When Is a Habit Not a Habit?

by | Aug 11, 2014

Photo by Sasquatch I

Recently a reader contacted me with a curious concern. She was a big believer in the power of mindful eating and set about diligently performing all the guidelines of mindful eating practice, including sitting at a table, removing distractions, eating only when hungry, chewing thoroughly, etc.

It was going really well for a few weeks, until it all came crumbling down. Something in her day caused her resolve to crack, and without being able to stop herself she continued to break every rule in the mindful eating book: eating while standing, distracted, not hungry, and making poor food decisions that weren’t worth it.

“It was almost as if I was deliberately doing exactly what the guidelines told me not to do.”

I immediately knew what her problem was, because I had faced exactly the same thing when I was trying to build mindful eating habits.

Mindful eating was one of the last, and certainly one of the most difficult habits I ever tried to create. I made many futile attempts to get it to stick (iPhone reminders didn’t work for very long, FYI), but I missed the mark time and again for nearly a year before I figured it out.

My breakdowns weren’t much different from my reader’s. Though I was well into my foodist lifestyle and not very tempted by processed or less healthy foods, I was still prone to overeating when I was really hungry, which often resulted from being very busy and stressed.

I would eat standing up or while checking email, barely giving myself time to swallow what was in my mouth before grabbing another bite. I’d be well past full before even being conscious of what I was doing.

What was the problem?

I didn’t crack the code until I started thinking more systematically about the behaviors I was trying to change, and realized that just because I was doing the same thing over and over again didn’t make it a habit.

While repetition is a necessary component of habit building, it is not sufficient to create one.

A true habit must be automatic. A true habit occurs without willpower.

Both myself and my reader had the same realization when we acknowledged that our efforts weren’t working: we were still using willpower. We were still trying to force ourselves to do something we believed was good for us.

“I had been treating the eating guidelines like dieting rules and I was rebelling against them like one would when their willpower runs out on their diet.”

Bingo.

We wanted our behaviors to change, but were only focusing on changing our actions. What we forgot is that to create habits we also needed to address the trigger and reward, the two things that respectively precede and follow a habitual action. The trigger and reward are what define a habit and make it automatic. Without them an action is just an action.

One of the reasons mindful eating habits are so difficult to develop is that the trigger and reward are not always obvious. What exactly is the reward for eating slowly?

Not having a stomach ache in 20 minutes is too far away and too vague of a result for it to be an effective reward. The best rewards are positive (not negative or neutral), and immediate.

The same is true of triggers. The reason my iPhone reminders only worked sometimes is that if I wasn’t able to eat at exactly the time my reminder went off then I would forget, even if it was only 5 minutes later. The trigger should immediately precede the action you want to activate, directly triggering it. (This stuff may seem obvious, but it’s much harder to figure out in the real world.)

For mindful eating, I realized that the most important action that I wanted to focus on was chewing my food thoroughly. I realized that the action that immediately precedes chewing is taking a bite of food.

My insight was that the act of stabbing or picking up my food was the perfect trigger to remind myself to ask a simple question: “Is there food in my mouth right now?”

If the answer is yes, then I put down my fork and focus on chewing the food already in my mouth. If the answer is no, I continue to eat.

It sounds simple, but I’ve found it is the only thing that actually worked to change my behavior.

It wasn’t until after I figured out how to remember to chew (after all, mindfulness is really just another way of remembering to pay attention) that I discovered what the reward is.

One day I was tired, stressed and distracted when I sat down to lunch. I started eating ferociously, but was quickly stopped in my tracks. I had swallowed a large hunk of only partially chewed salad, and it felt so uncomfortable. It was all pokey, lumpy and jagged as it slid down my throat. I could almost feel that it was going to give me a stomach ache later.

I had grown accustomed to swallowing well-chewed, soft food and apparently I really enjoy that (don’t ask me why, but my bet is you would too). It is my reward. So the feeling of discomfort I had from not chewing my food thoroughly quickly corrected my behavior and reminded me to slow down, use my trigger and eat mindfully.

