21 November 2019
Will Power vs Changing Environmental Triggers: Practical advice for cutting bad habits & making long term change
Most of us have one or two bad health habits that we are trying to change, myself included. It might be something like reducing our junk food intake on Friday and Saturday nights. Or it could just be something small, like cutting back on our caffeine later in the day, reducing alcohol intake on weeknights,…
Most of us have one or two bad health habits that we are trying to change, myself included.
It might be something like reducing our junk food intake on Friday and Saturday nights. Or it could just be something small, like cutting back on our caffeine later in the day, reducing alcohol intake on weeknights, or simply watching less Netflix late at night.
For me, it is cutting out caffeine in the latter portion of the day to facilitate a better night’s sleep. I love an almond milk coffee as much as the next person, but I know that caffeine intake after 1-2pm can be detrimental to my sleep.
Often when we try to stick to this new behaviour change, we are motivated at the start. We tell ourselves we are going to start on Monday and we decide we are going to stick it out. But soon enough, motivation drops and we find ourselves slipping back into our old habits.
There may be a typical cycle to behaviour change that looks like the following:
We have likely all experienced this cycle many times in our life when we are trying to cut back on something that we know is bad for our health.
This cycle may repeat a number of times as we continuously fail at sticking to new behaviours or eliminating old ones.
The common issue here, however, is that we often think that behaviour change comes from exerting will power. We tell ourselves we just need to force ourselves to implement the desired behaviour over a long amount of time, and if we will ourselves to do it over and over, we will eventually stick to it. When we don’t stick to it however, e.g. we end up getting that late-night junk food or ordering that 2pm coffee, we feel guilty and think we don’t have enough willpower.
Here’s the good news.
We may be more successful in sticking to the change if we actually change our environment rather than trying to exert more willpower.
Allow me to explain.
Exposure to a certain environmental trigger will cause our brain to think of the paired behaviour.
For example, if you often eat junk food while watching television on a Friday night, your brain likely associates these two behaviours. So, even if you have already eaten dinner, if you sit in front of the TV on a Friday night, it is likely that your brain automatically now thinks of junk food. This is where our will power attempt usually kicks in.
Instead of willpower, if you were to actually do a different activity on a Friday night (e.g. an outdoor walk instead of sitting in front of the TV) your brain hasn’t paired junk food with outdoor walking and therefore you will not suddenly have to exert willpower.
The same rule can be applied to any bad health behaviours.
Just like TV may be associated with excess food and alcohol intake, any kind of environmental trigger may be associated with a paired health behaviour. For smokers, having a cigarette may be associated with the drive home from work or having a glass of wine.
Maybe the drive home from work on the route that goes past McDonalds sets you off.
Rather than willing yourself to resist the Friday night Big Mac, take a different route home and actually don’t drive past it. You will be in a new environment and won’t have to exert as much, or any willpower trying to avoid the undesired behaviour.
For me, studying at the library, whether it is 9am or 3pm, is associated with getting a coffee. It isn’t because being at the library suddenly makes me tired. It is that the library is an environmental trigger causing my brain to look for coffee.
Rather than trying to exert willpower (which I have admittedly tried and failed) I would be better off actually studying in a completely new environment which my brain hasn’t paired with coffee.
A slightly different, but important and related point is the following: Trying to stick to the new behaviour can be hard initially, but once we have changed our environment, we should also continue to positively reinforce our reasons for making this change.
For example, let’s say you go for an outdoor walk instead of watching television. Instead of telling yourself:
‘I can’t be bothered going for a walk, but I need to otherwise I’ll watch TV and eat junk food and I won’t lose weight’
‘It enjoy the fresh air and moving my body after a big day at work, and this is an easy way to get me closer to where I want to be with my health.’
The take away message here is simple. Our brain has limited capacity to exert willpower. Often our behaviour is the product of an environmental trigger. If you replace the environment rather than trying to exert willpower, you will likely be more successful at eliminating bad habits.
Another consideration though, is that our current state alters how susceptible we are to revert back to the previous behaviour.
When looking at behaviour change, before you even decide how you going to make the desired change, ask yourself “why am I not doing the desired behaviour already?”
If there is some kind of limitation, then no matter how much we try to squeeze a new behaviour in or squeeze an old one out, if the “unhealthy” behaviour is serving a purpose that needs to be addressed, it will continue to reappear.
So for example, the trip past McDonald’s on the way home is the environmental cue to get McDonalds, but cues are more or less effective based on the state we are in at the time. If we are very hungry or are stressed and/or unhappy when we leave work, we are likely to stop for food regardless of which route they take home.
The state of an individual and the confounding impact of stress on behaviour change will be explored further in part two.