Ulterior Motives

How goals, both seen and unseen, drive behavior

Behavior Change in the New Year: Change your environment

Give yourself time to prepare for New Year's resolutions.

It is funny how we as a culture prepare for the holidays. In November, Thanksgiving comes, and families gather for a dinner. Immediately afterwards, there is cultural preparation for Christmas, Chanukah, and Kwanzaa. The day after Thanksgiving the stores encourage people to shop for the holidays. People put up decorations on their houses starting the weekend after Thanksgiving. By the beginning of December, Christmas music is all over the radio.

And then the winter holidays come and go, and suddenly New Years Day is ahead. And we give ourselves a week or so to talk about New Year's resolutions-our yearly futile stab at behavior change. It is a broad joke that New Year's resolutions are doomed to failure. They fail, though, because we don't give them the preparation that is required to allow them to succeed. 

Most of the activities in our lives that we need to make resolutions about are things that involve breaking bad habits, starting new habits, or both. For example, people often want to lose weight, exercise more, quit smoking or drinking, spend more time with family, make more friends, or engage in more community service.

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For many of the kinds of behaviors that lead to resolutions, the difficulty with making these resolutions is not finding the problem. A smoker is well aware that she smokes. A drinker is well aware that he drinks. A workaholic knows he is spending too much time at the office. A couch potato knows that she spends too much time watching TV. The real difficulty is in understanding what aspects of someone's life is supporting the behaviors they would like to change.

Wendy Wood and David Neal have a nice paper in the October, 2009 issues of the Journal of Consumer Psychology in which they discuss a number of the factors that help people to maintain habits. They point out that habits are behaviors that are being retrieved from memory. One reason that habit change is so difficult is because the environment is continually causing the behavior to be retrieved.

Consider a habitual smoker. Smokers are implicitly reminded of the need to smoke whenever they are in environments in which they have smoked frequently in the past. For example, many smokers will have a cigarette with a cup of coffee. So coffee triggers the need to smoke. Similarly, particular friends or areas of the house may activate the desire to smoke in memory.

Because habits reside in memory, it is not enough just to make the resolution to change a habit. A resolution alone relies on "willpower" to lead to behavior change. Willpower is basically the effortful behavioral systems that inhibit behaviors that have been called to mind. This kind of willpower is hard to maintain and is easily thrown off track by stress and exhaustion.

To be successful at behavior change you must first think carefully about the aspects of the environment that are causing your current behavior and also the elements of the environment that must be changed to promote the new behavior. Changing your environment requires some time and effort to accomplish. It is not enough to think about your resolutions for a few days before New Year's Eve and then hope that you will be strong enough to carry through on them.

If you start now, though, there is some chance that you might succeed this year.

There are two principles you can use to help change your behavior.

First, many habits are maintained by your environment, because your environment makes it easy to perform that habit. In that case, consider re-arranging the aspects of your home that relate to the behavior you want to change. A simple example is that if you find that you eat too much ice cream, stop keeping ice cream in your freezer. That will make it harder to indulge. As a less obvious example, if you want to watch less television, then move the couch so that it is not so comfortable to see the TV when you are sitting on it.

Second, change the environment in ways that disrupts your habits so that you have to think about your behavior for a while. If you want to change your eating patterns, consider moving all of the dishes and pots and pans around the kitchen. Most of us have routines for preparing food that become habit, because we know where to look for the dishes, pots and pans, and utensils. By changing up everything in your kitchen, you will have to think about cooking and eating for a while. That period of having to think about what you're doing is a perfect opportunity to add some new behaviors to the mix.

Remember, it isn't too early to start thinking about the New Year.

Art Markman, Ph.D., is a cognitive scientist at the University of Texas whose research spans a range of topics in the way people think.

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