Don't pick up bad habits when working from home
Updated: May 10
This post originally appeared on my LinkedIn on March 30, 2020.
So you're spending a lot more time at home these days, yes? But perhaps one week in, you've realized you've eaten your bodyweight in carbs, have only managed one lunchtime walk, and that time in the evening you were going to allocate toward improving your mind has instead been spent binge-watching Tiger King. I get it. It's a lot harder than you think to adjust to the new normal, but as a behavioural scientist who also essentially self isolated for weeks at a time last year while I worked full time in one country and went to grad school in another, well — I picked up some tips on how to not succumb to unhealthy habits and keep my goals on track. I'll dissect 3 common health fears about the consequences of working from home, then follow up with a behavioural science intervention idea you can then make your own.
Fear #1: I really don't want to become an alcoholic binge-watcher.
These long days at home are real ego-depleters, aren't they? And despite the best laid plans you set for the morning, by the time evening rolls around, the couch and Mr. Tempranillo seem like awfully good companions.
Intervention: Temptation bundling
Temptation bundling does something rather ingenious: it takes something we don’t want to do (but is good for us), such as completing the latest chapter of a book one is writing, and combines it with something pleasurable, such as ordering a nice glass of red wine. The trick is to pair one fun thing with one not-so-fun thing.
For me, I struggle to find the motivation and energy to work on the book I'm co-writing once the work day is over. So I pair getting to open the wine (my reward) with successfully having written 500 words. The words can be awful, but it does three things: It focuses my time on being productive; it increases efficiency because I want to get to the wine; and then I start drinking much later in the day because I can't have it until I finish those words.
Bonus tip here: Utilize a Ulysess contract, thus named after Homer's hero. On his journey, Ulysses knew the reputation of the Sirens. He also knew that future him couldn’t be trusted to hear their song without deadly consequences…nor could he trust himself to resist the urge to listen. Therefore, he ordered his men to put wax in their ears so they couldn’t hear the deadly song as they sailed past the Sirens. He also ordered them to tie him to the mast — with his ears unplugged — so he alone could hear the other-worldly song without also being compelled to drive the boat into the rocks or dive into the water to his death.
Essentially, he was pre-emptively putting guardrails in place because he knew future him couldn’t be trusted to resist the deadly call. These “Ulysses contracts,” have become an extremely valuable tool in health. So my version of this is — just don't buy the wine. (Full disclosure: I TOTALLY still buy the wine).
Fear #2: I’m going to gain a bunch of weight through mindless snacking.
Intervention: Implementation intentions
Implementation intentions are one of my favorite ways to make things easier — such as avoiding mindless snacking. These work because making specific plans on when and how to act can help people overcome one of the biggest barriers to action of all—getting started. So it takes classic goal setting a step further by adding a lot of extra clarity and context to your goals. One version of implementation intentions is strucutred as "if-then" statements. That's the one to use here.
What we're really going after is a distraction from the urge to eat, so whatever distracts you will work. So my implemention is: "If I feel the urge to snack 'just because,' I will do 20 squats and drink half a glass of water." I'm going to have buns of steel by the end of this lockdown.
Fear #3: My fitness goals are going to go totally off track because my routine was disrupted.
Intervention: Leverage loss aversion
There's a lot of science behind habit formation (small steps, specific goals, etc.) that I won't share here. But I will share something that's working for me — streaks. When adoptiong new habits, tracking success in sticking with the new habit creates a streak—and no one likes to break a streak! I have one friend who has maintained his running streak for more than 1,000 days now; you can imagine it would probably take an act of God for him to miss a day at this point. Why is that? Because we HATE losing what we already have. In general, loss is a much more powerful motivator than gain.
So, my streak is as follows (and you'll notice these are small, manageable and specific — also key). Each morning, I use the time that I would've been commuting to do the following:
Run the same 1.5 mile loop — it's a less than 15 minute commitment
Do the 7-minute workout app's daily core challenge exercise
Do the 7-minute workout app's daily fat loss challenge exercise
Bonus tip: Don't forget to replace the calories burned by walking – you're probably walking a lot less now. I go for a 45-minute walk at lunch time now, which is also a nice mental break and (conveniently) is creating another streak. Last year, when I wouldn't leave the house for days at a time and the weather wasn't nice enough to get outside, it was starting my day with a 2-mile walk workout video.
And while you're here, thinking about healthy habits...don't forget to make your bed, floss your teeth, eat your vegetables and wear sunscreen.