If we could master turning our healthy goals into ironclad habits – habit defined as “a learned process that generates automatic responses to contextual cues” – we might just achieve the pinnacle of health.
A recent study in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, the first of its kind, investigated a habit-forming model to improve diet.
What the research says:
- A habit-formation intervention model successfully changed dietary habits in kids.
- Subjects who met higher goal-setting standards did not have more success in habit formation.
In the habit-forming model, you first choose a behavior you wish to enforce. Once the behavior is chosen, you then execute it during a specific event or at a specific time of day. The basic idea is to practice the behavior until it becomes an impulse that doesn’t require much thought to execute.
During four, hour-long home visits, which were separated by two weeks each, researchers discussed habit-enforcing processes with 57 parents. The parents were trying to enforce new dietary habits with their children, in three different categories. The parents chose one category to pursue in each of the first three visits. The categories were:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Healthy snacks
- Healthy drinks
For each visit, the parents picked one goal they wanted to focus on. So, for example, in the healthy drinks category, the parents would get to pick any goal they had in mind to improve the consumption of healthy beverages for their child, like providing a glass of water after school. The parents were given a tick sheet to count how often they completed the chosen behaviors and how it felt.
The researchers studied many aspects of the goal-setting process and how it related to forming new habits. Here are some of the factors they considered when they analyzed the goals set by the parents:
- Number of goals: A single goal makes habit forming easier. So, “Drink more water and less fruit juice” may not be as good for habit forming as just “Drink more water.”
- Frequency of goal: The important bit here was that a clear frequency was set for each goal. Having an ambiguous frequency was not considered optimal for habit formation.
- Absolute vs. relative: This aspect was enforced in order to set clear goals. Relative terms like “more water” are vague, and thus not as good as a specified amount.
- Increase vs. decrease: The researchers noted that promoting positive behavior is key for successful habituation. As such, for the goals to be optimally effective they had to be an increase of a healthy behavior, or the substitution of a healthy behavior for an unhealthy one. Simply reducing an unhealthy behavior was not considered as effective.
- Cue: Optimal goals were associated with a specific daily event, like a meal or after school. A lack of cues or ambiguous cues were considered sub-optimal.
Parents who set goals that met these standards were compared to those who set sub-optimal goals, or goals that did not meet the above recommendations. The researchers wanted to know if the parents who set sub-optimal goals were as successful as those who set optimal ones.
The model of habit formation used in this study was easy for the participants to use. Despite many of the goals being sub-optimal according to the standards listed above, the quality of the goal didn’t seem to have much effect on the strength of the habit formation.
The researchers found that it took about two weeks for the habits to sink in, during which time they saw rapid improvement, and afterward, a gradual improvement with time. So for new habit creation, make your goals specific and give them your all for at least two weeks before moving on to the next habit.
1. Benjamin Gardner, et. al, “Putting habit into practice, and practice into habit: a process evaluation and exploration of the acceptability of a habit-based dietary behavior change intervention,” International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity 2014, 11:135
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