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Build New Habits from the Outside In

By Health & Wellness Editor Kathy Whelan

How many of your good intentions have led to long-term changes in your health? Fewer than you’d like, I expect, because that’s how it is for most of us. We like to believe that good intentions plus adequate willpower will lead to actions that turn into enduring habits. We then blame ourselves for lack of persistence when our New Year’s resolutions collapse after a few months, as they generally do. It should come as a relief that a weak will is not the problem and that success can result from a different approach.

It starts with understanding how our brains actually work. You may be as surprised as I was to learn that fully 43 percent of the time, our actions are habitual, performed without conscious thought, according to research by Wendy Wood, Ph. D. of the University of Southern California. For better or worse, Dr. Wood explains, we are all, to this remarkable extent, creatures of habit. The fact that this much of our behavior takes place automatically, outside our conscious control, explains why good intentions and willpower are so often ineffective.

Both good and bad habits, Dr. Wood discovered, are triggered by cues from the contexts we operate in. Contextual cues prompt us to automatically perform these habits, limiting our ability to use self-control. This explains why moving to a new home or starting a new job – putting ourselves in a new context – leads more easily to new habits. But there is much we can do short of major life changes to alter our contexts for our benefit.

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, refers to this as “environmental design.” You don’t need more motivation, he says, you need a more supportive environment, which will reduce the amount of environmental “friction” with a new behavior. By filling your environment with obvious, positive habit cues, and eliminating cues that trigger unwanted habits, you make it easier to perform actions that will lead in the right direction. “You don’t have to be the victim of your environment,” Clear assures us, “you can also be the architect of it.”

The first step is to slow down and notice what’s triggering you. Is it a road sign for a restaurant that prompts you to eat fast food? A television in your bedroom that keeps you from sleeping? What about the phone on your desk that begs you to check e-mail when you should be working? And whose behavior is triggering yours? Family, friends and colleagues are part of the social environment, which influences your behavior just as your physical environment does.

Decide the habit you want to create, notice the cues that are holding you back, then make the changes that will support you on your way to your new habit. Here are some examples, just a few of many changes you can make to become the “architect” of your environment:

To improve eating habits:

  • Clear your pantry of junk food.
  • Make a grocery list and limit your purchases to items on your list.
  • Change your driving route to avoid fast food temptations.
  • Pre-wash fruit to make it as convenient as other snacks.
  • Divide a loaf of bread into meal-size portions and freeze them.
  • Turn off the TV while eating to stay aware of what you’re eating and when you’ve had enough.

To get more sleep:

  • Stick a note to your laptop to turn it off an hour before bedtime.
  • Use your bed for sleeping, not for scrolling on your phone.
  • If your bedroom has a TV, put the remote in another room.
  • Program your thermostat to lower your bedroom temperature at night.
  • Get a white noise machine.

To increase exercise:

  • Keep exercise equipment in plain view.
  • Plan a time of day for exercise and set an alarm as a reminder.
  • Recruit an exercise partner.

Once you have made the changes that will cue new behaviors, remember some other important principles of habit change:

  • Make it easy: Work on one habit at a time, one small step at a time.
  • Hang out with people who practice the habits you want to create.
  • There is no magic to 30 days or any other arbitrary time for habit formation.
  • Repetition is what matters.
  • Having an accountability partner helps.
  • Track your progress and celebrate (in a healthy way, of course!) each small success. Feeling successful will encourage you to repeat new behaviors.
  • Count on a few lapses and learn from them, but don’t lapse too long.

Good luck and enjoy the journey!

Kathy Whelan left a successful Wall Street legal career when her doctor warned that her lifestyle of overwork and lack of self-care were not sustainable. She had always been interested in the relationship between lifestyle and health, so eventually Kathy returned to her undergraduate alma mater Duke University to become a certified Integrative Health Coach, with additional training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Integrative Health Coaching is based in the neuroscience of behavioral change. Kathy calls it the missing link in addressing individual and national health crises.  It’s the foundation of her unique health and wellness coaching for corporate and individual clients. Kathy’s work has been featured in media including The Boston Globe. Learn more at www.whelanwellness.com

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