Most of our health outcomes rely on our behavior, meaning the actions we take and those we fail to perform.
What you do every day in terms of wellness determines your health status over-time, however changing your unhealthy behavior and habits is most of the times not an easy thing to do. Although we know what we should do and even how to go about it, we fail to take appropriate action towards overcoming our challenges.
Luckily, since now we know from psychological studies that information alone does not change behavior, some evidence-based strategies that are described in this article on How Psychological Science Can Create and Maintain Healthy Habits, can help us start our behavioral change process in order to improve our health.
The strategies presented here can help you:
- focus on beliefs that motivate healthy action (you are what you believe, one saying goes, right?);
- develop intentions that have a higher probability to lead to an healthy action;
- disrupt the influence of prior unhealthy habits;
- develop routines that lead to new healthy habits.
1. How to motivate action
Want to encourage your friend to stop smoking? Apparently showing him/her messages of the consequences of their unhealthy behavior will not motivate them to change their behavior (yes, I’m talking about those smoking packages with the horrifying pictures – it has been proven that they do not work, actually they cause more stress, which leads to more smoking). Also psychological science indicates that we are reluctant to evaluate our own risk and we are also overconfident in the fact that nothing bad will happen to us.
One strategy that has proven to work in this case, is thinking about the consequences for others, meaning thinking about other people can motivate action.
For example, research to increase hand washing in hospitals has indicated that standard messages like “Hand hygiene prevents you from catching diseases do not increase the probability of hand washing, while shifting the focus to others, here the patients not the person increased rates of hand washing. The consequences for others approach works because people can convince themselves of their own invulnerability, but they are not so good at judging others’ risk.
This type of approach can be effective in cases where messages about personal health consequences might be perceived as defensive (and we all know we don’t like to be told what to do). If people don’t acknowledge the consequences of unhealthy behaviors for their own health, they are more motivated to act if we reframe the consequences to show how their behavior has indirect consequences on others, like their loved ones.
2. How to translate intention into action
When you decide to improve your health, you have a 50% change to actually act on your decision. This gap between intention and action (that I also wrote about it here) happens due to different reasons, like forgetfulness, distractions, fatigue, or simply not knowing how to get started.
An evidence-based strategy that can help you get started and stay on track in following a health goal is to form if-then plans.
The if-then plans provides you with a structure (the when, where and how) in which you:
(a) identify key opportunities for, or obstacles to, taking action,
(b) specify a way to respond to each opportunity and obstacle, and then
(c) create a link between the opportunity or obstacle and the response:
“If (opportunity/obstacle) arises, then I will (respond in this way)!”
Responding to critical situations in this way can help you seize opportunities that you might miss and manage future obstacles that may arise. For example, patients who wrote down a plan like “If it is [time] and I am in [place], then I take my pill dose!” took their meds on schedule compared to patients who did not create a written plan. So if you find it hard to translate your intention into action, because you are too tired or busy even, try an if-then plan.
3. How to disrupt existing habits
Because forming a new habit (first conscious behavioral intention, then habit, meaning the automated unconscious choice), and disrupting an old habit are based on different brain systems, it is hard to make the switch. Old habits linger and reappear, challenging the new intended behavior, especially when we try to change in familiar contexts or have old routines.
There are 2 evidence-based strategies that give us the opportunity to easily engage in new behaviors.
One approach looks at changing the familiar context in your life. Taking advantage of context changes, like moving to a new town, having a child, can reduce your expose to cues that trigger old habits. Of course, you can create these changes intentionally, by modifying your work or life environment and by also creating personalized if-then plans to counter unwanted habitual responses.
A second approach is to introduce behavioral friction into people’s existing environments, making it harder to follow an unhealthy habit. For instance, banning smoking in bars helped brake the association some people have between smoking and drinking, while introducing a behavioral friction by having to leave the bar to smoke outside. The idea is to make the old habit harder to do (involving taking a deliberate and effortful decision), while weakening the automated, reflexive response.
4. How to develop routines that create new habits
The benefits of exercise can only be seen and felt only if you maintain that behavior over time, and that is something a lot of us struggle with - maintaining a health behavior that with practice can turn into a habit.
To meet your health goals, you could employ some strategies that help you develop new habits, like restructuring your environment with visible cues that promote healthy choices (example - accessible fresh fruits) or removing cues that trigger unhealthy ones (example - TV in bedroom).
One strategy to transform new behaviors into habits is to repeat the desired behavior in a stable context. For instance, if you repeat the behavior of going on walks after dinner, over time it will become sufficiently automated to be acted on without thinking (and yes it might take longer then you think, number of repetitions vary in oder to form a stable habit).
Another way to create new habits, is to link the new desired behavior onto an existing habit. The most common example here is flossing right after brushing your teeth, so you can easily make the connection.
Give it a go. What strategies could you use in your life?
I definitely understand now why moving to a new town (and country!) broke my morning routine and I struggled making it the same as before.
I hope you can use these strategies in your life to improve your health or at least gain some awareness of how to change your behavior.