But while most disease prevention efforts focus on self-control, the latest research from Wood shows that the best way to prevent disease might be knowing how to let go: "Everybody gets stressed. The whole focus on controlling your behavior may not actually be the best way to get people to meet goals," she said. "If you are somebody who doesn't have a lot of willpower, our study showed that habits are even more important."
For example, in one experiment Wood and her co-investigators followed students for a semester, including during exams. They found that during testing periods, when students were stressed and sleep-deprived, they were even more likely to stick to old habits. It was as if they didn't have the energy to do something new, Wood explains.
Students who ate unhealthy breakfasts during the semester such as pastries or doughnuts ate even more of the junk food during exams. But the same was true of oatmeal eaters: those in the habit of eating a healthy breakfast were also more likely to stick to routine and ate especially well in the morning when under pressure.
Similarly, students who had a habit of reading the editorial pages in the newspaper everyday during the semester were more likely to perform this habit during exams even when they were limited in time. And regular gym-goers were even more likely to go to the gym when stressed.
"You might expect that, when students were stressed and had little time, they wouldn't read the paper at all, but instead they fell back on their reading habits," Wood says. "Habits don't require much willpower and thought and deliberation."
Wood continues: "So, the central question for behavior change efforts should be, how can you form healthy, productive habits? What we know about habit formation is that you want to make the behavior easy to perform, so that peop
|Contact: Suzanne Wu|
University of Southern California