how can I trick myself into having better habits?
January 28, 2017 9:45 AM   Subscribe

For example, I read something about how people trying to eat healthier could modify their homes...fruit in more visible places, dark plates (which for some reason tend to lead to smaller portions), etc, and how the impact of this stuff is often much more than the conscious intention to make better choices. I love this idea, and not just for food things. What structures (physical or in terms of habits) have you set up in your life that help you make the decisions you want to make? Especially less obvious things like the dark plates.
posted by lgyre to Grab Bag (24 answers total) 66 users marked this as a favorite
Devoting resources (time, money) to thoughtful, functionality-first storage design has led me to have a cleaner, tidier house which in turn promotes having people over.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:50 AM on January 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

Honestly, doing a mass-shedding of all of my excess, surplus physical belongings. I get the Marie Kondo backlash, but ruthlessly removing all of the extra 'crap' from my house has made me pay so much more attention to the things I love - and make better decisions in general.

When I got rid of the crap, the only things that surrounded me were things that I loved and found beautiful (either in their appearance, their usefulness, or both). This made me feel relaxed, which in turn made me happy, which in turn made me more motivated to eat better, stay active, and generally just not be lazy. I engaged more with my surroundings. I picked up and finished projects I'd long neglected. I slept better.

When you get rid of all of the useless junk, there's nothing or little else around to compete for your attention.
posted by nightrecordings at 9:59 AM on January 28, 2017 [16 favorites]

Storing thing where they are used - so every bathroom has all the stuff needed to clean it with the toilet cleaner by the toilet, the squeegee in the shower, etc.

Ruthless removal of things that don't belong in any particular place. So my kitchen countertops have a toaster, kettle, microwave and a chopping board and that is it. You can see mess and it's trivial to clean. Only three bottles in the shower.

Spare bin liners at the bottom of every bin. Very small bins so they have to be emptied before they get smelly/split. Recycling bins next to the normal bin so recycling takes no effort.

In terms of eating habits, what works will depend on how you work. I work best when I plan out all my meals for the whole week at a time when I'm feeling energetic. I'm then quite happy to shop and cook on autopilot because the mental decision-making is the taxing bit. I only buy what is on the shopping list. When I'm feeling snacky there just isn't anything to eat other than what I planned and I'm very rarely energetic enough to go and get anything extra.

If food needs using up it either gets planned into a meal for the next week or it gets left out in the kitchen and gets snacked on because it's now visible.

We (sometimes!) avoid overeating by portioning out the meal into portions and leftovers to go into the fridge/freezer before we even start eating.

I'm a visual person so if something needs dealing with, it stays out in the way until it's done.

I never buy storage without ruthlessly decluttering first.
posted by kadia_a at 10:18 AM on January 28, 2017 [8 favorites]

The book Nudge has quite a lot about this stuff.

My recent killer change was paying to rent a locker at the gym so I don't have to lug clothes around, and getting a membership at the more expensive gym that I literally have to walk in front of to get home. It makes it a lot harder to skip out if a) I'm already there and b) the only thing I have to do is walk in, change, and get to work.

Do also keep in mind that a lot of the pop science recommendations about this stuff are based on behavioral psych papers that are having a hell of a replication crisis right now. I'm only saying that to say: if one of these things doens't work for you, it's probably the science's fault, not yours. They're all fine as suggestions, but the only way to know if they'll really help is to try them for yourself and see what works.
posted by daniel striped tiger at 10:23 AM on January 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

I have found that cutting salt has led to better eating habits - I don't restrict calories (much) but for some reason telling myself "I can't have that, it's too salty" works better than "I can't have that, it's too calorically dense". I think it's a shame thing - I was actually okay on salt before cutting back, so I feel like I am being good and clever by restricting salt, whereas when I restrict on a calorie basis it reminds me that I am a big fat person and makes me feel guilty. So I trick my brain by telling myself a positive story that has the same results as the negative/shamey one.
posted by Frowner at 10:42 AM on January 28, 2017 [5 favorites]

Have your employer split your paycheques and direct-deposit 20% of your pay (or more if you can spare it) straight into a savings account that's inconvenient to access. It's there if you need it, but you are much less likely to spend it if it's just removed from your chequing account.