This, my friends, is what a habit feels like.

A true habit happens automatically, at a subconscious level. It is a feeling, not a thought.

When you’re tired, stressed, hungry, drunk, distracted, hungover, hormonal, pissed, or anything else that takes you away from your normal routine, any action that requires willpower will be dropped faster than your blood sugar after an insulin spike.

Automatic habits are your only chance for sticking with something long-term.

If there’s an action you do regularly, but you still feel like you have to force yourself to do it, then it isn’t a habit. If you want it to stick for real, you had better figure out a way to make it one.

Do you have a habit that isn’t a habit? How are your going to fix it?

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23 Responses to “When Is a Habit Not a Habit?”

  1. Morgan says:

    This was incredibly thought-provoking. It describes exactly where I am at with regard to working out. I’ve worked out religiously for three years. Earlier this year, I encountered some extra stress and a stark change to my schedule and routine, and I have not been back to “normal” since. I always thought what I was doing was habitual, but when I really think about it…I was forcing myself to do something I did not want to do six times a week for three years. Since then, I’ve struggled seriously to be back at the gym. At this point, it’s been almost a month…which is the longest I’ve been away in the entire three years. Your insights here have definitely got me thinking…I need to seriously consider what the true trigger and reward might be. Thanks for sharing.

  2. amy says:

    Once you decide what the trigger for the habit should be, how do you remind yourself in that moment that “this is the trigger, do the behavior, reap the reward”

    Maybe I haven’t found the right trigger yet or the right reward. Are you saying that when you find the right trigger that will lead to the right behavior that will lead to the reward you want, it will happen automatically? Or do you still have to remind yourself every time (at first) until it truly becomes a habit?

    thanks!

    • Darya Rose says:

      The trigger must be strong enough that it reminds you. Being aware that you can use something as a trigger should be enough if the trigger is strong enough.

      The best triggers often follow another habit and are therefore predictable. For instance, doing something right when you wake up in the morning, right when you walk in the door, or during your nighttime pre-bed routine are excellent for habit formation.

      I’ve found that the most effort involved is figuring out why you do what you do. That takes energy and a bit of willpower, along with persistent trial and error. But once you get it right it becomes a habit fairly easily.

  3. Courtney says:

    This was just what I needed to read today! I am loving what happens when I eat mindfully, but I was struggling to make it part of my entire day, especially when I was tired or stressed. Thinking about what the trigger and reward really are will help. Thanks!

  4. Sarah says:

    Thanks for another great article, Darya! Mindful eating became my goal after I realized that was the only way to get over an awful case of acid reflux (which had gotten so bad I couldn’t eat anything without feeling nauseated afterward). Necessity has made me pretty mindful.

    For me this article has much more far reaching implications. I won’t go into details here, but I’m a high school teacher and organization/preparation are very much “will-power” factors for me: sometimes I’m on my game, sometimes I want re-read all your blog posts instead of do work.;)

    This dive into what makes a habit a habit has given me much food for thought. Thanks again!

  5. Mandy says:

    Hey Darya!
    I wanted to thank you for the article. I don’t really read all your posts because I can be a stubborn teen and don’t want to listen, but this one really helped me. I had been eating a lot for 15 years of my life because I played year around tennis. I was in great shape and all of the sudden, I start to care about food and calories. I developed an eating disorder 8 months ago and it changed my life. I had to leave school, I got anxiety, I would not leave the house because I was afraid of what people thought of me. I had a lot of anger at my parents and my life just turned upside down. No more tennis or anything. After I got over my disorder, I statutes eaton a lot. Exactly what my therapist told me not to do. I can’t even look in the mirror anymore becuase I think I am overweight but everyone keeps telling me I am normal. I’m not muscular or toned anymore becuase I literally stayed in the house for months doing nothing. I tried continuously to get my life back to the way it was but I could never eat right. I am struggling with finding a balanced diet. Something I have never had. I am going to boardig school in less than a month and I am trying to find a way to help with my eating. For a week now I have worked out and eaten right. The problem is, I have to do it willingly. I don’t know if easing right will ever become natural for me. I don’t know what to do. This is my last try at making a better life for myself. I just wanted you to know I will take your advice and try to find a reward for eating slow.

