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Once the indulgences of Christmas are over many of us go to the other extreme and consider what ‘personal austerity’ measures we will undertake once we enter the New Year. But however good our intentions are, these can be quickly abandoned.

In a paper published today in partnership with Philips the RSA examines why we often struggle to do what we know we should do, even though we have abundant information about healthy diets, the need for exercise and rest and the value of good communication. The paper gives these healthy behaviours the name WEST: Walking; Eating; Sleeping; Talking.

Natalie Spencer, Senior Researcher, Social Brain centre at the RSA, and the paper’s author said:

An important issue here is that many healthy lifestyle injunctions are perceived as a loss of something immediate – loss of calories, loss comfort, loss of convenience – whereas the benefits are psychologically more distant because their accrual is uncertain and in the future.

There are also certain aspects of our human nature that stop us implementing health-related changes. These include our tendencies towards optimism, habit, empathy gaps and myopia, all of which tend to reinforce our ‘want’ behaviours over our ‘shoulds’.

“But the good news is that there are things that we can do to help us stick to our healthy goals: commitment devices, temptation bundling, or implementation plans can help us overcome challenges. Even though an initial change can be difficult, as the new behaviour becomes habitual it will be easier to maintain as part of a lifestyle of healthy living. 

There are many ways to change behaviour. Traditional measures like financial incentives, or designing products and spaces to work with our natural behaviours rather than against them, are both ways of influencing our lifestyles. 

A third way is to help ourselves to stick to goals, with strategies to help avoid buckling to the ‘wants’ and to encourage the ‘shoulds’. These are:

  • Commitment devices – self-imposed ways to help commit to a goal. These work by restricting future choice or by making it very unattractive to not follow through on an intention. Examples are setting a regular time to go jogging with a friend as the price of not going increases because we don’t want to flake out or let down our friend. Or setting a timer to turn all our devices off at 11pm so we get to bed on time.
  • Temptation-bundling – a device to simultaneously increase the ‘should’ behaviour and cut down on the ‘want’ by bundling an indulgent activity with a prudent one. An example is: people have been found to go the gym more often when their access to the next chapter of a suspenseful audiobook is restricted to the gym.
  • Implementation plans – effective planning can bridge the intention-action gap. Instead of a plan to ‘eat well’ a specific trigger is put in place when a specific action takes place. An “if-then” construction is useful here. An example is to say “if a waiter brings round a dessert menu, then I will order herbal tea instead.”


Notes to editors:

  1. For more information contact RSA Interim Head of Media Sarah Horner via or on 020 7451 6893 / 07799 737 970 or RSA Director of External Affairs Nina Bolognesi on or 07971 851145.
  2. Twitter: @theRSAorg #RSAhealthy 
  3. Website:


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