Lifestyle Behavior Change: Are Your Habits Working Against You?

With a new year approaching, it’s a good time to think about behavior change.

With a new year approaching, it’s a good time to think about behavior change – both personally and on behalf of employees who are not fully leveraging available health and well-being solutions. For insight on how to increase engagement in health and well-being in 2023, the Business Group connected with sustainable behavior change scientist Michelle Segar, PhD, at the University of Michigan. According to Dr. Segar, automatic habit formation has become the go-to strategy for changing lifestyle behaviors. Thanks in part to bestsellers like Atomic Habits and The Power of Habit, data show that online searches for “habit” this past fall reached an all-time high. Yet work by Dr. Segar suggests that “when it comes to producing sustainable changes in complex behaviors like healthy eating and exercise, the power of habit isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.”

Successful habit formation is built upon some familiar assumptions, including that it’s possible to form automatic habits for any lifestyle behavior and that the rote nature of habits is the ideal for creating lasting changes. What these assumptions don’t consider is that people’s lives are complex and multi-layered, filled with responsibilities that can all too easily and frequently interrupt habit loops (cue, response, reward). When habits are interrupted, it can feel like failure. This in turn can erode motivation and lead us to stop engaging in the intended behavior altogether. In sum, perfect becomes the enemy of good. So, instead of promoting rote, automatic habits, employers can better help employees (and themselves) to create sustainable change in complex behaviors by adopting the opposite strategy: learning to mindfully, flexibly and tactically navigate the common conflicts that individuals inevitably face when it comes to our plans for eating better, exercising regularly, sleeping well and managing stress.

Dr. Segar proposes that those seeking to change and support sustainable change in others would do well to consider the “unhabit" strategy. This entails teaching employees how to respond when life circumstances challenge their healthy intentions: pausing to create the space for an intentional response (vs. reacting), opening up options and alternatives to the original plan, and picking the joy choice, the perfect imperfect option that facilitates continued momentum. This strategy enables people to learn to use their identity and values in decision making, helping employees internalize their daily health choices as aligned with these values, and reframing success as their own best (imperfect) choice.

Facilitating changes in health promoting behaviors that can survive in the real world requires employers to invest in behavior-change strategies and programs that work within the true realities of people’s days. Simple ways to get started include auditing your messaging for all-or nothing thinking; reframing success as the “perfect imperfect choice”, offering solutions that support employees’ executive functioning at choice points; and promoting flexible thinking as a key tactic to sustainable change.

Business Group on Health acknowledges Michelle Segar, PhD, advisor, speaker, and author, The Joy Choice: How to Finally Achieve Lasting Change in Eating and Exercise.