    • Jean says:

      Mandy, don’t give up! As the mom of 3 wild teenagers, I can say – remember the foods you like. Look for websites and things like pinterest pages with foods that look good (and healthy). there is so much really inspiring information available to help you learn to enjoy really good food. A healthy meal does not have to be complicated – just 2 things you enjoy (like a turkey sandwich and a piece of fruit). Food is one of the best things you can give yourself to feel good and stay in shape. My girls have gone through a lot, and eventually come to a place where they realize that the quality of what they eat definitely affects how they feel and how they go forth in the world.

  6. SLA says:

    Thanks for the post Darya! It seriously could n have come at a better time for me! I’m in pretty much the same predicament as Morgan.

    For me, I’ve been naturally active and fit all my life, about 114 lbs. or so at 5’3″, graduating high school. Then the freshman 15 came, saw, conquered and decided to stay (and escalate!) for the next nine years! I think I maxed out at maybe a little under 150 lbs.? For my height, it’s not terribly overweight but not terribly healthy either. I finally got the firm kick in the butt that I needed three years ago when I got engaged. I was very draconian with my approach, determined to beat it once and for all, with the best motivation in hand. Didn’t have a goal but wedding weight was 114 lbs., back to baseline. My 5-6 40 mins. treadmill runs per week paid off. Of course, it wasn’t sustainable. Due to a longer commute and fatigue, I’ve maintained the same frequency but trimmed it down to 30 mins. and now 20 mins., with the justification that I’m now pushing myself with a high intensity interval training approach. I’ve been less strict with my diet so have maintained about 116-118 lbs. for the past 2.5 years. For the past couple of months, I’ve noticed that my motivation is ‘not there’ anymore. I think it might be my long commute to/from work catching up with me but I find I have to really rest and rev up to push myself to do just a 20 mins. run. It’s really frustrating as not only that, I seem to have an insatiable AND controllable snacking behaviour where if I have a snack in store somewhere, there is no portion control, I will eat it all and then feel really guilty. Then I’ll push myself to ‘work it off,’ will succeed for a few days and then the vicious cycle starts again. I’m now at my self-imposed ‘upper limit’ of ~120 lbs. Not a huge difference but I feel that I have no control and that my workout mojo is gone.

  7. SLA says:

    Thanks for the post Darya! It seriously could not have come at a better time for me! I’m in pretty much the same predicament as Morgan…

    For me, I’ve been naturally active and fit all my life, about 114 lbs. or so at 5’3″, graduating high school. Then the freshman 15 came, saw, conquered and decided to stay (and escalate!) for the next nine years! I think I maxed out at maybe a little under 150 lbs.? For my height, it’s not terribly overweight but not terribly healthy either. I finally got the firm kick in the butt that I needed three years ago when I got engaged. I was very draconian with my approach, determined to beat it once and for all, with the best motivation in hand. Didn’t have a goal but wedding weight was 114 lbs., back to baseline I guess. My 5-6 40 mins. treadmill runs per week paid off. Of course, it wasn’t sustainable…

    Once married, we moved further away from the downtown area where I work and used to live. Due to a 3x longer commute and fatigue, I’ve managed to maintain the same frequency but trimmed it down to 30 mins. and now 20 mins., with the justification that I’m now pushing myself with a high intensity interval training approach to compensate. Also, I’ve been less strict with my diet so have maintained at a slightly more relaxed 116-118 lbs. for the past 2.5 years.

