When I was in graduate school, I hung a dartboard in my apartment. When I needed a break from statistics or reading journal articles, I would throw darts for a while, and then return to studying. At first, I sprayed the darts all over the place, and left more than a few holes in the wall. Eventually, though, my skills got better. I could hit the triple 20 reliably.
This kind of story for skill learning is common. In darts, my initial motions were uncoordinated. Feedback about the success of my practice throws allowed my movements to improve until eventually I had good dart-throwing habits, and could throw darts without having to think too carefully about it.
Timely feedback is a crucial part of developing habits and skills. And that is one reason why good habits are hard to develop for satisfying many of our long-term goals, from maintaining a healthy weight to stopping global warming.
Ideally, our habits support our long-term goals. And for many aspects of our lives, they do. For example, back in the 8th grade, I learned to type, and I have been able to use that skill to allow me to perform all sorts of activities that I enjoy (like writing entries for this blog).
For things like preventing global warming, though, we do not get timely feedback about our actions. When I drive to work in the morning, the state of the environment is not appreciably different if I drive a hybrid car or a gas-guzzling sports car. I get no feedback about the influence of my action on the environment. So, the environment itself cannot help me to develop habits to engage in "green" behaviors.
Likewise, gaining and losing weight takes time. It might take months or years to gain 10 pounds, and months of concerted effort to lose that weight as well. No single dish of ice cream caused the weight to be gained, and no particular mile run takes that weight off. So, weight gain and loss does not provide feedback that can support habits and skills.
Why is this a problem?
It just isn't possible to maintain healthy behaviors unless they become habitual. Habits are actions that are performed automatically. That is, they are behaviors that can be triggered by the environment and that require little mental effort to perform. If I had to think about which keys on my computer corresponded to each letter, then I would never be able to follow a train of thought. For environmentally friendly actions, the world does not give feedback to help me to create "green" habits, and so I would have to think about the environmental impact of all of my actions in order to act in a more responsible way. This kind of effort is hard to sustain, and most of us do not do it very often.
So what can be done?
As a society, we must think about ways to create more direct feedback for our actions. For example, the government sometimes creates more immediate feedback through "sin taxes." A significant portion of the price of a pack of cigarettes consists of taxes. By driving up the price of a pack of cigarettes, smokers are getting relatively immediate feedback that there is a cost to their actions.
I am not recommending that the government get involved in our lives by legislating the feedback we need to develop healthier habits. But there is no reason why each of us as individuals cannot create our own individual sin taxes. If you want to lose weight, then create a financial scale for eating foods. Broccoli is free. A piece of cake costs $1. A pint of Ben & Jerry's costs $10. Take that money and donate it to the local food bank. Pay that money immediately upon eating, so that it serves as real feedback connected to your actions. In this way, you are helping to set up your environment to support healthier habits. And once these behaviors become habits, you will not have to think about whether you actions support your long-term goals.