Keep floss near the TV (I like the kind already threaded on little sticks, and keep them in a cute jar beside the couch). I don't mind flossing if it's just a fiddly thing to do while I watch something; I resent it while standing in the bathroom.
posted by spraypaint at 11:31 AM on January 28, 2017 [7 favorites]

For me, picking something small and establishing a habit with it and then building on that worked well. I worked my way up to running by first just walking part of my commute instead of taking the bus; when I'd been doing that for a while and it felt natural (and I was no longer huffing and puffing on that one steep hill), then I downloaded a couch to 5k app on my phone and started with that. Also I find having something external I've signed up for and can measure myself against works well. If I just think to myself "I should go for a run Tuesday" and Tuesday evening rolls around and I haven't done it, I'll probably shrug and say "eh, I'll go Thursday". If I get a little notice saying, "hey, according to your training plan you have a run today" I'm more likely to do it, if only to avoid the shame of logging into the app and seeing a bunch of skipped workouts.

I think it's something to do with the idea of, if an expert has devised a plan which says a normal person should be able to do X, then that triggers my desire to prove myself capable of meeting that standard.
posted by Diablevert at 11:45 AM on January 28, 2017

I find pairing one new habit with an old habit to be very useful. For example, I'm trying to get in more steps so I decided I would walk around the house to 3 songs every time I feed my baby. Since the walking is tied to that specific trigger, I never forget to do it and since he eats 8 times a day, I am getting in a ton of steps.

Another example: I wanted to wash my hands more often and didn't remember. So I made a resolution to drink a large glass of water every time I eat something. This was food from the standpoint of drinking more water is food, but it also forced me to visit the bathroom more often. And when one does this, one naturally washes their hands...
posted by ficbot at 12:00 PM on January 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Keep floss near the TV (I like the kind already threaded on little sticks, and keep them in a cute jar beside the couch). I don't mind flossing if it's just a fiddly thing to do while I watch something; I resent it while standing in the bathroom.
This times 100000. My flossing habits have increased exponentially since I started doing this!
posted by erattacorrige at 12:40 PM on January 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've used delay as a good tool. "I'll have a doughnut next time someone brings them to the office. Today I'll take a quick walk and refill my water bottle, instead." The 'later' option isn't reacted to as strongly in my brain as the 'no', and I recently read something (sorry no link) confirming that this is an effective strategy. Also I don't buy junk food to keep at home - "I won't buy this ice cream pint today, but maybe will get a scoop the next time a friend brings up wanting to go out for some". Best of luck!
posted by PaulaSchultz at 12:45 PM on January 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

To slightly rephrase your question -- you may want to prevent your brain from tricking you into certain behaviors.

E.g., when you're comfortable in bed and don't want to get up, getting up is the most horrible awful thing, all you need is another 9 minutes and then you'll definitely be well rested enough to face the horror of leaving the bed.

For me, this sort of trick has also helped with things like procrastination. Once I recognized that my brain doesn't always have my best interests in mind, its subconscious whining is so much easier to deal with. Instead of asking myself "what do I really, in my heart of hearts, want to do right now?" -- I'll be able to separate what I should do from whatever my unpredictable whacko brain is crying for at the moment.

Also, buy cake mix instead of cake.
posted by miniraptor at 1:00 PM on January 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

The key for me is to always focus on psychological or effort friction. I try to remove it as much as possible for good habits and increase it as much as possible for bad habits.

So fruits are in bowls on the kitchen table. I prepare a bowl of fruit that I will eat that day first thing in the morning and keep it near me. Things I want to eat less of I put away right away when I done with them. Bread & PB goes back in the cupboard right after make a sandwich. The knife goes in the dishwasher rather than on the edge of the sink for the hypothetical next sandwich.

Not owning a car keeps me walking and cycling.