    For the past couple of months though, I’ve noticed that my motivation is ‘not there’ anymore. I think it might be my long commute to/from work catching up with me now but I find I have to REALLY rest and rev up to push myself to do just a 20 mins. run. This is an ongoing battle every day. It’s really frustrating as not only that, I seem to have an insatiable AND uncontrollable snacking behaviour where if I have a snack in store around somewhere, there is absolutely ZERO portion control, I will eat it all and then feel really guilty. Then I’ll push myself to ‘work it off,’ will succeed for a few days by being ‘good’ and disciplined and then sabotage myself and the vicious cycle starts again! I’ve always been a snacker but it seems to have really gotten out of hand. Right now, I’m sitting at my self-imposed ‘upper limit’ of ~119-120 lbs. Obviously it’s not a huge difference but I feel that the core issue is that I have no self-control in what I choose to put in my mouth, that my workout mojo is gone and that it’s taking all my energy just to keep my good routine (what I thought were new habits!) going! Some days, I feel like it’s really just mindless snacking out of habit and it takes my utmost conscious will to stop myself. How very frustrating, I feel like I’m constantly at a war with myself!

    • Laura says:

      Hi there!

      First of all, congratulations on your awesome weight loss, I think it is amazing that you did not gain back more than 6 pounds! Don´t forget that you are already successful.

      From your writing, I see a lot of guilt and shame for not being able to eat and exercise perfecly. But let me tell you – nobody is perfect. That is what I loved about Daryas article here: she is telling us how she struggled.
      The thing is, we have to remember that what we do shoud be making us more happy, not less. Giving ourselves a hard time doesn´t do anything good. Cut yourself some slack!
      Instead, let´s find what feels right and makes us happy.

      For instance, I “forced” myself to work out for at least 1 hour 6 days per week, only to find out after 4 moths that I much rather do sweet and short 15 Minute HIIT workouts (my favourite right now is Zuzka Light!).
      Try to find a workout you enjoy instead of thinking you have not enough willpower because you do not enjoy the treadmill.

      On the snacking topic – I completely understand what you are experiencing. I am pretty much like you when it comes to portion control, exspecially in snacks. But maybe my solution (that Darya suggested)can be yours as well:
      Sice a couple of weeks I limit my snacking (sweets, that is) to one day per week. This way, I know I do not deprive myself of anything and still get to eat all my favourite things. But since this only happens once per week, the other days are quite easy for me to say no to the chocolates and ice creams. If I really want something sweet/snacky on the other days, I allow myself some nuts or some really healthy, small (!!) snack. So far, it is working! And since I´ve done it this way before (like years ago! why did I forget this?), I know it´s going to work permanently.
      If you tell yourself you can have it later, it is almost as good as having it right now.

      I hope this helps a little!
      Laura
      :)

  8. Judith says:

    I have never been an exerciser and tried to use willpower to make myself wor out. Hated it. Did it for a while then quit, felt guilty, etc, etc. On a whim, I took a zumba class in Community Ed. I loved dancing and there was no pressure to work out harder or be competitive with others in the class. We all kind of bonder and just had fun. Now I take five classes a week and have added strength training on the other two days. For me, the reward for heading to Zumba class is the dancing itself. I just cut loose and sweat up a storm. I also added some cool workout clothes to my wardrobe, so I also get the reward of wearing them to class. My biggest discovery, which has just reinforced the habit, is that no matter how tired or cranky I am before I go, I always leave class feeling happier, stronger amd leaner. I would not have believed it two years ago. Now I tell people to find the magic activity that is fun for you instead of punishment.

  9. Phil says:

    Hi Darya,

    This article really helped me realize that it is not willpower alone but I must also reward myself when i get the right things done. This strategy of yours not only applies to creating eating habits but in also in every habit that you want to change. May God bless you and may your advocacy spread more! :)

  10. Marissa says:

    Hi darya,
    My question is what if the full feeling is actually one you enjoy? Even though I practice mindful eating I prefer to be somewhat more full as opposed to less. I don’t really enjoy knowing that if I’m not full hunger will strike sooner.
    Is there a way I can still find an obvious or immediate reward for eating less?

