Illustrated by Emily Turner.
In my book on habits, Before and After, I’ve identified the multiple strategies that we can use to change our habits. One of the most powerful? The strategy of other people. We exert enormous influence on others, and they, on us; one way we influence each other is by providing mental energy to support (or thwart) someone else’s efforts.
I find that people fall into three gears when it comes to supporting (or opposing) other people’s healthy habits.
Drive: People in “drive” mode add energy and propulsive force to our habits. They can be very helpful as they encourage, they remind, and they join in. However, if they’re too pushy, they may be a nuisance, and their enthusiasm can rouse a spirit of opposition.
Reverse: Some people press others to reverse out of a healthy habit. They may do this from a sense of love, such as food pushers who argue, “You should enjoy yourself!” or “I baked this just for you!” Or, their behavior may be more mean-spirited or undermining, as they try to tempt, ridicule, or discourage us from sticking to a healthy habit. But, just as people in drive can sometimes provoke opposition, so, too, can people in reverse. They may ignite a helpful “I’ll show you,” or “You can’t stop me” spirit.
Neutral: These folks go along with our habits. They support whatever we do. Sometimes this is useful, and sometimes this support makes it easier to indulge in habits when we know we shouldn’t. My sister told me, “If I say to my husband, ‘Let’s go out for dinner,’ he says, ‘Great!’ And, if I say, ‘Let’s stay home and eat very healthy,’ he says ‘Great!’ to that, too.
It can be tricky to know how to help people keep their good habits. I’m a bit of a habits bully, and sometimes my “drive” mode probably bugs the people around me.
I have a lot of zeal for healthy habits — in myself and in others — but even I find it surprisingly difficult to stay in drive mode. It feels so festive and friendly to encourage people to treat themselves in some way. As the examples illustrate, people also influence us in how they suggest loopholes for us to follow. Just look at all the different types of loopholes invoked above. So, one way we can avoid the negative influence of other people is to keep in mind the strategy of loophole-spotting.
Do you do things to help others keep their good habits? Do you feel the influence of other people on your habits — for good or for ill?