Stephen R. Covey, in his monumental book 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is quoted as saying, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response.” Dr. Covey’s statement reflects a common approach to altering human behavior, one requiring discipline, will power, and focused attention. While these skills are invaluable, they can be such a prominent focus of efforts to change behavior that the power behind a far simpler tool of behavior change may be neglected. The focus of this article is how to harness that power -- the power of stimulus control -- to help you achieve your goals of health and happiness.
One of the simplest ways to look at behavior is as a three step process: 1) a stimulus occurs, 2) we determine how to react to that stimulus, and 3) the behavior occurs. For example, imagine you are walking through your kitchen when you see a stimulus -- a jar of cookies sitting on the counter. You then have to decide, “Do I eat a cookie or do I skip it this time since I already had one earlier this afternoon?” If your willpower holds out, you may decide to skip it this time and you suppress the behavior the stimulus typically elicits. If not, your action will be a second cookie for the day. If you do opt to indulge, but find you wish you hadn’t, the best way to address this slipup may not be trying to strengthen your resolution to avoid cookies, but rather to focus on removing the stimulus (the jar of cookies) completely.
In working with clients as a dietitian and wellness coach, it amazes me how many don’t think to simply get the cookies out of the kitchen. This may take some creativity to remove the stimulus if there are others invested in it as well (i.e., kids and/or spouse). If a spouse, for example, also enjoys the cookies and you can’t you need to continue to make or purchase them, consider instead moving them someplace that only the spouse can access them easily, such as a high shelf. Maybe it would be enough to just hide them from view in a cupboard. For the dedicated controller of stimuli, they may even choose to place a lock on the cookie jar that only the spouse knows the combination. The possibilities are endless, so don’t be afraid to explore your options.
Stimulus control doesn’t just have to be about removing an object, it can also be about introducing a different object to promote a behavior. Sticky notes with goals on them can be placed on mirrors as stimuli for action, exercise bikes can be moved from the recesses of the basement up into the living room, and a bowl of fruit or chopped vegetables can always be waiting on the counter. Stimuli can even be added to counter other stimuli. I remember one client did struggle with indulging in cookies as she walked through her kitchen. She indulged in several each day, and it was a significant obstacle impeding her weight loss goal. Her husband was ardently opposed to removing the cookies; so her solution was to place a picture of her when she was at her ideal weight behind the cookies. Her indulgences went immediately from problematic to within moderation.
While stimulus control is a far simpler approach to making change than to focus on building greater will power and self-restraint, it is by no means a quick fix. The challenge in implementing stimulus control is in taking the time to truly reflect on our behavior, and the triggers around us that prompt it. Finding creative solutions to eliminate or enhance those triggers can be equally difficult. Next time you create a personal goal to change a behavior, take the time to ask yourself, what in my environment is prompting me to or keeping me from implementing that behavior on a regular basis? Finally, ask yourself, how you can overcome those environmental obstacles to form new habits with seemingly little effort.
By Ron Beckstrom, MS, RD, HFS
This article is for nutrition information purposes only and does not constitute medical advice. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any health or nutrition concerns you may have. The information in this article is not intended to promote any specific product, or for the prevention or treatment of any disease.