by Reed Rawlings

I love blaming stress for my poor habits. It’s so easy to say, “I can’t do this, I’m too stressed” because it’s a shared experience. Everyone I’ve ever met has pointed to stress as a reason for their behavior. I don’t have to justify an unhealthy meal or an extra nap — I’m just stressed.

However, this assumes that stress causes bad habits. If I were stress-free, then I’d be a responsible, disciplined adult. It’s not my fault, it’s stress.

Research led by psychologists Neal, Wood, and Drolet shows that may not be the case. Instead of stress causing bad habits, it merely brings them to the forefront. That is to say, when stressed, we fall back on our established routines. I’m not eating junk food because I’m stressed, I’m doing it because that’s how I usually eat. Stress just makes it harder to choose the healthier choice.

Thankfully, this is a two-way street. Over a series of five studies, Neal & Wood found that stressed participants, “increased their performance of desirable and undesirable habits alike.”

Their first experiment analyzed the habits and workflow of MBA students over ten weeks of class. Once final exams rolled around, Neal & Wood assumed the added stress would trigger habitual behaviors; they were right. Across the board, students who ate full meals, drank coffee, and read the paper, continued to do so. Some with even greater enthusiasm.

The researchers were particularly puzzled by the extra time spent reading the news. In general, finals week is more demanding than an average week. Yet, students answered their stress by spending more time on habits. These results have two critical interpretations.

First, if those students didn’t have strong study habits before exams, it would be impossible to change their behaviors by the end of the term. This means that even good habits like reading the news can turn sour in the wrong situation. You may inadvertently spend more time on “productive procrastination” than actual work.

On the other hand, unless your situation forces you to adapt, stress isn’t harmful. Its primary function is to limit cognitive load and automate comforting behaviors. In this light, stress is good for people with healthy habits. Not that they should seek out difficult situations, but their day won’t be ruined if stress falls in their lap.

But, what if the habits we have aren’t the ones we want? Behavior change is different for every person, but research says there are several core components to focus on.

First, find your motivation. Practice self-awareness to discover why you want to change. If your motivation relies on others beliefs about you, you shouldn’t change at all. However, if you’re going to make change for your own happiness, you’re in the right mindset.

Second, you must understand the nuances of your habits. I don’t know anyone who wants to be a chronic procrastinator, but that doesn’t tell me anything about you. For instance, do you need to cut back your screen time at home or how you manage time at work? Do you procrastinate when you lack deadlines or when the structure is overwhelming? What you focus on determines what and how you change.

Third, you’ve got to outline a plan. Take the triggers identified in the second step and plan around them. Committing to a goal isn’t enough to see it through. You need to know what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and the timeline to do so. Peter Gollwitzer’s “If-Then plans” are an excellent tool for this step.

Finally, as this study shows, you’ve got to reduce stress. Willpower is an essential tool for behavior change, stress impedes it. Worse, it will cause you to fall back on the same bad habits you’re trying to change.

So, if stress bogs you down take a break and indulge. Give your mind and body the opportunity to reset. But, don’t blame stress for your actions. Instead, analyze your habits. If you see something you don’t like, realize you can change.

Originally published by Reed Rawlings on


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