4 ways to change that unhealthy habit for good

Wanting to change behavior isn't enough, research shows

If you made New Year's resolutions you didn't keep, you're far from alone—but that doesn't mean sticking to your goals is impossible, Katherine Hobson writes for NPR's "Shots."

Simply wanting to change your behaviors often isn't enough to make you follow through, even when you know your bad habits may put your health at risk, Hobson says.

Hobson shares some research-backed techniques that can increase your chance of successfully altering your behavior.

1. Remind yourself that a bad behavior doesn't make you a bad person.

"It's easy to sink into a pit of self-loathing when faced with the fact that you don't eat any vegetables unless they're fried," Hobson writes. To steer clear of those negative feelings, you may avoid confronting your unhealthy habits altogether.

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To combat that instinct, it's important to remember that a bad behavior doesn't make you a bad person, says Tracy Epton, a researcher at the University of Manchester. In 2014, Epton and other researchers analyzed previous research and found that teaching participants self-affirmation techniques, along with providing persuasive health information, helped encourage people to change unhealthy behaviors.

2. Be specific.

It isn't enough to decide you want to make some changes at some point in the future, Hobson says. Instead, be specific: Don't say, "I want to run more;" instead, say, "After work, I am going to run at least 30 minutes on Tuesdays and Fridays."

Research has found that such specificity helps increase healthy eating habits and physical activity among study participants.  

3. Give yourself a reason to change.

Many workplaces offer their employees financial incentives, such as insurance premium reductions, for participating in physical activity challenges and practicing other healthy behaviors.

Kevin Volpp, a physician and director of the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the University of Pennsylvania, notes that some companies allow people to bet their own money on their ability to meet their goals.

Such tactics can work to change behaviors, Hobson writes, because people tend to avoid losses more than they seek gains.

A similar tactic is to tie an activity you enjoy to a healthy habit, Hobson says. For instance, a 2014 study found that participants increased their gym attendance when they were allowed to listen to audiobooks they were interested in only while working out.

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The study found that the effects waned over time, so it can help if the incentive is "fresh and consistently appealing." For instance, you could listen to new podcast every time you do housework, and only when you do housework, Hobson suggests.

4. Keep your environment supportive.

"Look around at your environment to see how it's supporting or undermining your health goals," Hobson writes.

Cornell University's Food & Brand Lab has found several ways your environment influences your habits. For instance, you are more likely to overeat when your kitchen is cluttered—and less likely to eat healthy when you are at a dimly lit restaurant (Hobson, "Shots," NPR, 7/7).


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