The rain started pouring and splish-sploshing on my window. Should I? Shouldn’t I? It isn’t part of my plan today, and I am on a deadline with my commitments. It isn’t part of my diet plan either. When was the last time I had one? I tried to remember.
I sat inside my car, parked right outside of my house with the engine of my white Audi A1 Ambition running while I was lost in thought.
Fasting beach walk done? Check. Errands done? Check. Gym workout done? Check. Groceries done? Check.
Yeah, I deserve it; I’ve worked really hard this week and been consistent with my workouts; I’ll go now and get one. I did a cheeky u-turn and was on my way.
A burnt salted-caramel slice. All of this mental energy, procrastination, time-wasting over a caramel slice.
I knew I would feel guilty about it later and yet, over the past few weeks, I had been craving cakes, cookies, and slices far more than usual. How much time was I spending lately thinking about food? Dreaming about it? Arguing with myself over whether to eat this or not? Trying to justify the sweets, burgers, and other non-nourishing food choices, which had tightened my waistband slightly of late?
It wasn’t the cost of the tightened pants that was of most concern; it was how much time I was spending mentally and emotionally thinking about food and the pain, guilt, suffering, and shame I felt after eating it. That’s what was triggering alarm bells. And how did this even get started? What prompted this behavior?
I don’t usually buy my coffee. My life isn’t designed that way. I drink it black and at home. I have my home set up—my environment designed—so my coffee is specifically ethically sourced—I have a bunch of criteria—and I make it at home. I’m not usually tempted by the siren call of the cakes and slices that way. But then my coffee pot broke, and I wasn’t able to find an immediate replacement. I live in Australia, and with COVID-19, the replacement would be about 6-8 weeks. I also immediately ordered a french press, but since I’m not a huge fan of coffee that way, I started buying my coffee every other day, increasing my exposure to all things delicious that the stores put in front of their counters. Clever them, given food, has always been my contention point. Burgers. Cakes. Fries. Willpower? Forget about it. All the willpower in the world won’t keep me off a cake past 3 pm. Willpower is connected to a limited reserve of mental energy, and once we run out of that energy, we’re more likely to lose self-control. Psychological researchers even have a name for this phenomenon: ego depletion. With my daily coffee run sparking the siren call of cookies and cakes, it was time to deploy a strategy I’d learned years before.
When I was going through the most challenging time in my life, my go-to was cookies. I called it my cookie conundrum. I had an excellent nutritionist at the time. He said to me if I’m doing something over and over again—if my body is craving it, or it is causing some pay off mentally, emotionally, or physically—rather than making myself wrong, to instead incorporate it into my lifestyle. In this case, he created a meal plan where my diet plan was clean to meet my desired outcomes and aspirations—at the time, fat reduction and to increase my fitness & strength—but every day, there was an afternoon cookie and coffee ritual, which I got to indulge in. There was no need to feel bad as it was fulfilling a need and was pre-planned for. I didn’t know it at the time, but my nutritionist was practicing behavior design. My nutritionist was unwittingly living, teaching, and embodying Fogg Maxxim #1 & Fogg Maxxim #2.
Fogg Maxim #1: Help people do what they already want to do.
Fogg Maxim #2: Help people feel successful.
I also believe in eating food for nourishment and performance. Foods that will cause sustained uplifting energy, vitality, and aliveness help with my productivity, anti-aging, and long-term objectives, so all this cake and slice eating isn’t actually working. There is an absolute conflict between my values and goals.
Conflicting motivations are opposing drives related to the same behavior and can be a source of psychological suffering. “I want to eliminate non-nourishing, sugar-laden foods from my diet, but gosh, I really want to eat these cookies”. These conflicts can change depending on what’s happening around us, and we may not even understand where the desire to eat these specific foods is coming from. Rather than needing to figure out why or the source of our motivation—emotionally, mentally, or physically—we can design something workable for our life, right now, exactly as it is. We can figure out what’s prompting it.
What’s prompting my cookie-munching anyways? The mid-afternoon energy slump.
My mid-afternoon energy slump usually happens at 2 pm, and it’s a feeling for sure. I feel tired, low energy, mild fatigue, and want to lie down and take a nap—which I never do—followed by the overwhelming feeling of craving something sweet to eat—ala, the desire for cookies and cake. And I’m not alone.
