Why are new habits are so hard to make?

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Meal Sharing and the Challenges of Trying to Change Behaviour

When I was in elementary school we had an extra bell ringing everyday. I didn’t know it was an extra bell at the time, but it rang in addition to all the other bells that rang for lunch, recess, the start of the day, and the end. This was a special bell that meant only one thing. When this bell rang, the ENTIRE SCHOOL went outside and ran half a mile down the road, turned around, and ran back. Every kid, every grade, every teacher, ran a mile every day.

I can't even believe how remarkable that is to me now.

There was no changing in to gym clothes, there was no skipping the run, there were no excuses, nor options to stay behind. If you could walk or run, you did it. It was just part of the day. We did not even think to question it. I did not have to “make it a habit”, it was made for me.

I tell you this story because it explains my fantasy of being a benevolent dictator. Really. I would love the chance to try it out. I am sure I could do better than a world that contains high-fructose corn syrup — an example of just one big problem among all the others I would aim to prevent when I am a dictator.

I would definitely reinstate the mandatory daily mile-long run.

This article is not about running, however, it’s about why everyone should start meal sharing immediately. That’s how bossy I feel about it. If I were a benevolent dictator, I would make it a law, along with the running. I value consensus, yes, but it’s so darn hard! I would simply top-down force meal sharing on everyone if I could. Like seat belts. That’s how good I think meal sharing is for us. Like vitamins added to milk and flour to prevent deficiencies (this is actually done). That’s how beneficial I think it would be for all of us. Meal sharing makes life better.

One of the reasons I want meal sharing to be mandatory is that it’s kind of a hard sell. Don’t get me wrong — people LOVE the idea. (Yes, they love it enough to warrant using all-caps twice in one article.) Everyone I talk to thinks it’s a great idea, they can imagine themselves doing it, and are very enthusiastic. But, do they implement it? It is hard to know because it’s hard to measure. But I doubt it. I think the logistics of actually doing it prevent most of us from adopting it. Which leads me to why I am writing this article.

The Meal Share Dare

I have been working on a project last year all about this idea. The Meal Share Dare is one of my pet projects: a campaign I created to encourage people to meal share and to spread the idea. It is a set of fun communication materials that convey all the awesomeness that meal sharing will bring into your life: a poster, a website, info-graphics, etc.

The Meal Share Dare is a challenge to try out meal sharing for a few weeks in order to experience the benefits from it. Meal sharing can be defined in many ways, of course, but I am promoting a specific way of meal sharing: 

Eat dinner regularly with people who you do not typically eat with: one household cooks and cleans, the other eats and leaves. Alternate homes. Keep to an hour. Make healthy, basic meals.

Easy!

Your new meal sharing partners could be someone from a different household, a neighbour, another family, your roommate who you never see, old friends, new friends, adult siblings — it's up to you.

Meal sharing is not a new or novel idea, but it IS a very under-used idea. I am certain we would all benefit from bringing habitual meal sharing into our lives! But it’s a tough sell. It’s not exactly going viral.

Changing our own habits

No matter how great of an idea it is, or how many benefits it could bring, it is very hard for any of us to change our own habits, and it is especially hard for us to change other people’s behaviour. Governments and social scientists have been trying to figure out for a very long time how to get people to change their behaviour for their own good: exercise more, save for the future, eat more vegetables, drink less alcohol — the list could go truly on. (It took decades of education for smoking statistics to start going down.)

Even though meal sharing may bring us many benefits, there are a bunch of obstacles for us to mentally and emotionally climb over before we receive the promised benefits:

Committing

It is hard to commit to something, anything, weekly. We are very attached to our freedom and individuality.

Awkwardness

We can imagine potential awkwardness if it doesn’t work out. “So, uh, we don’t want to eat with you any more. Bye.”

Short-term thinking

The benefits are long term. It is in our nature to tend think more about the short term and prioritize immediate gratification. But our future selves really need us to think in the long term.

Benefits are intangible

The benefits are intangible things like “being around each other more”, “deepening our bonds of friendship”, “gain efficiency for one meal out of every fourteen”,  “creating more familial relationships” and other lame sounding things that have real long-term beneficial consequences. Like building long-term friendships.

How do people change their behaviour? Can we have an impact on the behaviour of other people?

One of the most widely accepted ideas for how people make changes in their lives is called the “transtheoretical model” (TTM)*. (An annoying academic mouthful of a word.) It was developed and described by researchers James O. Prochaska and Carlo C. DiClemente in the 1980’s and is still used to understand and advise on behaviour change today.  (I propose to retitle it “5 Steps to Lasting Change”, or anything catchier than the transtheoretical model.) TTM describes a person as being in one of five stages of change: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, or maintenance.

In essence, without describing each stage in any detail: 

1. You start out with no intention to change (I have never heard of meal sharing.)

2. then something leads you to want to change (What this meal sharing business?) and decide to do it,

3. and then you start preparing to change (Choose people to meal share with, get their buy in, choose a time and day of the week.). 

4. Then you take action and take the Meal Share Dare for 6 weeks, work out the bugs and re-orient your life to accommodate this new thing

5. followed by: Meal sharing has become a pleasant, rewarding habit. Finally!

Considering that there are three full and difficult stages that need to happen before people can even get to taking the Meal Share Dare part, I guess it is pretty clear why it is hard to spread this idea and see it being adopted — even among people I know and who are already enthusiastic about it. Creating a meal sharing habit is not as challenging as say, entrenching an exercise routine, or quitting an addiction, but it still takes learning about it, contemplating it, and preparing for it before even taking any action. All that has to happen before it can just be maintained  as a regular part of life. A large educational campaign about the benefits of meal sharing might get a bunch of people to the contemplation stage, but would require many resources than my adorable little website on meal sharing.

Meal sharing simply cannot “catch on” like a catchy Youtube video, because we cannot be easily adopt it. Like many things in life, the really worthwhile stuff takes work and effort to make into a life habit. Trying to inspire people to start meal sharing is more like convincing them to go to them gym: they may think it’s good idea, but actually integrating it into life is complex and costly in terms of commitment and some effort, therefore not easily done.

But when I am the dictator, be ready to run a mile over to your friends’ house for some fun meal sharing times. That’s an order. 

 — Laurel 

Why it’s hard to change unhealthy behavior — and why you should keep trying,
Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School, 2007 (author not cited)