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?
I write things & stuff on Medium
My 12-year-old son started orchestra last year, playing on the same violin my grandma learned on 80 years ago. (We affectionately call it Shirley, after her.) After every class, I’d ask if he had exercises or songs he should be practicing at home. If you’ve had a tween, you won’t be surprised to hear that he consistently answered, “No, we haven’t done much in class yet”…until the day the flier came home for their upcoming concert. Cue pre-adolescent panic attack.
Gavin has a tendency to catastrophize in the face of a big project, and immediately started moaning that, “I’m never going to be ready! I’m never going to be able to play all these songs! I’m going to have to practice 24/7 for a year to learn all this!”
So we started breaking the elephant down into bite-sized pieces. “OK,” I said, “you only have three weeks until the concert. Maybe you won’t have all five songs mastered by then. But what if you focused on just one?”
“Maybe if I practiced all day every day,” he sulked.
“Well, you’re pretty busy, and you still have to go to school, so I don’t see that happening. But do you think there’s anywhere in your day where you could find just a few extra minutes for this?”
“Like that’ll do any good!”
“Maybe not. But why don’t you try it for a few days and see how it goes?”
With that enthusiastic reply, we got into the creation of a Tiny Habit recipe. My kids are familiar with the method, so I briefly reminded him that it might be a good idea to choose a specific time of day to practice, so he’d be more likely to follow through. He’s an early riser, so he thought mornings might work best.
“Great,” I said, “Where does this fit best in your morning?”
We decided that if he practiced as soon as he got up he might wind up running late, but if he made it the last thing on his to-do list he could practice more or less depending on how much time he had left before the bus came.
We walked through the morning routine and pegged “After I put on my tennis shoes” as a good anchor; he keeps his shoes in his room, next to his violin, and puts them on after breakfast and before leaving for the bus.
Now for the habit. “I’ll practice all my songs 10 times,” he said.
“I like your enthusiasm, but that’s a pretty big goal. What happens if you’re running late one day? Can we scale it back a little? You can always do more if you have time.”
At this point, we decided to play around with the smallest possible habit he could think of, “I will pick up my violin case.” On days he had time, this would lead to a quick practice session. On days he was running late, he’d pick up the case and tell his violin, “Sorry, Shirley, gotta run. Let’s play tomorrow.”
Gavin was sure that anything short of a full practice session couldn’t possibly produce results, but he grudgingly agreed to give it a shot.
In three days the first song was mastered. After a week he was setting his alarm earlier to get more practice in, and picking up the violin after school to show off his growing skills. Three weeks later he walked onstage feeling calm and confident. He’d even taught himself a few songs that were not on the program and proudly gave the real Shirley a private concert over Christmas break.
For kids (and grown-ups) who are easily overwhelmed, the Tiny Habits method gives them a concrete way to break down big, scary goals and projects. It also gives them continual small wins to celebrate, which boosts their confidence, created success momentum, and keeps them moving in the right direction. They quickly see how even small steps toward your goal can lead quickly to measurable progress.
Curious about how the Tiny Habits method can help you accomplish big things? Check out BJ’s just-released bestseller, Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything. Ready to try it out for yourself? Sign up for our free 5-day program and learn how to create habits that can help you reach even your most daunting aspirations.