A lot of us get a mid-afternoon slump.
A carb-heavy lunch can lead to a sugar crash. A rebound in fatigue that was temporarily held at bay by morning caffeine. Being mildly dehydrated can subtly yet negatively affect our energy levels. Also, insomnia and sleep deprivation are commonplace in the world today. If we are not getting enough sleep at night, small factors can have a large effect on our alertness in the afternoon.
Behavior happens in a specific context or environment when we are motivated, we have the ability to do it, and we are prompted.
B (Behavior) = (happens when) M (Motivation) & A (Ability) & P (Prompt) converge at the same moment.
If we know this is going to happen, we can research and plan ahead to achieve our aspirations & outcomes.
A quick google search brings up a plethora of nourishing choices which fulfill the same need, which we can pop into our pantries as better options when we are prompted.
A few of my favorites, and where to find them:
I love chocolate, fudge & brownies.
I love the Vanilla Nougat, Strawberry Cheesecake, and Marshmallow Chocolate Biscuit flavors.
Here’s what they look like in my pantry.
The cookie conundrum? I turned it into a blissful Tiny Habits Recipe you can use in your own life too.
Step 1: Purchase some protein cookies, bars, balls, or slices you believe are healthy. Not sure where to start? Use the links I’ve included above.
Step 2: Figure out a good prompt. The behavior sequence might look like this:
After I feel my energy fade (in the afternoon), I will pour a glass of water and indulge in a protein cookie (bar or ball).
Step 3: Really enjoy the taste. Bliss out in the moment and feel happy and good about adding a healthy habit to your life.
My Recipe—The Tiny Habits Method
After I feel my energy start to fade (in the afternoon)
I will pour a glass of water and enjoy a protein cookie
And celebrate with a Serena Williams fist pump
The best way to learn the Tiny Habits Method is to get started practicing immediately. Don’t wait.
Our decisions define us. Our actions define us. Our habits define us.
So focusing on designing specific actions is where we start.
What action will you choose to take now?
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It’s been a decade since Dr. Carol Dweck, Stanford professor of psychology, published Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, forever changing how parents and teachers praise their kids. In Mindset, Dweck explained the findings of her research on motivation, learning and mastery. To recap Dweck’s discovery:
Praising Effort, Not Ability
Dweck emphasized that, like ability, mindset can be shaped, and that a child’s mindset comes from the way the adults around them talk about ability and accomplishment. In the wake of Dweck’s research, parents and teachers strove to change the language they used with their children.
Instead of praising ability and outcome, they learned to praise effort and improvement. For parents of my generation, telling a child, “You’re so smart!” or even “Good job!” was tantamount to using profanity. Instead, we learned to respond to a child’s every action with, “Wow, you really worked hard on that!”
What’s Missing? Strategies and Results
Dweck now says that her research is often misapplied. Valuing effort is only the beginning. While effort is important, it is not the end goal. Children need to learn to use multiple strategies in their quest for growth, and should be praised for trying something new.
Parents should praise results as well, even when imperfect. The key is to give specific praise that emphasizes new learning and growth, not just effort. You might say, “You’re not there yet, but you’re on the right track! What else could you try here?” or “Look how your work has changed since two months ago. It’s clear you’re starting to get the hang of this. What are you doing that’s working?” Learn to acknowledge the small successes on the road to each accomplishment.
Celebrating Each Step
Celebrating incremental successes comes naturally to parents and teachers who use the Tiny Habits Method. Dr. BJ Fogg, Director of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford and creator of the Tiny Habits Method, frequently emphasizes the importance of celebrating each success.
The mental high that we experience with each accomplishment, no matter how small, contributes to what he calls “success momentum”. With every win, your sense that you can accomplish something more grows, and you become more motivated to pursue difficult goals and more confident that you will be able to achieve them.
The same thing happens for children. If they feel that only an “A” grade or a first-place ribbon mark success, they may shy away from classes and activities where they are not certain to win. However, if they have learned to celebrate each step on the road to achievement, they will take pleasure in tackling new challenges and learn to recognize their own potential for growth.
Ready to learn more about how the Tiny Habits Method can benefit you and your family? Enroll in Dr. BJ Fogg’s free 5-Day Tiny Habits program.