Since I started getting serious about fitness, there have been two kinds of health habits I’ve been trying to change and improve, and they’re the same two that we hear all the time when people talk about weight loss: eating and exercise. I can tell you from experience that eating well and exercising regularly work, if they’re done the right way. What I haven’t understood until now is why picking up the exercise habit was so much easier than changing my eating habits.
In both cases, I’m trying to strengthen good habits (getting regular exercises, choosing healthy foods to eat), but only in the case of eating am I also trying to quash bad habits (eating the wrong foods or too much of the right foods).
When I started exercising, I got into good habits within a few months, habits that have improved slowly over time ever since. Eating, however, has been another story. In terms of good eating habits, I’ve been building those much like my exercise habits. Some of the lunches I’ve been eating are so filling yet light and nutritious, they’d make you weep. Well, maybe not you, but certainly someone with a sentimental streak for healthy lunches.
My bad eating habits, though, haven’t been going away at the same rate as my good eating habits have been coming in. Sure, they’ve been diminishing over time, but if the good habits had had anything to say about it, the bad habits would have been beaten to an unrecognizable pulp years ago. So what’s going on here?
Research to the rescue: A study by psychologists Bas Verplanken and Suzanne Faes gives evidence that forming a good habit to reach a goal doesn’t necessarily do anything to get rid of bad habits that might get in the way of that same goal. Verplanken and Faes make sense of this with the idea of “implementation intentions”–plans to do something specific in a specific kind of situation. This research seems to show that implementation intentions (like “prepare a healthy lunch in the morning and bring it in to work instead of buying something”) are much more useful for forming habits than general goals (like “eat a healthy lunch”). When you think about it, this makes sense: building habits is about doing something over and over again. If a person hasn’t decided exactly what to do exactly when, there’s a lot more in the way of the behavior that person is trying to repeat.
Implementation intentions, though, only cover specific circumstances and specific behaviors. So my nifty ideas for lunch can certainly help me choose a healthy lunch over an unhealthy lunch–but those same ideas will have little or no effect on whether I decide to buy some kind of high-calorie food to munch on an hour later.
The upshot seems to be that good habits can help destroy bad habits only if there’s no way for both habits to happen together. Bad habits can be overcome, and there are many tools on this site that offer ways to overcome them, but to make the best progress on that front, it becomes important for us to separate out the specific habits we’re trying to change or acquire, good and bad, so that we know which bad habits need to be tackled directly and which we can depend on good habits to crush.
Photo by Helico