This article first appeared on Happify.com
Why is it that we know what’s good for us—but rarely do it? We know healthy food does our body good. We know the importance of exercise. We know the value of strong relationships. And yet, we can spend countless sedentary hours of solitude on endless social media feeds, with a tub of ice cream for company.
Why is it so hard to act on what we know? Because knowledge rarely takes the human paradox into account. We’re a dichotomy of many traits, one of them being our dual propensity to rely on habit and to yearn for choice. The former has deep neural connections, involving regions of the brain that don’t require conscious control. The latter, though, is what makes us human—it’s about our need for autonomy and control of our lives.
In the race for action, habit often outdoes choice. When the habit is self-defeating, we end up in vicious cycles of behavior that keep us stuck and unhappy. But there’s a way out. And it involves these two simple changes:
#1: Change Your Perspective
We make sense of the world through mental frameworks that allow us to create a coherent story with what we believe in and what we do. But as economist Daniel Kahneman points out, these stories are not necessarily based on evidence—a story that tells us that we’re not an “exercise” person or that we’re destined to be heavy, may align with beliefs we grew up with, but have little evidence backing them. When we shift our perspective from our old and dysfunctional stories towards more empowering ones, we can identify the behaviors that’ll help us succeed.
An interesting study in a San Francisco subway station that gave people the option to walk the stairs or take the escalator by a simple sign that read “Stairs or Escalator?” doubled the number of people who chose the stairs. We like to know that we’re in charge of our destiny, and we enjoy seizing the opportunity to do. This means that if we’re trying to eat healthy, we should have nutritious, easy-to-eat options in our fridge, such as cut-up fruit rather than an entire watermelon sitting on the middle rack. This will make it a lot easier for us leave the brownies alone while feeling good that we took charge of our own health and moved closer to our goals.
#2: Change Your Environment
We’re creatures of habit, largely because the human brain is an energy intense and energy efficient machine. It tries to get the most done by expending the least amount of energy, passing down many routine behaviors to the basal ganglia—one of the most primitive regions of the brain that requires little energy for functioning.
Think of routine actions such as driving to work, brushing your teeth or riding a bike, all with little to no cognitive load. Changing a behavior, on the other hand, requires you to pay attention in a very conscious way. This tires the brain and takes an incredible amount of willpower—which we now know is a depleting resource. No wonder it’s easier to continue doing what we’ve always done.
Philosopher Helena Cronin points out an excellent way to work around this propensity. Noticing that human behavior is endlessly variable and diverse, despite the consistency of human nature, she discovered that it’s also sensitive to the environment. If we want to change behavior to one that is more empowering, we need to change our environments accordingly. If we’re trying to increase our fitness levels, we would be far more successful if we left our exercise gear out ahead of time so that when we come home, we don’t waste our already-depleted mental energy arguing with ourselves about why we should (not) be exercising. We know who wins that argument!
At the end of the day, it’s about taking both these inherent traits and allowing them to work together in harmony. Knowing that you have the choice to change your behavior by providing yourself with positive choices, while also creating powerful habits by reengineering your environment, are the most productive ways of expending your cognitive energy. Your brain will thank you for it!