Few forces in our lives are as powerful as our habits. If you brush your teeth three times a day and can't imagine going to sleep without clean teeth, that's a habit that will preserve your dental health for a lifetime. If your workday ritual is coffee and a donut every morning, that's a habit that may do you some harm. Good or bad, all our habits have one element in common: Once created they're extremely hard to break.
It's especially true for habits that work against our health, such as those involving caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, unhealthy foods, and exercise--or the lack thereof. There's a simple explanation, says Jenny Evans, a frequent speaker on stress and resiliency, and author of The Resiliency rEvolution. Bad habits are tough to break because of our inner caveman.
"Our DNA has changed very little in 10,000 years," she explains. Each of us has the primitive brain of a cave dweller contained within our more developed 21st-century brains. Evans calls this inner caveman "Sneaky Pete." And, she says, when, despite our best efforts, we slip back into old, bad patterns of behavior, Pete is to blame.
When stressed, Pete looks for quick feel-good fixes like caffeine and nicotine, and he seeks to conserve energy by taking in calories and exercising as little as possible. "We live in environments where we have lots of food and very little activity, so this is his ideal environment," Evans says.
The inner caveman can override the advanced part of our brain, she says. We may try to overcome him with willpower, but that gets us only so far. "Research shows that self-discipline is easily exhausted. The more we use it, the less we have. It's an unreliable resource, which is why self-help is a billion-dollar industry."
What should we do instead? Rather than grapple with our inner caveman we should work with him, Evans says. We typically set out to change our behaviors in a dramatic way, but that's the wrong approach because our caveman brain sees change as stressful. "If you go from zero exercise to seven days a week, that's going to activate Sneaky Pete and he's going to freak out," she explains.
The solution is to make such minor adjustments that the caveman in you doesn't notice them. "Simplify any change you make to where it goes under your stress response," she advises. "To the point where you think, 'That's so easy, it's stupid!' Then you'll be able to make successful long-term changes." Standing every time you talk on the phone is an example of one such small change she recommends to her clients.
Another way to circumvent your inner caveman is adjust your environment so that the easiest thing to do is also a healthy thing to do. Evans calls this creating microclimates of optimum default. "Research shows that if we switch from a 12-inch dinner plate to a 10-inch dinner plate we eat 22 percent less without thinking about it," Evans says. "In airports, hunt and gather and put healthy snacks in your bag."
Still feel drawn toward big, dramatic changes rather than small, simple ones? Then consider this: "We've been trying that model for 20 years, and look what's happened? We're more stressed, more overweight, and sicker than we've ever been," Evans says. "Maybe it's time to try something different." Makes sense to me.