Jobs and the Future of Work

How to build good habits, according to a top psychologist

A man is silhouetted against a video screen with an Facebook logo as he poses with an Samsung S4 smartphone in this photo illustration taken in the central Bosnian town of Zenica, August 14, 2013. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/File Photo - RTX2IVBO

Adam Alter, NYU psychologist, suggests the best techniques for building good habits. Image: REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

Chris Weller
Ideas Reporter, Business Insider
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You might ignore that bag of potato chips or your Facebook feed for awhile, but don't be surprised if a lack of will power leads you back to your vices.

According to NYU psychologist Adam Alter, the real way to build good habits is to focus less on making good choices, and more on building an environment that limits decision-making altogether.

"There are very few examples of humans doing a good job exerting self-control for very long periods of time," Alter tells Business Insider. "If we're talking about days, weeks, months, a lifetime, there's just no way you can resist temptation for that long."

Alter is the author of the new book, "Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked." It reveals the myriad ways smartphone apps and games hijack our brains, leaving us craving more even when we know we've had our fill.

Alter ends the book by discussing how we come to develop habits in all aspects of our lives. He devotes the final two chapters (no spoilers, don't worry) to the importance of so-called "behavioral architecture." Think of it as the countless ways we can organize our kitchens, offices, and bedtime routines to nudge us toward the healthiest behaviors.

Smart behavioral architecture emphasizes using smaller dinner plates over larger ones to limit how much we portion out for meals. It recommends checking email only once per hour, and wiping messages out in batches, rather than keeping the tab open in your browser all day. And it advocates for putting undesirables — phones at bedtime, say — far, far away.

In those cases, and many others, having a system takes away your need to make a conscious choice not to indulge in destructive behavior — in this case, overeating, checking email, and staying up late into the night.

"You need to do something like change the environment, make sure the temptation is out of reach so that it's no longer possible to be tempted," Alter says.

There are some who say will power works like a muscle, and so exercising decision making every now and then could be a good thing, Alter adds. However, he says the research on such theories are "flimsy" and don't have any broad applicability to be useful.

"If you're looking at long-range will power, it's reasonably fixed," he says. "So if you're trying to prevent yourself from using the device that's in your pocket all day, there will come a time when you aren't able to do that anymore."

The smarter bet is to follow a bit of ancient, behavioral psych wisdom: Out of sight really is out of mind.

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