    • Hummel says:

      Marissa,

      I too find that feeling full is a real reward for me. I try to use portion control for the caloric carbs, protein and fats parts of a meal, but that isn’t going to give me the “full” reward, and isn’t going to prevent hunger and low blood sugar before the next meal.

      A habit that I learned from my long-ago time with Weight Watchers is to incorporate lots and lots of veggies with lunch and dinner meals. Veggies are not the most exciting part of a meal, but I know that if I eat them first, I’ll have the carbs and protein as my reward afterwards, as well as that lovely full tummy feeling.

      Darya says that triggers have to become automatic in order to last as habits. I haven’t actually thought of this in this way before (thanks Darya so much for this article!), but I guess that it has become automatic for me to plan a meal around what veggies I have on hand. “This broccoli should be eaten tonight, so should I take a small portion of turkey meat from the freezer and make spaghetti sauce or should I chop it up for a salad or make a lentil/rice soup or…?”

      Then I sit down to eat, see the veggies on my plate (trigger), start eating them, and know that the reward is the carbs and protein and lovely fullness in my tummy.

      Thanks, again, Darya!

      • Marissa says:

        Hi Hummel,

        What a lovely and thoughtful reply! Thank you for taking the time to share what’s worked for you.

        Your idea of veggies on hand being the “trigger” to turn them into a meal is fantastic! I am definitely going to work on this because I really do feel that this is a doable habit I could build. It’s a relief to know I’m not the only one who enjoys being full too! lol

        I know that with veggies I can eat to my preferred fullness without overdoing it on the caloric content. Going from here I’m off to find some yummy veggie recipes!

  11. LOVE THIS! I run a health coaching practice based on this principle. I believe in everything you just wrote about 100%!! Thanks for your work.

  12. Ian says:

    The photo in this blog is from Grassi Lakes trail in Canmore, Alberta, Canada. A superb trail in the Canadian Rockies. In late summer you can find delicious raspberry bushes at the end of the trail next to the blue lagoon if the bears haven’t picked them first.

  13. Jim says:

    I agree that mindful eating habits are great, but for some of us, it is hard to change a lifetime of eating habits. I have never been a slow eater and I don’t know if I can ever get there. Instead, I have learned to put a reasonable portion of food on the plate, balanced with ample vegetables, and when that is gone, I wait an hour or two to decide if I am hungry and want anything more. That seems to work for me and I have been able to maintain my weight for several years. The trick is to not have seconds.

  14. Kevin says:

    Hi Darya,

    Thanks for another great article. The concept that repetition does not necessarily represent a habit is spot on.

    I’m a GP and take an interest in coaching my patients to build healthy habits to offload their willpower. This article is a great reminder that a consistent trigger and more importantly an immediate ‘reward’ should always be linked with the desired action.

    Certain actions lend themselves more easily to habit creation.. like exercise, or eating delicious healthy food. Others like mindful eating or removing unhealthy habits (naughty evening snacks, smoking) can be more tricky.

  15. kyo says:

    great article!
    i’ve just tried myself out to be a foodist.
    i try to build a habit slowly..
    as for me, i really like to eat in big portion eat in a real quick.
    so i try to eat in a smaller plate, and reading books while eating (i tried to count how much i’ve chewed but didnt work well. reading helps me to chew and eat slowly). and it worked out, i eat in smaller portion, but feels satisfy.. and i hate the feeling of jeans got tighten if i eat too much (which was the feeling i never realize before)

    and the phrase “life should be awesome” affects me to enjoy my food more, instead of worrying or counting their calories. that helps me to eat at ease and reminds me to keep being a foodist.
    i dont feel like im on a diet now. somehow it makes me happy :)

    thanks for writing an awesome book darya!

  16. Keli says:

    Darya,

    Wow! I have known for years that my issues around food were about not being mindful or present while eating. I swore off diets years ago and couldn’t figure out how to practice the guidelines without feeling like I was on another diet. Your explanation of how habits are formed makes complete sense, it clicked! Thank you for your direct, precise, clear, and fact-based explanation. I get it. Thank you!

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