How Keeping Your Options Open Undermines Good Habits

Research shows that you don’t want a wealth of options.

How Keeping Your Options Open Undermines Good Habits

If you’re trying to make yourself more productive–whether it’s by simplifying your morning, taking walking meetings, or eating a snack that powers you up rather than slows you down–would you think that giving yourself many options for change is a good idea?


New research into snacking suggests that if we’re going to reprogram our unhealthy habits, we need to turn them into “if-then” options rather than multiple choices. As the study observes, it’s better to give yourself a cue like “If I’m hungry, I’ll eat an apple” than a less-specific script like “If I’m hungry, I’ll eat a snack.”

Otherwise we’ll just end up lost inside the Pringles can. Again.

Here’s the grease-fingered rub:As Christian Jarrett notes on the ever-interesting British Psychological Society blog, a new study in the European Journal of Psychology tracked 63 young women as they kept a snacking diary for three days. The researchers found the cues to unhealthy snacking and then formed groups with if-then plans for changing their behavior–one group got one if-then plan, another got three if-then plans, and a control group just thought about healthy snacks. Then they kept their snack journals for three more days.

The group with fewer options changed their snacking habits more, as Jarrett explains:

The women in the single if-then plan condition and those in the control condition showed a reduction in their snacking from baseline to follow-up (2.01 to 1.47 average daily snacks, and 2.45 snacks to 1.45, respectively). By contrast, the women in the multiple if-then plan group showed no significant reduction in snacking (1.95 daily snacks at baseline vs. 1.83 at follow-up).

We’ll need to take these results with a grain of sea salt: The study has too few participants to have solid statistical significance and the research on habit formation suggests that it takes about 66 days for a habit to become automatic.

That said, the research confirms a point we keep coming back to: that to change a habit–or to make our to-do lists super productive–we need to get specific rather than vague, linear rather than ambiguous.


The European snacking researchers found much of the same:

“Although multiple plans for the target behaviour should intuitively provide people with more opportunities to successfully act upon one’s intentions, the present findings show, both with behavioural and cognitive measures, that formulating multiple implementation intentions is ineffective when fighting unhealthy snacking habits,” the researchers said.

In other words, giving ourselves multiple options for improving our behavior actually hamstrings that behavioral shift. While we might like to “keep our options open,” our brains don’t process ambiguity very well. That’s one reason, we can infer, why specificity is so powerful.

Hat tip: Research Digest

[Image: Flickr user Rupert Ganzer]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.