Every day we make hundreds of choices that affect our well-being, both short-term and long. Most of these choices we make without giving them much thought. For example, I’m betting most of us brushed our teeth this morning without too much introspection. When health-promoting behaviors get incorporated into our daily routines and become habitual, this is a good thing: brushing our teeth, washing our hands, putting the seat-belt on, packing a healthy snack, filling up the water bottle, etc.

But we also know that unhealthy behaviors can follow the same pattern—becoming part of our routines until they too, become habitual. These unhealthy habits can be tough to shake. Currently, in our MUS Wellness Incentive program, we’re running a challenge to Remove a Prompt from an Unwanted Behavior, so I wanted to expound on this concept.

Prompts, also sometimes referred to as triggers, are simply sensory cues that elicit behaviors. They quite literally prompt us to do something. When we hear our cellphone ding, or feel it vibrate, we usually reach for it and look at it. The ding or vibration is the prompt that elicits the behavior.

If you have unhealthy behaviors that show up in your daily routine, can you identify prompts that lead to these behaviors? It could be the sight of a sugary snack or drink, the smell of certain food, the sound of your cellphone in the evening, or it could be the sight or smell of cigarettes or alcohol. If you are trying to eliminate or diminish a certain behavior, can you identify and remove the prompt? If you can, you have taken an important first step toward eliminating or curtailing the undesirable behavior. Willpower alone doesn’t often work for us, but if we aren’t prompted or triggered in the first place, we take willpower out of the equation.

In some situations, you may be able to go a step further by replacing a prompt to an unwanted behavior with another prompt to a more desirable or health-promoting behavior. For example, having a water bottle on your desk instead of a bottle of soda. Having a bowl of fruit on your kitchen counter rather than a bowl of candy. Replacing your phone on your nightstand with a book you’ve been wanting to read. Think of examples that might work for you.

Changing behaviors, especially established habits, is difficult, and can take time and practice, but being aware of prompts and triggers that lead to certain behaviors, both desirable and undesirable, can help us set up an environment for success—where the healthy choice becomes the first choice, the easy choice, and where willpower isn’t relied on as heavily.

Here are some more examples we used for the challenge description. Come up with your own and see what works for you!

  • Putting sugary snacks or cookies high and in the corner of the pantry.
  • Removing sugary drinks from the refrigerator.
  • Charging phone at night in room other than bedroom.
  • Silencing phone or placing phone into a bag when getting into the car.
  • Taking a route to work that avoids fast food restaurants.
  • Putting dish soap in wine glass after one drink.
  • Getting rid of or hiding any visible candy in home or office.
  • Not going to the grocery store while hungry.
  • Making a grocery list and sticking to it.

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