For better health this year, keep it simple


The science of building healthy habits consistently shows that the easier we make something, the more likely we are to succeed. And yet many people still treat the new year as an endurance challenge, making difficult and daunting resolutions that are destined to fail.

Why do we make our lives so hard when easier is clearly, well, easier?

“There’s a value we place in our society in exerting self-control and being in charge,” said Wendy Wood, a research psychologist at the University of Southern California and author of “Good Habits, Bad Habits.” “Sometimes the easier something feels, it feels like you’re less in control, and it’s less appealing somehow.’’

But studies show that when we rely solely on willpower and motivation to make changes, we tend to fail. In one ongoing research project, students who were all trying to cut back their time on social media were given two options. The easy way was an app that essentially curtailed access. Or they were given the option to just try really hard to control their social media use.

Most of the students chose the self-control model — and failed. “People love the motivation approach; they don’t like automating things to make it easier to reach the goal,” Wood said. But in this study, “self-control didn’t work at all,” she said.

Why easy and simple are better

The belief that success is best achieved through struggle dates back centuries. Sophocles said it. (“Nothing succeeds without toil.”) Ben Franklin did, too. (“There are no gains without pains.”) And Jane Fonda popularized the value of suffering in her 1980s workout videos when she chanted, “No pain, no gain!

But the science of behavior change shows just the opposite. When we eliminate or reduce the struggle — scientists call it “friction” — we are far more likely to succeed.

Friction typically comes in three forms — time, distance and effort. If something is time-consuming, far away from our homes or workplace and requires a lot of energy, we’re less likely to do it. If something is fast, convenient and easy, we’ll keep doing it.

The food industry has figured this out and uses it to our detriment. It’s why fast-food companies, with convenient drive-through windows and stores in every neighborhood, have had so much success.

But you can also leverage the power of friction to help you achieve your goals. Here’s how.

The less time you are required to spend on a healthy behavior, the better. Instead of training for a marathon, start by training for a 5K race. If you want to start cooking at home more, choose 15-minute meals, pre-chopped vegetables and fast-cooking tools like an air fryer. If you want to read more, set a goal of reading just 10 minutes a night. If you want to start a meditation habit, pick a short one- or two-minute meditation to try a few days a week.

Another way to remove time friction is to get organized. If a cluttered kitchen keeps you from cooking at home, clean it up. Organize a fitness drawer to make it faster to change for a run or walk.

There’s an added bonus to saving time and simplifying your day. You’ll have more time to tend to your relationships, which also improve your overall well-being.

“Because of the ways in which we fill our lives with so many things and don’t have time, I think our relationships suffer,” said Tyler J. VanderWeele, professor of epidemiology and director of Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Program. “People want to feel connected, valued and loved. That needs time.”

An air fryer makes healthier fast food

Keep it close to home or work

Shorten the distance between you and your healthy habit. To stop eating from the office snack cart, put healthy snacks on your desk — you’re more likely to grab the food that is close at hand.

If you’re taking a class or joining a gym, make sure it’s close to your home or office. (In one study, even living a few thousand feet farther from a gym made a significant difference in attendance among college students.) If the gym is far away, a better exercise goal may be to plan a daily walk near the office or close to home. Or look into an exercise bike or home gym equipment.

If something requires a lot of effort and isn’t enjoyable, you’re less likely to keep doing it. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try hard things. It just means you should think about ways to make the goal more fun, said Katy Milkman, a professor at the Wharton School and author of the new book “How to Change: The Science of Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be.

If you want to run a marathon, join a running club or train with a friend. Save a favorite podcast for when you exercise, and you’re more likely to look forward to your workout time.

Easy means keeping things simple as well. Research shows that planning for multiple goals gets complicated, and you’re less likely to succeed.

“People make the mistake of not caring if a goal is pleasant,” said Milkman. “If it’s miserable to do a thing, you’ll quit.”

During the month of January, the Well+Being desk will offer more new strategies for simplifying your life, including easy ways to change your eating habits, exercise, improve relationships and care for your mental health. You can bookmark the Well+Being page to see each installment, and sign up for the Well+Being newsletter, delivered to your inbox every Thursday.


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