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:
- Make the unhelpful behavior less convenient.
- 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.
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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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Student Health 101 surveys, June 2014 and November 2016.