Want to change a bad habit? Simply keep track of it!

Nov 19, 2011
3 min read

[via MitchellColver.com]

One astounding principle of psychology and, subsequently, behavioral modification is the principle that simply studying something changes it. This is called the Hawthorne Effect and, if you’re willing, you can use it to improve your general well-being. The term was coined in 1950 by an experimenter named Henry Landsberger who had performed a study at the Hawthorne electric factory in Illinois. The productivity of the factory workers improved drastically simply because they realized they were being studied.

What’s surprising is that, relying on the Hawthorne Effect, you can select any given target behavior (overeating, poor sleep habits, bad posture) and then keep a record of the behavior, and the behavior will naturally begin to change (hopefully for the better!).

What causes the Hawthorne Effect to work is awareness and intuitive/natural reaction:

Perhaps a person is aware that, over the past few months, they have been gaining weight. Futile attempts to casually cut back on daily caloric intake have left this person feeling like weight-gain is an inevitable part of life. So, harnessing the power of the Hawthorne Effect, this person simply begins to keep a food diary; they track when they eat, how much they eat, how many times a day they eat, how they felt before and after eating, and how their weight changes day by day.

Human beings are hard-wired to detect patterns and to draw conclusions. In fact, there is another principle of psychology called the Projective Hypothesis that posits that, when presented with ambiguous stimuli, human begins will immediately begin to impose structure and patterns onto that ambiguity. This is the primary rationale behind the Rorschach Inkblot Test. What do you see?

Well, a food diary or sleep diary works exactly the same way. The elements of our weight gain that previously seemed illusive begin to reveal themselves through the record. We naturally and intuitively begin to draw fairly accurate conclusions about the behaviors that are precipitating our weight gain, or our sleep loss, simply because we have access to a long-term record of the behavior and can now see patterns in the behavior. Maybe we keep a food diary and then realize we eat when we’re sleepy or when we’re bored. Maybe we suddenly deduce, because we’ve started to keep a sleep diary, that our most restless nights occur on days that we forget to exercise.

Some behaviors, like bad posture, don’t even need a diary, just a daily count. Dr. Russell Kolts taught me this one. Purchase a tally counter and carry it around with you in your palm:

Every time you notice yourself having bad posture, click the counter. This method works from two angles. First, you’ve changed your routine and have a constant physical reminder that today isn’t a typical day: you have a tally counter in your hand and that’s hard to forget about. As such, at least some small part of your mind will be attending to this difference. Second, having to count your bad-posture-moments will simultaneously encourage you to maintain good posture. Overtime, the habit will stick and you can jettison the tally counter. Also, having to carry around a counter will turn it into a conversation piece and you might be able to spread some knowledge and/or refer them to read this post for themselves. =]

Happy changing!

For a food diary template, see here:http://www.cdc.gov/healthyweight/pdf/Food_Diary_CDC.pdf

For a sleep diary template, see here:http://www.sleepeducation.com/pdf/sleepdiary.pdf

For any other behavior diary template, google it!

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