Habits Big & Small: Flossing Investigated

This post is a summary of some research on flossing.  Before you yawn and go to sleep – think – what can be learnt from flossing about other habits and hence building a better work/home life?

At the start of the article the authors discuss the importance of automaticity i.e., once we have reached auto-pilot with habits – our conscious mind is no longer engaged, a cue leads to an action.  We are also reminded of the link between intention and behaviours weakens as habits increase in their automaticity.  This is another way of saying our conscious mind turns off after a habit is ’embedded’.  This is a great thing for good habits, but a nightmare for bad ones.

Memory matters

Something new in this article (for me at least) is the importance of memory.  I, for one,  never forget when I am trying to eat better, drink less and other painful things.  However I do forget to take my iron supplements.  It is a specific type of memory that is important here called ‘prospective memories’.  Which is kinda like it sounds – remember to do something in the future, like take your iron pills tomorrow or stop after one glass.

Placement matters too

Tip: Imbed new habits inside existing routines, which will help ensure that memory is triggered, e.g. when I put down my tooth brush I remember to floss.
Next in the article things get pretty technical, but the gist of it is that it matters exactly where and how we embed a new habit into a routine to up the chance of success.  To test their ideas the researchers paid 50 people thirty pounds to floss daily.
So who were the winners? What sorts of people trying what sorts of things made flossing a habit?
Well those that had good attitudes to flossing did better, supporting the idea we are not total helpless victims to our habits (thank the good Lord).
Now here is the interesting bit … those that flossed after brushing did better at forming the habit than those that flossed before.   Is flossing after better? No and yes.  It is only better because it has a better, more appropriate cue – finished brushing – ah floss – good girl.
When the cue is at the same ‘level’ of detail as the habit, things work better.  If the cue was ‘get ready for bed’ and you put your flossing habit first, you are likely to be less successful as this is a task at a higher level than ‘brush teeth’.

Take Outs

Experiment with your habits and see what works.
Try and imbed new habits within existing routines but not at the start of them, ideally between the lower level steps.  The devil is in the detail… as it were.

References

Written by Rachel McInnes, adapted from http://www.wellbeingatwork.com
Judah, G., Gardner, B., & Aunger, R. (2013). Forming a flossing habit: an exploratory study of the psychological determinants of habit formation. British journal of health psychology, 18(2), 338-353.
 

Changing Habits: Take Baby Steps or go the whole hog.

“We form habits and then they form us”
Rob Gilbert
…. for both good and bad.  You could argue we are our habits.  To change we must change our habits; something I am pretty sure we have all tried and failed at numerous times.  I sure have.
I have read compelling books on the topic of habit changes over the years, excited at first … only to notice no real difference.  Once I lost a book on bus called “Following Through; a revolutionary new guide to finishing what you start”.  Yes I know – hilarious.
My personal experience and that of 15+ executive coaching have led me to take baby steps or go the whole hog; let me explain.
Learnings from Executive Coaching
As an executive coach, I have had the deep privilege of hearing peoples stories and challenges.  I have witnessed both their wins and loses on their journeys to a better them.
In my early days in coaching, I would tend to push coachees goals slightly higher than their first sense.  For someone who planned to phone five new clients before we met again, I would say “What about six?”.   Coaching is a learn on the job sort of affair.  Something I learned on the job was – it was more effective to do the opposite.  Now if a client suggests getting to the gym three times next week. I say “What about two?”
Change Habits with Baby Steps
Why would I do something so counter-intuitive?  Well, baby steps are sometimes easier to take.  Successful people have taken on huge things; they have advanced degrees, they work huge hours, they lead huge teams.  So why not five trips to the gym, they could just about do it in their sleep – surely?
 
Things in our lives fall into those we just get into (usually work or obligations to others) and those we know we should but we just don’t (usually obligations to our self for our wellbeing).  What separates these things isn’t always clear and differs person-to-person and isn’t as simple as what we value.  I value health and don’t always act that way.  Others who value family may be guilty of 14 hour days.  Often it is external pressure or fears that drive those things we don’t need so much motivation for, or a bit of the old punishment/reward stuff.  If we don’t do those huge hours we might fail or not get the bonus or let down the boss or the team or mum or dad.  If we do,  well I smell the bonus, promotion etc. already.
It might be more simple, some things are just more enjoyable than others.  I certainly prefer researching and writing to chanting ooooom while thinking about my breathing and trying to ignore the agony in my oh-so-erect back.
For whatever reason there are somethings we genuinely value that we just fail at day-after-day. In my coaching experience I notice these things are so often health and self care behaviours.
So why would I encourage my clients to do less? Because, I discovered along the way that in lives already packed full of stuff, smaller, easier, more gentle changes are easier to make.
Paradoxical there is also an entirely different way……

What about the whole hog?

Currently I am having 10 completely alcohol free days.  How am I doing – 4 days in?  Easy.  How confident am I will succeed?  100%. Am I amazing? No, I am taking antibiotics that react very badly to alcohol and don’t wish to be hospitalized this week.
Change Habits: Go the Whole HogWhich brings me to another quite different approach to baby steps.  Go the whole hog, go on a diet, quit sugar, give up wine, hit the gym, be nice to everyone.  Redefine your normal. I am not actually kidding …. but there is a catch.  You need something external keeping you on the straight and narrow.  Residential rehab exists for a reason; as do boot camps. Similar to why I will not so much as sniff a glass of wine.
One of the times you see transformation in individuals health habits is after shocking health scares or diagnoses.  For such huge events people don’t need to battle their will in the same way. It is one thing to exercise today to stop you getting cancer or heart disease in 10, 20, 30 years time; it is quite another to have heart disease now and exercise today to not die this month.
So without a major health scare or near death experience or the like what are you to do, to go the whole hog?  Well let’s look at why sudden health shocks might work:  It brings the thing near and present, puts the pressure right on.  Forces a priority change.   Another way to achieve this is to put the pressure on another that way humans respond to – namely pressure from others.
Set up your life so you have people to answer to.  Boot camps, support groups, make an agreement with a spouse, friend, child or health professional.   Get a friend to knock on your door for your morning run at 5:50am, it will be harder to roll over and go back to sleep then.
This is probably what is behind the success of the dry July phenomena (a alcohol free month, while being sponsored for charity).  What is it about dry July that allows even hard core boozers to stay sober? The cause? The visibility? The social support? The structure and constant reminders?  All of it?
We keep promises better when they are to others and when we are being watched.  So leverage this knowledge.  We also do better with social support.  Don’t beat yourself up for being human –  get tight accountable systems and people around you.
So my advice to you on those neglected health goals……
Take baby steps or go the whole hog, but what ever you do – don’t just sit on the fence and try the half way approach.
By Rachel – Adapted from http://www.wellbeingatworkdr.com