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The Power of Friction To Stop Bad Habits and Create Better Ones

Wendy Wood is the author of Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Change, and a professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California.

One of her underlying principles on how to manipulate habits is by adding or removing friction.

Our habits are automated and rarely involve much decision making. Using willpower alone has proven time and time again to be really ineffective in breaking habits, and creating new ones.

People who are successful at reaching their long terms goals are very good at structuring their environment to make it as easy as possible to do the habits they want to do (removing friction), and more difficult to do the habits they don’t want (adding friction).

Adding Friction To Break a Habit

An example of adding friction to break a habit can be demonstrated with an experiment at a cinema involving stale popcorn.

Two groups of people were selected to watch a film at a cinema, one group were selected because they rarely ate popcorn, and the other selected because they often ate popcorn.

Both groups were given boxes of popcorn, some boxes contained fresh popcorn, and some contained stale popcorn.

The group who rarely ate popcorn, ate plenty of the fresh popcorn, but as expected didn’t really touch the stale popcorn.

However, in the frequent popcorn eating group, 70% of the popcorn was eaten regardless if the popcorn was fresh or stale.

When asked afterwards about the taste of the stale popcorn, the frequent popcorn eaters described it as tasting awful, yet they still ate 70% of it.

Their behaviour was so automatic, that they mindlessly consumed stale popcorn, even though they didn’t enjoying the taste at all.

Interesting, they ran the experiment again, this time, right handed people were directed to use their left hand to eat the popcorn, and left handed people directed to use their right hand.

After adding this small bit of friction, and interrupting the habitual popcorn eating, much less stale popcorn was consumed. The group had become much more mindful when eating, and were able to stop eating out of habit, and make a more effortlessly decision not to eat.

The British business magnate Alan Sugar, published a book many years ago entitled “The Tiny Fork Diet”. He basically exchanged his regular fork for a tiny fork, even going as far as taking it to restaurants with him to eat with.

His thought process was that it slowed his eating, and therefore, allowed enough time for him to feel full and not overeat. This is also a good example of adding friction to an unwanted habit to disrupt it.  This disruption allowed him to be more conscious and mindful, and build better long term eating habits.

Remove Friction To Create Habits

Just as adding friction can help to interrupt and break unwanted habits, removing friction can help to make it easier to form new desired habits.

The easier a desired habit is to do, the more likely we are to do it.

An example of removing friction might be to leave vitamins or medication by the kettle, as a reminder when we have our morning coffee or tea.

Another might be to the leave weighting scales at the bottom of the stairs at night, so they are seen first thing in the morning when coming downstairs.

Another classical examples might be arranging the fridge so that the “good/desired” foods are easier to get. Or leaving workout clothing by the bed, so that when we wake there is less friction to putting them on.

The key to breaking and making habits isn’t just to use willpower alone, but to set up our environments in our favour to help us succeed.

This involves removing as much friction as possible for the habits we want to do, and creating as much friction as possible for our unwanted habits, to allow us to make more mindful decisions, rather than automated ones.

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