Psychology Hacks for Healthy Habits: Kick Your Quarantine Drinking in 2021
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of the word habit? Are you finding yourself thinking of actions such as nail biting or always taking your phone into the bathroom? How about we dig a little bit deeper… Have you noticed yourself or the people in your life pretty routinely picking up a 6-pack or a nice red as their go to source of fun during quarantine?
What may have started off as seemingly the only fun way to get through all the stress, anxiety and boredom of quarantine, might’ve become a bad habit. Alcohol sale rates have increased significantly during the COVID-19 quarantine and alongside it, drinking at home rates (Nicholls & Conroy, 2020). Looking for ways to help kick this drinking habit, gain a better understanding of what habits are and how to form healthy ones? Then you’ve come to the right place.
In their 2020 study on habits and behavioral mechanisms to produce behavioral change, Volpp and Loewenstein provide an explanation of the psychology of habits.
Simply put, the habit someone has is triggered by the person’s surroundings. Putting it into context, someone’s desire to have a drink can be triggered by seeing their roommates having some drinks on the couch if that is an act they do together a lot.
But what purpose do habits serve for us? Well, the function of habits serves as an efficient default setting, they’re quick responses to a presented stimulus (Wood & Rünger, 2016). However, sometimes people form “bad” habits that can have a serious impact on your life such as addiction, financial losses and poor physical health. But fear not! There have been countless studies performed by psychologists on how to break bad habits and form healthy ones.
Worried about how to handle upcoming zoom events filled with drinking games and friends? Or how to respond to your roommates wanting to have wine night together? Setting up “if-then” plans can help you overcome those potential hurdles and keep you on track in your journey to reduce your drinking. For example, if someone asks you if you want a glass of wine with dinner, then you can say “no thanks, I’m sticking with water tonight” or “I’m good, I'm actually trying to not drink as much but thanks for the offer!” In Webb and Luszczynska's 2009 study on habit strength, implementation intention, and behavior change, participants who had weak to moderate smoking habits showed a decrease in daily cigarette intake after the intervention of formulating "if-then" plans and implementation intention. In order to be successful, you have to make your plan and stick to it!
Are you motivated to stop drinking altogether? Then this might be the method for you! Take into mind that this way is easier said than done, as noted by Wander Jager in his 2003 writing on bad habits. To make a habit ‘impossible,’ you might have to overcome some financial hoops and deal with some resistance in making the first steps (Jager, 2003). Need some ideas on how to make your drinking habit impossible if you live with roommates or family? Here’s something you can do to make it feel “impossible.” Remove alcohol from your budget, if you didn't split the cost of the box of wine, then it's not yours to drink anymore. Set up obstacles that make access to any alcohol a challenge, this can be done doing a range of things: hide or put the bottle openers somewhere different, place bottles in a hard to reach spot, tape the caps, or even try putting some labels on bottles that say “Are you sure you want to do this?”
The concept of practicing mindfulness has garnered a lot of public interest in the United States over the past few years, and there’s a reason why. Doctor Judson Brewer has been studying how mindfulness training can help people kick their smoking habits in recent years, and the results are promising. The premise of mindfulness practices are to have people become more aware of their cravings and think deeply about what they are, how they feel and what they do to you (Brewer, 2015). In his Tedtalk, Brewer discusses his study on mindfulness and how it aided participants in their journey to stop smoking. The next time you find yourself about to have a drink try and think to yourself “How does drinking make me feel? Why am I drinking?”
In their in-depth 2016 review, Healthy through habit: Interventions for initiating & maintaining health behavior change, habit psychologist Wendy Wood and behavioral psychologist David Neal, analyze the foundations of healthy habit formation. They identify three essential components of successful habit formation interventions.
Habit interventions that can be repeated daily and over the course of a long time tend to be the most successful in the formation of strong habits that will be retained (Wood & Neal, 2016). If the selected habit, such as drinking more water, can be frequently repeated daily and for a period of 20 plus days, the likelihood of you retaining that habit is significantly more likely (Wood & Neal, 2016).
For example, the act of drinking water is something that can be repeated a lot throughout the day. So, you could set up a plan such as “I will drink a glass of water everytime I walk into the kitchen.” This is a simple yet effective way to repeat an action throughout the day and one that can be done easily over a long period of time. Eventually, the habit will form and you’ll find yourself automatically getting a glass of water everytime you go into the kitchen.
