Some people make a beeline for potato chips or M&Ms when they feel stressed, but mental strain doesn’t have to trigger bad habits. In fact, you’re just as likely to cling to healthy habits when you’ve exhausted your self-control, according to five new studies soon to be published in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
In the first study, researchers tracked MBA students in the weeks leading up to and during their exams, when all of their self-control was devoted to hitting the books. During exam weeks, students were most likely to stick to whatever their pre-existing habits were, whether the behaviors were healthy (like eating a wholesome breakfast) or not-so-healthy (like downing a syrup-soaked stack of French toast). Researchers confirmed the results in the four studies that followed: Each involved a willpower-depleting task that ultimately drove participants to cling to established habits, for better or for worse.
Why? Previous research suggests that each person has a finite supply of self-control at any given time, says study co-author David Neal, PhD, founding partner of Empirica Research. Once you hit your limit, it becomes incredibly difficult to make the conscious decision to try a new behavior that requires self-control. So instead, you just fall back on your default habits.
The good news: A tough day at work, holding back your annoyance during an encounter with your in-laws, or a beckoning ice cream truck don’t have to negatively impact your health. The bad news: You need to make sure you have rock-solid good-for-you habits in place before any of these situations strike.
And if you don’t (yet)? Pick one behavior to change at a time—ideally when other aspects of your life are pretty much in order and you’re not going through anything super-stressful. Then choose a day to start working on your new habit when you’re well-rested, says Neal. Link your new desired habit onto something you already do regularly—like flossing (the new habit) right before you brush your teeth (the old habit). Or, if your goal is to get stronger, always perform strength training exercises at the beginning of your regularly scheduled gym sessions. And if you want to eat more veggies, add them to the sandwich in the lunch you already pack daily.
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