Walking, Cycling and Running make me want to control my weight because doing these things gets more annoying and difficult the heavier you are. I use Google Timeline to track my walking because it is built in and effortless.

I plan my meals and count my calories for the day first thing in the morning so I don't have to think about it and try to make healthy choices later when blood sugar or will power might be low.

My wife and I go for a walk every night after dinner. We both used to whinge theatrically about it until I suggested we stop as it was a point of friction interfering with a good habit.

Oh and I also use delay strategies like Paula. I can go out for a tasty burger once I achieve X. Or I put things in the Amazon cart and then move to Save It For Later and then review list at the end of the month and ask myself "Did I miss not having this?" and "Would this really improve my life?" The answer is almost never yes.

I put a tab limiter on my browser because it got to easy too accumulate an impressively oppressive list of things to read. So if I am at my limit something has got to go before I can add another thing.

For just about everything I try to use a system with some sort of progression. Couch 2 5K turned me into everyday 5 mile runner. 100 push-ups system for upper body strength. When I weight train I use a notebook that records my lifting amounts and reps and I use a ++,+, - system to record how easy it was and whether and how much I should increase next time. I use a bullet journal for todo tracking because I like checking things off.

I use netflix DVD for watching movies because once you fill your queue you don't have to make a decision about what to watch. You just watch what you get.
posted by srboisvert at 1:10 PM on January 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Seconding a few things that people have said.

- I bought a TON of floss and put it everywhere in the house
- I have a locker at the gym and my BEST toiletries are there to encourage me to shower there and not at home
- I stack habits so that while my coffee is making, I am brushing/flossing

A few other things

- I got those permanent laundry bag things and put laundry in there and don't leave it on the floor
- I use habit apps to make sure I do all the things I want to do in a day/week. For whatever reason this made doing my physical therapy shoulder exercises something I did in order to check a box while for some reason just doing them *to make my shoulder feel better* didn't work
- CSAs, paying in advance for veggies means I am more likely to eat them

Some of it is figuring out what your avoidant tendencies are and how to flip them. I hate to waste money, even more than I hate to eat vegetables, for example. I also LOVE routine, so buying a ton of the food I like means I will just keep eating it as long as I have it. I have a sort of "food uniform" approach where I would prefer to eat the same thing nearly every day.
posted by jessamyn at 1:57 PM on January 28, 2017 [3 favorites]

I use the reminder app on my phone for all sorts or recurring things. Every morning at the same time it says "take vitamins". I order groceries online, and once a week my phone tells me to order. I have my bills in there, even when to wash my face. I do the things because I hate the little badge on my phone telling me I forgot to wash my face again....
posted by Valancy Rachel at 2:22 PM on January 28, 2017

I was trained as a designer so I see this as a design problem. If you can change the things around you your behavior will fall into place.

The car thing is a simple example. If you don't own a car, by design you will have to walk/cycle/take the bus. From this simple design restriction, you will have to come up with creative solutions that will solve your problems. Those solutions are your new habits, whether it's cycling to work or getting your groceries delivered so you can focus on other things.

Recently I decided I wanted to stop spending money on dumb shit on Amazon, so I deleted all my saved credit cards. It's amazing how this simple amount of friction in my routines causes me to really think about what I'm doing and form new habits.

I find it's no use to frame things as 'lifehacks' or 'just start small and continue it'. My brain is dumb and will always take the path of least resistance, I have to change the structures and incentives around me to get myself to do what I want.
posted by bradbane at 2:26 PM on January 28, 2017 [7 favorites]

I bought a DeskCycle to put under my desk at work, and it's pretty annoying to sit at my desk now without strapping my feet into the pedals, and if my feet are strapped in, I cycle. It's taken virtually no effort at all to cycle for 2-3 hours every day, burning (according to a very accurate online calculator put out by the company) about 300 extra calories. Plus, it dramatically reduces the amount of time I spend "just sitting" and I haven't been cold in my office since I got it. It does, however, make me significantly more hungry.
posted by Cygnet at 2:59 PM on January 28, 2017

Live somewhere walkable, where you can walk to work or to the shops.
Store extra cleaning supplies in different places around the house so you're more likely to actually clean.
Own healthy snacks.
Have reasonably healthy stuff in the freezer that you can make into meals easily enough. Then you might eat those things instead of ordering takeout.
Have a bin near the front door. Put all the junk mail straight in it as well as the envelopes from all the rest of it. Don't let it get in your house!
posted by emilyw at 3:45 PM on January 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

Tricking my brain is a lot easier than trying to use willpower.

