Habits surprise me in many ways, and I am astonished by the degree to which we’re influenced by convenience — by the amount of effort, time, or decision-making involved in completing an action. One of my 20 strategies of good habit-formation is the Strategy of Convenience.
We’re far more likely to do something if it’s convenient, and far less likely to do something if it’s inconvenient. For instance, in one cafeteria, when an ice-cream cooler’s lid was left open, 30 percent of diners bought ice cream. When diners had to open the lid, only 14 percent bought ice cream, even though the ice cream was visible in both situations. People take less food when using tongs, instead of spoons, as serving utensils.
Accordingly, we can strengthen or weaken habits by making them more or less convenient to follow. One example: The advice to pack your gym bag the night before. When it’s more convenient to head to the gym, you’re more likely to do it.
Inconvenience can also be our friend — particularly if ADHD impulsivity is a problem for us. There are six obvious ways to make an activity less convenient, to help us stick to habits that entail avoiding a behavior:
1. Increase the amount of physical energy required. Examples of this include standing up to use the computer, never allowing yourself to go to the doughnut shop across the street, only to the one that’s eight blocks away.
2. Hide any cues. Put the video-game controller on a high shelf, or place your smartphone on the floor of your car’s back seat.
3. Delay it. Read e-mail only after 11:00 A.M., for example.
4. Engage in an incompatible activity. To avoid snacking, do a puzzle, or hold a drink in one hand and a napkin in the other hand, so you don’t have a free hand for hors d’oeuvres.
5. Raise the cost. Work out with a trainer who charges you whether you show up or not. One study showed that people at high risk for smoking were pleased by a rise in the cigarette tax.
6. Prevent it altogether. Keep cookies out of the house; give away the TV set; take the Ruzzle app off your phone.
Once an action becomes a habit, it occurs automatically, but in my experience, the hold on some habits always stays slightly fragile (for me, it’s exercise), so it’s helpful to take convenience into account. Also, convenience/inconvenience can be a powerful aid when we’re trying to make or break a habit. Even a bit of extra inconvenience can make it dramatically easier or harder to keep a good habit.
I use the Strategy of (In)Convenience to control my consumption of almonds. I eat a lot of almonds. Being able to stick my hand in a bag made it easy to eat too many of them, without my even realizing it. Now I buy almonds in one-ounce packs. I feel bad about all that extra packaging — and my mother-in-law teased me for not making my own one-ounce bags out of reused baggies — but for me, that extra bit of inconvenience means I eat the right amount of nuts. One ounce is plenty for a snack.
This method is both inconvenient — I have to fetch and open up a pack, and, if I want more, I have to fetch and open another pack — and convenient — I don’t have to measure anything. Now that I do this, my eating habits are so much better.