Habit

CNN – Many of us assume that people are more likely to engage in destructive behaviors when they are stressed and overwhelmed. But that’s not necessarily true, say scientists Wendy Wood and David Neal.

“It’s obvious that when you lack willpower, you are more likely to engage in bad habits,” says Neal, “but no one had really looked at what happens to our good habits.”

The answer, they found, is that exactly the same thing happens to good habits that happens to bad ones: You are more likely to revert to them.

Across a series of five experiments, Neal and Wood showed that when people are stressed out and tired, they return to their fundamental routines — whether those are good or bad.

In one study, the researchers found that students undergoing exams increased their performance of both desirable and undesirable habits. That is, those students who regularly ate healthy foods for breakfast were more likely to do so during exam time. And students used to eating an unhealthy breakfast — pastries, pancakes and French toast — were similarly inclined.

The scientists also found that students in the habit of reading an educational section of the newspaper were more likely to continue reading the paper during their exam weeks, as were those students who read entertaining and less educational sections of the paper.

This pattern was especially noteworthy because the increase in “habitual reading emerged despite the greater time demands that students experience during exam weeks,” wrote the researchers.

When you lack willpower, you avoid anything new and fall back on what you already know. In other words, you revert to your default settings. And most of us have more good default habits than bad.

“If you’ve grown up with bad habits or formed them later in life, yes, the phenomenon is that it’s a net negative for you,” observes Neal. “If a majority of your routines are unhealthy, then lacking willpower is really a problem. It becomes a double whammy because you are forced more into those patterns.”

Wood and Neal’s earlier experiments offer a number of simple techniques that may help:

Change the environment. Many of our bad habits are context-cued. By changing our environment, we can remove the cues that may be problematic.

Plan ahead. Since the unconscious mind is extremely cue-driven, we can use the conscious mind to stack the deck in our favor. Keeping healthy snacks in the car or at your desk, for example, may encourage you to grab those when you’re hungry.

Disrupt established patterns. Changing the sequence of actions in a daily habit can change the habit. One of Neal’s older studies showed that this can be as simple as switching the hand with which you eat from the dominant hand to the non-dominant one.

Read more: http://www.cnn.com/2013/06/26/health/bad-good-habits-stress/index.html?hpt=he_c2

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