As talked about in this New York Times article, every single habit that you have was formed by the same 3-step process:
For example, when your phone rings (trigger), you answer it (action) and talk to the caller (reward). If your annoying mother-in-law was the only person who ever called you on your phone, it wouldn’t feel like a reward so you probably wouldn’t get into the habit of answering it immediately when it rings.
This pattern of Trigger, Action, Reward is hardwired into your brain. In fact, neurological research is finally showing how it is hardwired. There are special protein receptors, which appear between your neurons when they fire. As Adam Piore discusses in this Discover Magazine, this phenomena can lead to addiction, the more times those neurons fire together, the more AMPA receptors appear, causing the link between the neurons to strengthen: “The strengthening at the synapses make them more likely to fire together in the future.”
So, to make your diet succeed, it isn’t just a matter of increasing your motivation or willpower. You’ve got to reset your brain to form new habits.
1. Find Your Triggers
All habits start with a trigger. The action that occurs as a result is mostly subconscious, which is why you can suddenly find yourself with a giant bowl of chips on your lap immediately after turning on the TV.
You might be able to avoid some bad diet habits simply by removing the trigger. Or, you might need to dig even deeper to find the root trigger.
For example, if you eat when you watch TV, the real problem is that you are watching TV. What is triggering you to sit down on the couch to watch? Is it because you are tired after work? Maybe you should move the TV so it isn’t right in front of the couch!
2. Use If-Then Planning
If you can’t completely remove the trigger, then you need to find ways to adjust the action that occurs from those triggers. One method is to use If-Then planning.
Also known as implementation intentions, If-Then planning uses your existing triggers but gets you to consciously change the resulting action. As talked about in this Psychology Today article, you are 2-3 times more likely to succeed if you use If-Then planning than if you don’t.
For example: Your work keeps donuts in the breakroom. When you feel tired at work (trigger), you usually go into the breakroom and eat some donuts (action). As you eat, you get to socialize with your coworkers (reward).
Under If-Then planning, you tell yourself, “Each time I go into the breakroom, I will drink tea.” The trigger and reward are the same, but the action has changed.
3. Piggyback Off Of Existing Habits
Forming new habits is not easy. You’d have to make a new trigger, perform the new action, and get a new reward. Only after doing this many times would you set up the habit loop. This is why many say that it takes 30 days to form a new habit. Or, as this article about breaking bad habits talks about, one study found it took an average of 66 days!
A much easier way of forming a new habit is to piggyback off of an existing one. Instead of trying to do something completely new like going for an evening walk every day, plan your walk after something you already do. For example: You already go to your friend’s house every Wednesday to gossip. Instead of driving there, walk there instead.
4. Set Micro Quotas
One thing that dieters commonly do is try to visualize themselves thin. Many diets even recommend putting up photos on your mirror of yourself at a lower weight. But, according to this study from UCLA, this is the exact wrong thing to do. When you visualize a large, grandiose goal, it becomes overwhelming. Since dieting doesn’t cause big changes quickly, it is easy to lose motivation and be disappointed with results.
Instead, you should be setting micro quotas. Don’t think of the large goal of losing weight or being healthier. Think of the exact steps you will take every day. Visualize yourself doing these steps, such as eating a salad for lunch at work and buying produce in the supermarket. People who focus on these individual steps are more likely to be successful in reaching the larger goal.
5. Use Abstract Thinking
Find yourself craving certain types of food? Psychologist Traci Mann suggests using abstract thinking. For example, instead of thinking of all of the qualities of doughnuts – like the icing and the sprinkles – just think of them as another item in a group of breakfast foods. When you think of them in the abstract, then you’ll find it easier to substitute out doughnuts for a healthier breakfast food.