In an April 2010 article, USA Today Magazine summarized the findings of a recently completed study that tracked 4,886 British adults over 20 years. The lifestyles of the study’s participants were tracked with the perceived “good” and “bad” habits noted for each participant. The four most common bad habits tracked were smoking, drinking too much (more than three drinks a day for men and more than two drinks a day for women), getting less than two hours a week of exercise and eating less than three fruits and vegetables a day.
Out of the study’s 4,886 participants, 314 had all four of the most common bad habits. Of those with all four bad habits, 91 died during the 20 year study, or 29 percent.
On the flip-side, 387 of the study’s participants had none of the four bad habits, or had what constituted good habits. Of those participants with good habits, only 32 died during the study, or 8 percent.
The study basically found that the 314 study participants with all four bad habits had trimmed an average of 12 years off their life when compared to the 387 study participants with good habits.
Everyone has at least a couple of habits they wish to change or improve upon. While all of these habits might not be shortening your lifespan, they most certainly are negatively impacting some other aspects of life.
In the chapter titled “Breaking ‘bad habits’: a dynamical perspective on habit formation and change,” from the book “Human Decision Making and Environmental Perception,” Wander Jager writes “people usually persist in a habit because the direct personal outcomes are satisfying. Reasons to quit a ‘bad habit’ usually relate to the negative consequences of the habit on the long run and/or on the social/physical environment.” Jager then goes on to describe — based on his research — the most effective ways to break bad habits which include:
Make it impossible. Are you a late-night snacker? The kind that has no intention of running to Taco Bell in your pajamas, but rather scavenges the refrigerator and cupboards at 2 a.m. for some unhealthy food to tide you over until the morning? If so, toss the crap in your house and only stock things that are healthy for you. If you do not have any self-control, the least you can do is take control of the situation.
Change the situation. If you always end up abandoning your homework when you are at home and friends or roommates are around, go somewhere else to do it. Heading to the library is a common tactic for many, and creates a situation where you are surrounded by only the stacks, your laptop, your iPod and other bland, studious people like yourself.
Change the direct outcomes. An old example of this is the “swear jar.” Whereas it might be fulfilling for some to curse at something that they do not like, to others, this habit is off-putting. In the instance of a household occupied by multiple parties (such as a family), the direct experienced outcome of the satisfaction of swearing is negated by having to relinquish valued resources — money in a swear jar — to others. This creates a net negative experienced outcome for most. This is also similar to setting rules, and punishment for breaking the rules; the stick, when talking about “carrots and sticks.”
Get informed. Education does wonders for society. Societies with greater access to education for all, statistically, produce fewer offspring, treat both genders more equally and are less prone to conflict. Being informed about the decision(s) you are about to make can help influence your choices. This is especially true when the information is delivered near a decision-making time. An example of this is the new pictures included on cigarette packs of disease-laden bodies. This is the government’s effort to influence decisions at the moment of impact through education.
Communicate the positives of alternative behavior. You have probably seen the “before” and “after” pictures of bodies that a company will use when they are trying to advertise their exercise equipment or routine. Those late night infomercials for P90X and Insanity are trying to communicate the positive outcome — a fitter, more aesthetically pleasing body — of buying and using their product, which is an alternative behavior to your existing, sloth-like habits.
Humans are instinctively drawn to positive outcomes, especially when these outcomes can be achieved in the short term (“get RIPPED in just 30 days!”).
Consider tailoring one or more of the above approaches to a bad habit of your own. While some habits take longer to break than others, by continuing to apply these stimuli changes, you can eventually break free of whatever binds you today, and change your life for the better tomorrow.