When we feel overwhelmed, we tend to go with what we know, according to new research from the University of Southern California. So if our regular routine involves getting cozy with a bag of potato chips every night, we’ll hit that habit hard when we’re stressed. If our nightly ritual involves a run through the park and a green smoothie, we’ll likely turn to that healthier routine when our lives go topsy-turvy.
“When you’re too tired to make a decision, you tend to just repeat what you usually do,” says Wendy Wood, PhD, University of Southern California provost professor of psychology and business. “That’s beneficial for people with good health habits. They are less likely to stray from their habitual healthful eating patterns and exercise routines when willpower is low.”
Researchers followed college students for a semester, including during exam periods — when the students were especially sleep-deprived and anxious — and found that the students held fast to what was familiar. If they were used to eating doughnuts for breakfast, they were even more likely to eat poorly when under pressure. But if they were used to eating a healthy breakfast, they were more prone to eat well.
By harnessing the power of habits, we can make it easier to change our behaviors for the better. Try implementing a new, healthy routine when you’re relatively unstressed, so you can rely on it when things get harried. If good habits are an automatic part of your day, they’ll stick with you, Wood says, “especially when you can’t muster the energy to ‘do the right thing’ for your health.” (For more, see “The Power of Habit”.)