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Want to Accomplish Goals? Study finds Good Habits Trump Self-Control

Update Date: May 27, 2013 12:11 PM EDT

People who are too focused on controlling their behaviors whether or not it is to stop food cravings or to be nicer might easily become stressed and tired. When self-control is not dominating the brain, people could then resort to old habits that could be considered negative and debilitating. For example, for dieters, old habits could include eating fatty foods and sweets, which self-control would then come in handy. Even though some habits are bad, a new study suggests that self-control is not always good either. Researchers concluded that habits, whether or not they are good or bad, could be better for accomplishing goals than self-control. The concept of relying on habits over self-control was supported by five experiments that will appear in the June issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

"When we try to change out behavior, we strategize about our motivation and self0control. But what we should be thinking about instead is how to set up new habits. Habits persist even when we're tired and don't have energy to exert self-control," said Wendy Wood reported by Medical Xpress. Wood is a Provost Professor of Psychology and Business at the University and one of the head investigators of the study.

The lead researchers of these experiments, Wood and David Neal of the University of Southern California, concluded that a lack of control does not automatically lead to overindulgence, but rather, it allows the individual to go about his or her daily routine that could encompass both bad and good habits. Carrying out these habits, for better or worse, could be more beneficial than just self-control alone. In one of the experiments, the researchers monitored students for an entire semester. They discovered that when students were stressed and sleep-deprived during test weeks, they seemed to revert to old habits that ended up helping them get through the tests.

The team found that regardless of whether or not the habits were good or bad, people reverted to them when they were too stressed to worry about self-control. This finding is important since people with healthy habits, such as exercising while stressed, followed these habits more often than before.

"You might expect that, when students were stressed and had little time, they wouldn't read the paper at all, but instead the fell back on their reading habits," Wood explained. The team found that those who had a reading habit tended to read more when they were stressed. "Habits don't require much willpower and thought and deliberation."

Therefore, if people could pick up on healthier habits more frequently than bad habits, their bodies could end up automatically doing healthier things.

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