Super-you: Fine-tune Your Life by Making Goals Into Habits

In the 10 Dec 2016 issue of the New Scientist there was a series of articles whose titles began super-you.  HM is reviewing a select sample of these pieces.   The title of this post is identical to the title of a piece by Julia Brown.  At the beginning of the article she writes , “your environment controls you, as do habits that you don’t even know you have.  But realize what’s really pulling your strings, and you can work out how to manipulate yourself for the better.

Wendy Wood of the University of Southern California and her colleagues have shown how almost half of the behaviors we adopt in any given situation are habitual.  That is an automated action learned by repetition until we do it without thinking.  In Kahneman’s terms these are System 1 processes that include eating, napping, watching TV, and exercising.

We work this way because we have to.  If every act we perform required us to be deeply involved in thought, our species never would have evolved.

Brown writes that identifying how your unconscious is working provides you with ways to fine-tune your behavior.  If you want to change habits, look at where and how you enact them.  If you want to stop smoking, avoid places where you are likely to light up, or move your cigarettes out of sight.  If you want to start eating more healthily, stop meeting friends for lunch as a burger restaurant.

Val Curtis, who studies behavior change at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine has used these insights to develop ways to encourage hand washing with soap in India and to modify the tendency for mothers in Indonesia to feed their children unhealthy snacks.  She says we can all prime ourselves in similar ways.  So if you think you ought to do some exercise but don’t feel like it, put you running gear on anyway, and wait and see what happens.  You let your running gear control your behavior and it takes you for a run.

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