I find it helpful to tie a thing I want to do (a habit I want to establish) to a thing I already do. For example, I work from home. Every afternoon at 2 or 3, I go to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. It takes a few minutes for the water to boil and then 3 minutes for the tea to steep. Since I'm in the kitchen anyway, I started the habit of emptying the dishwasher and putting dirty dishes in the dishwasher or washing them (if they're things that can't go in the dishwasher). I don't need to think about it, I just do it. I used to hate unloading the dishwasher but now I don't mind it.

Also, I don't much like flossing but I love brushing my teeth. So I switched the order. I floss first, then brush. I know I won't skip brushing, but in order to get to brushing, I have to floss. Since I started doing this, I rarely miss a day of flossing.
posted by tuesdayschild at 4:24 PM on January 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

You might like Charles Duhigg's book, The Power of Habit.
posted by metahawk at 4:45 PM on January 28, 2017 [2 favorites]

Here to second metahawk's reading suggestion. The main takeaway for me was that habits don't truly disappear, so the trick is to replace the constituents of those habits. For example, every time I used to go to a convenience store for a snack, I'd get milkshake and something sugary, like chocolate or cookies. To change this, first I replaced the milkshake with carbonated water, and once that was embedded, the sugary snack got replaced with high fibre, low sugar crackers.

The key is that the cue is the same (going to convenience store), and the reward is still there, but the items are healthier now.
posted by Juso No Thankyou at 9:19 PM on January 28, 2017 [1 favorite]

I also tie a task to an existing habit:

I tie a grocery bag to the shower door so I remember to do the cat litter before I shower.

I wash the dishes every morning when I wash the cat's bowl.

To sum up: maybe get a cat?

Back to seriousness: this is a strategy that is often recommended for people with AD(H)D. You might try looking up "ADHD habits" and the like. I do get the sense that you're looking for psychological tricks and not really "life hacks" but googling psychological tricks gives you things like "blah blah blah to make people like you" or "go for a walk to be more healthy."

If you only buy healthy food, you will only be able to eat healthy food.
A smaller bowl looks full with less food.
When I get cold in the shower, I can turn the tap hotter for a long, environmentally-unfriendly shower or slightly cooler and get out faster.
I deleted the Facebook app.
posted by meemzi at 11:39 PM on January 28, 2017

I got those permanent laundry bag things and put laundry in there and don't leave it on the floor

What are these? I need a better laundry system.
posted by insectosaurus at 7:47 AM on January 29, 2017

I guess they're called Laundry sorters? Mine is this one which also gives me a little counter space thingie too which is helpful in my small bedroom. You can just unclip the bags and take them to the laundromat/laundry which is useful for me.
posted by jessamyn at 7:58 AM on January 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

Jumping off the cake mix suggestion above, my rule is that I'm only allowed to eat sweets that I cook/bake myself. I love sweets more than anything and would eat them nonstop if possible. Sooooo generally once a week I'll make some cookies or whatnot and then eat it all week.

Now I know it's still sweets but at least I know that I used all organic ingredients in it, and there's no chemicals or dye etc. Plus, once it's gone, that's it for sweets that week. PLUS I can sometimes hide some veggies or fruit in there and then I feel like I'm doing something healthier - it's not chocolate cake, it's chocolate ZUCCHINI cake. See, it's practically a salad :)

I also belong to a CSA, which forces me to eat a ton of vegetables, including ones I would never buy or eat of my volition. I can't stand wasting food so I have no choice but to eat these damn things cluttering up my fridge.
posted by silverstatue at 12:11 PM on January 30, 2017

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