buy.
- The convenience of finding a local farmer’s market makes finding certain foods simple.
BJ Fogg’s research outlines six key contextual factors that determine your “Ability” to create a new habit…
6 Factors that Determine “Ability”
- Physical Effort
- Psychological Effort
- Social Acceptance
The exercise of assessing your strengths and weaknesses in these six areas can be key in creating not just new behaviors for yourself, but the RIGHT behavior…
1.) The Element of Time
One of the most common excuses for not creating a new habit is “I don’t have enough time“.
Using the “5 Why’s” technique, you may realize that eating unhealthy food really comes back to not taking the time to plan healthy meals in the first place.
2.) The Money Factor
As much as purchase habits are dependent on what we value, income level can still put a ceiling as to your ability to make certain choices.
- If you make $40,000 a year, there is a high probabily that you will not be able afford a $750+ per week personal chef or a $250 per week (plus living expenses) au pair.
- On the other hand, if you make $250,000 a year, you may be able to afford a personal chef and, doing so may actually allow you to earn more income with the time saved.
3.) Physical Effort
We may avoid new behaviors because of actual and perceived amount of physical difficulty.
After a long day at work and a stressful commute home, you may not feel physically up for the task of chopping up vegetables and making a nice home-cooked meal.
4.) Psychological Effort
Activities do not always have a physical component, there may be a high amount of “brain cycles” required to complete an activity.
Making sure you have meals planned for the week (and having the right ingredients on hand to make those meals) can be mentally exhausting and stressful to implement.
Hiring a professional who can simplify the process for you is also an option that may save you more money and time in the future.
You can decrease the psychological effort of an activity by writing to-do lists and being very specific as to the next action step required.
5.) Social Acceptance of New Habit
Sometimes we put off new behaviors because we perceive them as being too “different” or “weird”.
Consciously and subconsciously, we may fear judgment from our close friends and family for being such a “health nut”.
Eating a consistent, healthy diet can be seen as “neurotic” and “abnormal” and this can make certain activities stressful.
6.) Routine and Non-Routine Habits
Some habits are easy to implement, but we still fail to maintain them because they may feel non-routine.
For instance, if you’re used to running out the door without eating breakfast…you may need to really simplify breakfast in the short-term to make it a daily habit.
This could mean utilizing a protein bar or meal-replacing protein shake just to get the timing of breakfast down in the first place. It could mean forcing yourself to take just one bite of something before you are allowed to leave whether you feel hungry or not.
Breaking tasks down to their most ridiculously simple steps can mean the difference between maintaining a new habit or not.
This allows you to string together small wins when you “succeed”, while brushing off small disappointments when you “fail”.
Four Action Steps to Improve “Ability” to Create Healthy Behaviors
It is now time to assess your unique ability to create new health behaviors.
1.) Identify an activity that you are looking to change by identifying a small, measurable, high-yield and controllable action step that will help create a new habit in your life without increasing stress.
2.) Similar to a “pros” and “cons” list, divide a piece of notebook paper into two halves.
3.) Now, using the 6 Ability Factors as a guide (time, cost, physical effort, psychological effort, social acceptance and routine/non-routine), list your “Ability Strengths” on the left side of the paper, and “Ability Weaknesses” on the other side.
4.) Analyzing this list should further help you decide how to trigger just one small action step that you will commit to TODAY.
If you cannot trigger the action step today, your action step is not small enough!
That’s it, another tool to add to your behavior change arsenal.
If you are still experiencing concern over reaching your health goals, I can help guide your process and organize a health strategy specific to you and your health problems.
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- How Meditation Restores Willpower and Self-Control
- The Power of Habit Stacking
- Six Factors that Determine Why We Have Difficulty Creating Healthy Habits