Get this: The typical person could spend 32 years of their life on a diet. That projection is drawn from a just-released survey of 4,070 British adults, who admitted dieting an average of 6.29 months every year. Now as bad habits go, overeating is certainly one of the most formidable. But spending more than three decades trying to stop makes me wonder if there’s something wrong with our whole approach to changing unsavory behavior. And in fact, researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine may have put their finger on it.
For a 2012 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, they followed 204 adults as they tried to break three bad health habits:
1) eating too much saturated fat;
2) not eating enough fruits and vegetables, and;
3) spending too much sedentary leisure time / not getting enough physical activity.
Beyond the encouraging finding that the vast majority of subjects were able to correct the bad behavior in just three weeks and then maintain it for six months, the researchers noticed one other intriguing thing: Changing some bad habits had a domino-effect on others. For example, when subjects reduced their sedentary leisure time by cutting the hours spent in front of a television or computer, they ate less junk food and saturated fat.
So perhaps the reason those Brits in the survey find overeating such a difficult habit to break is because it’s not the real problem. There’s something else triggering it.
“Many psychologists have argued that a large percentage of human behavior, good and bad, is executed without much deliberation or conscious awareness,” explains Arlen Moller, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology College of Psychology and one of the authors of the Northwestern study. “Stimuli in our environment trigger behaviors, and one behavior can trigger another, etc. As such, changing one automatic behavior or habit has downstream consequences.”
The concept of bad habits being bundled or existing in strings is not just intriguing; it’s encouraging. If we can identify the lead bad-habit dominoes in our lives and attack them, then other unwanted behaviors may topple with little, if any, additional effort. Although lead dominoes can vary from person to person, here are some examples of bad-habit chains that can exist in different areas of life:
Not seeing a doctor regularly → not monitoring cholesterol, blood sugar and other health markers → eating too much of everything → not exercising → snapping at your spouse for nagging about your health…
Spending hours in front of the TV/computer → snacking on junk food → not getting enough exercise → sleeping too much → procrastinating duties → making excuses….
Staying up past an appropriate bedtime → being chronically late for work → being chronically tired at work → drinking too much caffeine → missing deadlines → never being able to get ahead….
Going out with friends after work → drinking too much → smoking too much → flirting → not spending quality time with family/spouse….
Not consulting regularly with a financial planner → not having a budget → overspending → carrying lots of credit-card debt → borrowing money from friends/family → lying….
Get the idea? If you’re suffering from a pesky bad habit, trace it back to its source and confront that. “Consider the things that tend to consistently come before an undesirable behavior,” says Moller, “whether it’s another behavior, a place, or even a person. Then replace the bad habit with a new good or neutral behavior. Start small and repeat again and again. The more frequently you repeat the new behavior the more automatic and effortless it will become.”
Follow this advice and the only thing you’ll be spending a good chunk of life doing is being healthy, happy and bad-habit-free.