Forget Willpower! Stop Mindless Eating (And Other Bad Habits) Through Disruption

Do you snack every night in front of the television?  Do you drink a little too much when you are out with your friends?  Do you ever find that you’ve smoked a whole pack of cigarettes, bitten off half your nails, or eaten an entire bag of Doritos without realizing you were doing it?

That’s the real problem when it comes to ridding yourself of bad habits – back in the beginning, when the behavior was new, it was something you did intentionally and probably consciously. But do anything enough times, and it becomes relatively automatic. In other words, you don’t even need to know that you are doing it. 

In fact, as new research shows, you don’t even need to want to do it. If you develop the habit of snacking in front of your TV at night, how hungry you are or how tasty the snack is will no longer determine whether or how much you eat. 

Many bad habits operate mindlessly, on autopilot.  They are triggered by the context (e.g., watching TV, socializing, feeling stressed), rather than by any particular desire to engage in the behavior. So the key to stopping a bad habit isn’t making a resolution – it’s figuring our how to turn off the autopilot.  It’s learning to disrupt the behavior, preferably before it starts.

Take for example a recent study of movie theater popcorn-eating.  Researchers invited a group of people to watch fifteen minutes of movie previews while seated in a real movie theater.  They gave the participants free bags of popcorn, and varied whether the popcorn was fresh or stale. (The stale popcorn was actually a week old. Yuck.)  Then they measured how much popcorn each person ate.

Not surprisingly, everyone who got the stale popcorn reported liking it less than those who got fresh.  And people with a weak popcorn habit (i.e., those who didn’t usually eat popcorn at the movies) ate significantly more fresh popcorn than stale.  But here’s the kicker – for people with a strong popcorn habit (i.e., those who always ordered popcorn at the movies) it didn’t matter how stale the popcorn was!  They ate the same amount, whether it was an hour old, or seven days old.

That’s worth thinking about for a moment – people with a strong habit were eating terrible popcorn, not because they didn’t notice it was terrible, but because it didn’t matter.  The behavior was automatic, not intentional.  So if tasting like Styrofoam won’t keep you from eating something, what will?

The researchers found that there were, in fact, two effective ways to disrupt the automatic popcorn-eating.

First, you can disrupt the habit by changing the context.  When they conducted the same study in the context of a conference room, rather than a movie theater, people with strong popcorn habits at the movie theater stopped eating the stale popcorn.  The automatic popcorn-eating behavior wasn’t activated, because the situational cues were changed.

If you have a habit you’d like to break, spend some time thinking about the situations in which it most often occurs.  If you snack in front of the TV at night, consider doing something else in the evenings for a while – reading a good book, spending time with friends or family, even surfing the web.  Any alternative activity is less likely to trigger mindless eating.   If you just can’t give up your favorite shows, you might try rearranging the room, or sitting in a different chair – anything that alters the context can help.

Second, you can disrupt a habit by changing the method of performance.  In another study, the researchers found that asking strong-habit popcorn eaters who were in a movie theater to eat with their non-dominant hand stopped them from eating the stale popcorn, too. 

So if you can’t change the situation, you can change the way the habit gets executed.  If you mindlessly eat or smoke with your right hand, try only using your left.  If you mindlessly drink from the glass that the bartender keeps refilling, try sitting at a table instead of the bar so you’ll have to consciously get up and ask for a refill.  Making the behavior a little more difficult or awkward to perform can be a great way to throw a wrench in the works.

Too often, we blame our failures on the wrong things.  When it comes to ridding ourselves of bad habits, we usually chalk our difficulties up to a lack of commitment, or willpower.  But as I’ve argued in my new book Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals, conquering your behavioral demons needs to start with understanding how they really work, and applying the most effective strategy.   In this case, success comes from not making it quite so easy for your autopilot to run the show.


My One Piece Of Paper

Inspired by Mike Figliuolo’s new book One Piece Of Paper – which challenges leaders to distill their philosophies to a single sheet, making it easy for them to live and others to follow – I’ve completed Mike’s worksheet for “Leading Yourself.”  See my answers below.  What are your leadership maxims?

Leading Yourself  (Heidi Grant Halvorson’s Leadership Maxims)

Why do you get out of bed every day?

My maxim is:  Don’t visualize success.  Visualize the steps you will take to succeed.

I wish I could make the universe deliver wonderful things to my doorstep just by imagining them.  I can’t – and neither can you, no matter what anyone tells you.   There is not a single piece of hard evidence that “visualizing success,” and doing nothing else, will do a damn thing for you.  In fact, you are less likely to achieve your goals when all you do is imagine yourself achieving them. People who think not only about their dreams, but about the obstacles that lie their way  - who visualize the steps they will take to make success happen – are able to stay motivated despite setbacks, dig deep, and turn their dreams into reality.  You have what it takes to succeed - stop waiting for it to happen to you, and make it happen for you.

What guidelines do you live by?

My maxim is:  I love it when a plan comes together.

The A-Team’s Colonel “Hannibal” had it right – it’s all about having the right plan.  If-then planning, in particular, is a really powerful way to help you achieve any goal.  Well over 100 studies, on everything from diet and exercise to negotiation and time management, have shown that deciding in advance when and where you will take specific actions to reach your goal (e.g., If it is 4pm, then I will return any phone calls I should return today”) can double or triple your chances for success.   

When you fall down, how do you pick yourself back up?

My maxim is:  It’s not about being good.  It’s about getting better.

Most people assume success has a lot to do with intelligence, but that’s surprisingly wrong.  No matter how high your IQ is, it says nothing about how you will deal with difficulty when it happens - whether you will be persistent and determined, or feel overwhelmed and helpless. What matters is whether your goals are about being good or getting better.  Where being good is about proving how smart, talented, and capable you already are, getting better is about developing those skills and abilities – about getting even smarter.  Studies show that people focused on getting better  - who see a less-than-perfect grade on a math test or awkwardly-given presentation as a sign to try harder next time, rather than as evidence of “not being good at math” or “not being a good public speaker,” find their work more interesting, and are less prone to anxiety and depression than their be-good colleagues. They are more motivated, persist longer when the going gets tough, and are much more likely to ultimately reach their goals.

How do you hold yourself accountable?

My maxim is:  Focus on the finish line.

Imagine you’re running a marathon, and you see the Mile 10 marker.  Is it more motivating to think about how far you’ve come (10 miles), or how far you have left to go (16.2 miles)?  The answer, which will seem a bit counter-intuitive to some, is that you should focus on the miles to-go.  Too much to-date thinking, focusing on what you’ve accomplished so far, will actually undermine your motivation to finish rather than sustain it.   Studies show that to-date thinking can lead to a premature sense of accomplishment, which makes us more likely to slack off.  We’re also more likely to try to achieve a sense of “balance” by making progress on other important goals.   We end up with lots of pots on the stove, but nothing is ever ready to eat. If, instead, we focus on how far we have left to go (to-go thinking), motivation is not only sustained, it’s heightened.   So don’t make the mistake of settling for a job only half done – always keep your eyes on the prize.