Do you need an action plan to add a habit to your life? Not necessarily!
Let’s talk about small goals. The habits that don’t take too much mental effort. Drinking more water. Eating more fruit and vegetables. Small changes in diet are achieved through the addition of one habit. This sets these goals apart from more complex goals, like going to the gym or saving money each month. Complex goals require the learning of many small habits, while small goals do not. So for example, here are all the habits that are needed to get to the gym after work:
Place gym bag by door daily –> Remember to take bag with you leave –> Stop working at a specific time –> drive directly to gym –> have a set exercise routine prepared when you get there
In contrast, here are the habits that are needed to eat more fruit:
Buy fruit weekly –> eat fruit daily
Clearly, the fruit habit takes far fewer steps. And in addition, going to the gym is considered a strenuous goal, meaning that it requires you to sometimes go through the motions despite finding the exercise completely unenjoyable. Going to the gym takes a lot more time out of your day than eating an apple too. And, for most people at least, peeling open a fresh clementine is a pleasant experience. We just forget to do it.
So when the goal is a one or two step habit and is relatively low-strenuous, do you need to have a plan for how to achieve it?
de Bruijn, Widermann, and Rhodes (2014) set out to answer that question in their brilliant study of 413 people who wanted to increase their fruit intake. The question? What predicts the automaticity of fruit intake? In other words, what factors are more likely to make fruit consumption becoming a habit?
The authors found that all the people in the study fell into one of four categories. People who had a strong intention to eat more fruit and followed through, people who had a strong intention but who didn’t follow through, people without a strong intention to make this change who followed through anyway (the most rare quadrant), and people without strong intention who not surprisingly didn’t follow through. The authors called these groups inclined actors and abstainers, and disinclined actors and abstainers:
So, the box we want to fall in is the Inclined Actor group, right? We want to adhere to the goals we have a strong intention to adhere to.
The authors did some schmancy statistics for us to create a prediction model for inclined actors who reported fruit intake was a relatively automatic process for them, requiring little thought or effort. They looked at the following predictors:
- Instrumental Attitude: your belief that eating fruit is good for your health
- Affective Attitude: your belief that eating fruit is enjoyable
- Subjective Norm: your perception of how important your peers find eating fruit to be
- Perceived Behavioral Control: your belief that increasing fruit intake is in your control
- Action Planning: planning ahead of time for when, how often, which fruits, where to eat fruit
What do you think they found?
Action planning items were NOT significant predictors! Neither was instrumental attitude or subjective norm. The only two predictors found were perceived behavioral control, and affective attitude.
This means that to make a small new behavior habitual, the key ingredients are all MINDSET.
Believing that it is enjoyable, and believing that you CAN DO IT. You can read articles about how healthy it is until you are blue in the face, or make elaborate food journaling plans for how and when to eat that apple, but if you don’t enjoy what you eat and don’t think you can do it, these plans and articles won’t get you far.
So the next time you have a small behavior change in mind, spend some time journaling not about how to achieve the goal, but about why you love that behavior, and all the evidence for why you are totally capable of achieving this goal. And if the goal is indeed increasing fruit intake, buy your favorites each week, and really savor that mango when you eat it, enjoying the whole process. Because the more you enjoy it, the more likely it will become a habit on its own. No plans needed.
As always, full reference for this article below for your nerdy reading pleasure.
So what do you think? What intentional mindset shifts can you do today to increase your sense of control and enjoyment in working towards your goals? Let me know!
de Bruijn, G., Wiedemann, A., & Rhodes, R. E. (2014). An investigation into the relevance of action planning, theory of planned behaviour concepts, and automaticity for fruit intake action control. British Journal of Health Psychology, 19, 652-669.