You want to be healthier. You want to build better habits. You have the knowledge of what you “need to do”. Yet you also crave comfort, entertainment, and ease. And that means we might do the very habits we are trying so hard to change.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Many of us want to build better habits and know what the healthier choice is, but struggle with making a change in the moment. And even when choices seem self-sabotaging, they are all made to feel better in the moment. If this sounds like you, you aren’t alone. You are human.
If this pattern around your habits and lifestyle is blocking your progress, you need additional options. How can you endure short-term pain for your long-term gain?
Having many, sometimes conflicting, desires all at the same time is called synchronous ambivalence. Having two conflicting desires creates a frustrating tug-of-war between easier, more familiar habits, and the more challenging, but better for us choices that are more goal-aligned. This can steal our mental energy and prevent us from reaching our goals. Many times, we end up choosing what soothes us short-term over what would be better for us in the longer term.
As humans, we have what is called present bias. This is the tendency to care more about our “now” or present, than our future. The short-term rewards of our current, more comfortable choices often outweigh the longer-term rewards of our goal-aligned, and often more difficult, choices.
For me, this present bias shows up as choosing the comfort of an easy, slow-paced run over the more difficult sprint or hill training. I feel better in the short-term, but longer term, I do not progress toward my goal of running faster. Present bias shows up as staying up late, enjoying my “second wind”, instead of going for a restful and restorative sleep. I feel more productive in the short term, but in the longer term, I do not progress toward some of my work-related goals. I also feel more tired and sluggish the next day, which impacts other parts of my life.
The main challenge of course is that the negative consequences often lag behind the positive, short-term rewards of the in-the-moment choice. This can keep us stuck. So what are our options?
You have options! According to the Process Model of Behaviour Change, a four-stage process is involved in our choices. While these are not the only factors that influences our choices, these are some areas you can explore as you think about strategies to help you build better habits and change your choice.
1. Create an environment that supports your goal
Your environment –where you are, what is around you, who you are with – can make your goals easier or harder. If you have foods (like veggies, fruits, yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, hummus, guacamole, etc) available and ready-to-eat, where you live, work and play, you will find it easier to reach for these foods than if you environment is stocked with crunchy or creamy packaged foods. Create an environment that supports your goal.
2. Pay attention to your choices
Where you place your attention can greatly contribute to your success. Do you put attention on your environment or inward to thoughts and feelings? Doing a mindful check in and completing a mindfulness-based food and lifestyle journal can help you slow down the automatic nature of your choices. Setting an alarm or reminder can help remind you to check in with yourself. Did you eat lunch? Did you add in a planned afternoon re-fuel? Did you hydrate in the afternoon.
3. Create a meaningful connection to your future goals using appraisal strategies.
Appraisal strategies are how you interpret and evaluate what you are paying attention to. You can use appraisal strategies to give your current choice more meaning. This will help you feel more connected to and invested in your goals, which in turn breeds more motivation and purpose to achieving them.
You can make healthful choices more attractive and less healthful choices less attractive through appraisal. Try using these 3 strategies:
1) Accentuate your future well-being. Visualize and imagine yourself as having achieved the goal you are working toward. For example, imagining yourself as healthy and patient if you continued your meditation practice.
2) Think about healthful choices as immediately rewarding. For example – noticing how alert you feel in the morning after you go for a before-work walk. Noticing how your stress has dissipated after you connect with a friend. Noticing how you are able to think about something other than food when you have a predictable meal schedule.
3) Seeing healthful choices as relevant to your identity. For example, I am the type of person who remains calm and focused when life gets stressful. I am the type of person who enjoys connecting with nature. I am the type of person who values health and balance.
This is the action triggered by your appraisal. If you wait until the response stage to decide what you will do, you likely won’t have a lot of success in the short-term.
By thinking through the above stages in relation to your habits and the different choices you are trying to make, you can discover new strategies that help you change your choice and build better habits.
Behaviour change is complex. There are many theories and frameworks that aim to describe behaviour change. Human beings are also complex. If you find yourself stuck in a cycle where what you are doing is not aligned with your goals or your health, consider seeking support and assessment from a credible professional for other factors that may be blocking your progress.
Duckworth, A. L., & Gross, J. J. (2020) Behavior change. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 161, 39–49.
Burke, L.E., Wang, J. & Sevick, M.A. (2011) Self-monitoring in weight loss: A systematic review of the literature. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111(1), 92-102.
Greaves, C.J., Sheppard, K.E., Abraham, C., Hardeman, W., Roden, M., Evans, P.H. & Schwarz, P. (2011) Systematic review of reviews of intervention components associated with increased effectiveness in dietary and physical activity interventions. BMC Public Health, 11(1), 1-12.
Precision Nutrition Academy. How to help clients make better choices. Issue #19, Research Review #3. https://my.precisionnutrition.com/certification#/383320/card/129368366