green wellness concept doodles | How to break bad habits

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Want to break a bad habit that’s not working for you? Want to substitute a new habit that will help you be happier, healthier, or more productive? Here’s how:

  1. Make the unhelpful behavior less convenient.
  2. Make the goal behavior more convenient.

Yes, it may be that simple. Behavioral research shows that we are way more likely to do what’s convenient and way less likely to do what’s inconvenient. Making an action even a little more or less convenient has a significant effect on our behavior.

Putting it into practice

Although you may be internally motivated to form new habits (e.g., “I want to be more environmentally responsible”), for some people, these abstract values are not enough to effect any real change. However, making it more convenient, economical, or efficient to follow through with your goal can help reinforce positive behaviors. For example, college students who were given free bus passes (which made it a more economical and convenient choice) became much more likely to ride the bus, according to a study published in Basic and Applied Social Psychology.

So how do you put this behavior change into practice? It comes down to:

a) Determining the habit you want to make or break
b) Identifying any obstacles in your way
c) Figuring out how to make that action more or less convenient

While it’s unlikely you’ll suddenly be handed a free bus pass, you can make going green easier for yourself by making small, affordable changes. For example, you could purchase a reusable straw, water bottle, and tote bag to carry around with you, making it less likely you’ll consume as many single-use plastics.

Let’s take a look at some other examples of this process so you can work on incorporating behavior change into your own life.

1. #GymGoals Behavior change: Get to a workout class once a week. What’s stopping you? At the end of the day, you can’t motivate yourself to get changed and go back out, even though it’s only four blocks away. Make it more convenient: Wear workout clothes (i.e., “athleisure”) all day and go to the fitness class on your way back from your lecture.2. #SnackLife Behavior change: Quit visiting the vending machine. What’s stopping you? You have to walk past it every morning. Make it more convenient: Don’t carry small bills or quarters.3. #Hashtag Behavior change Spend less time on social media. What’s stopping you? It’s always right there, tantalizing you. Make it more convenient: Keep just one social media app on your phone; log out after every session.

Breaking old patterns is never easy, but the key is to make small changes each day. Pretty soon, these new behaviors will become habit, and it will be much simpler to stay on that positive trajectory and achieve your goals.

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Article sources

Timothy Edgar, PhD, professor, Department of Public Health and Community Medicine, Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston, Massachusetts.

Khinlei Myint-U, MBA, product director for patient engagement, Iora Health, Boston, Massachusetts.

Ashraf, N., Karlan, D., & Yin, W. (2006). Tying Odysseus to the mast: Evidence from a commitment savings product in the Philippines. Quarterly Journal of Economics, 121(2), 635–672.

Ayres, I. (2010). Carrots and sticks: Unlock the power of incentives to get things done. New York City, New York: Bantam.

Bamberg, S., Ajzen, I., & Schmidt, P. (2003). Choice of travel mode in the theory of planned behavior: The role of past behavior, habit, and reasoned action. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 25(3), 175–87. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1207/S15324834BASP2503_01

Crombie, A., Ilich, J. Z., Dulton, G. R., Panton, L. B., et al. (2009). The freshman weight gain phenomenon revisited. Nutritional Review, 67(2), 83–94.

Dzewaltowski, D. A., Estabrooks, P. A., & Glasgow, R. E. (2004). The future of physical activity behavior change research: What is needed to improve translation of research into health promotion practice? Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, 32(2), 57–63.

EdX. (2014). Unlocking the immunity to change: A new approach to personal improvement. Retrieved from https://www.edx.org/course/harvardx/harvardx-gse1x-unlocking-immunity-change-940#.Uz4iXFctaaU

Kang, J., Ciecierski, C. G., Malin, E. L., Carroll, A. J., et al. (2014). A latent class analysis of cancer risk behaviors among US college students. Preventive Medicine, 64, 121–125.

Proactive Sleep. (n.d.). Publications. Retrieved from http://www.proactivesleep.com/PressReleases.php

Radogna, M. (2014). Stop hitting snooze: How to make the most of your morning. Student Health 101, 9(6). Retrieved from http://readsh101.com/l/library.html?id=23edd36d

Student Health 101 surveys, June 2014 and November 2016.

Julie Howd is a writer and educator from Massachusetts. She holds an MFA from the University of Texas at Austin, and is the author of the poetry chapbook, Talking from the Knees Up (dancing girl press, 2018). Her work can be found in The I Scream Social Anthology (Host Publications, 2018), The Spectacle, Sixth Finch, and elsewhere. She is the editor of CampusWell.

The CampusWell and Student Health 101 editorial team collaborated in the writing of this piece.