Habits are more likely to successfully form if behavior is rewarded, awards can present either intrinsically (seeing your skin clear and feeling confident) or extrinsically (receiving money). Interestingly, studies show that “uncertain rewards” are the most powerful motivators of behavior repetition and formation (Wood & Neal, 2016). A prime example of an “uncertain reward” would be hitting a jackpot on a slot machine, it is unexpected but gives the winner a rush of pleasure, thus encouraging a repetition of that behavior in order to feel those positive emotions again (Wood & Neal, 2016)..Since a majority of people do not have a slot machine at hand, here’s an example of a reward you could receive in your habit formation journey.
A reward directly related towards the new habit, especially in the early stages, will prompt the formation of the habit to be more successful (Wood & Neal, 2016). Such as someone complimenting your glowing skin after a successful week of maintaining a skincare routine would be a good example of this, as it is not expected but feels good to hear.
In order for a habit to be triggered, the presence of a context cue is necessary such as a time of day or a location. In the context of intentionally forming a habit, there are two ways in which you can create context cues: Implementation plans and Piggybacking.
Implementation plans can help to increase the likelihood of someone performing their goal habit, especially if the desired habit is not a new goal but rather a habit you’ve been wanting to form for a while (Rogers et al., 2015 as cited in Wood & Neal, 2016). Setting up an implementation plan can be done in two easy steps. First, pinpoint an activity you do everyday, like walking into the kitchen. Second, attach the habit you want to form to it. Viola! You have an implementation plan as easy as that, “every time I walk into the kitchen, I will make sure the counters are clean.” If you’re worried about forgetting your plan, write it out on a sticky note and keep it on your nightstand or desk if you need a little reminder here and there.
Piggybacking is a method of cue creation by which you attach a habit to a preexisting habit, essentially, making an already formed habit a cue for the new habit (Wood & Neal, 2016). Noted successful examples of piggybacking are pairing a prescribed health practice like taking pills with a daily habit like eating a meal and public information campaigns tying replacing smoke alarm batteries with a periodic activity like daylight saving time clock adjustments (Phillips et al., 2013 as cited in Wood & Neal, 2016).
Now that you’ve learnt a bit about how healthy habit formation works, here is one way you can do this at home based on the 2009 Lally et al., study How are habits formed: Modeling habit formation in the real world. This study consisted of 96 participants who participated in a 12 week long intervention composed of the following procedure.
The participants of this study whose automaticity of their habits showed the highest increase, were those who adhered to the study guidelines the most i.e., they were consistent with their daily habit performance goals and their logging of their performance. It took an average of 66 days (range 18-254 days) to form the habit’s automaticity, also noted in this study was that a few missed days had no significant effect on habit formation (Lally et al., 2009). An important takeaway from this study is that forming a new habit will take longer than 14 days as you may have heard before in the popular saying “takes 7 days to make a habit and 14 to break one.” It will take some time to make your goal a habit, and that is ok! Stick to your plan and remind yourself your health is worth the effort!
Good luck and Happy New Year to all!
The LIFE Intelligence App is here to help you stay on track with your goals, master your emotions, and provide you with effective, science-backed strategies to help make you the best you. Throughout Mission 3, learn more about how you can set your future straight with goal-setting science, how to combat procrastination, and further information on habits.
Disclaimer: If you or a loved one are having serious concerns about alcoholism here are some resources to get help.
For Friends and Family of Alcoholics
Brewer J. Mindfulness: An Emerging Treatment for Smoking and other Addictions?. J Fam Med. 2015; 2(4): 1035.
Jager, W. (2003). Breaking 'bad habits': a dynamical perspective on habit formation and change. In W. Jager, L. Hendrickx, & L. Steg (Eds.), Human Decision Making and Environmental Perception. Understanding and Assisting Human Decision Making in Real-life Settings. Liber Americum for Charles Vlek University of Groningen.
Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C. H. M., Potts, H. W. W., & Wardle, J. (2009, July 16). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009. DOI: 10.1002/ejsp.674
Nicholls, E., & Conroy, D. (2020, November). Possibilities and pitfalls? Moderate drinking and alcohol abstinence at home since the COVID-19 lockdown. International Journal of Drug Policy, 88. DOI: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2020.103025.
Volpp, K. G., & Loewenstein, G. (2020, December). What is a habit? Diverse mechanisms that can produce sustained behavior change. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 161, 36-38.
Webb, T. L., Sheeran, P., & Luszczynska, A. (2009). Planning to break unwanted habits: Habit strength moderates implementation intention effects on behaviour change. British Journal of Social Psychology, 48, 507-523.
Wood, W., & Neal, D. T. (2016). Habit-based behavior change interventions. Behavioral Science & Policy, 2, 71-83.
Wood, W., & Rünger, D. (2016, January). Psychology of Habit. Annual Review of Psychology, 67, 289-314.https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-122414-033417