It’s convenient. The food is delicious. We crave social interaction. We want a new environment. The atmosphere is fun. We like novelty. We can’t read the nutritional labels – out of sight, out of mind.
I dine out a lot. A few weeks ago, I decided to cut back. But that’s easier said than done.
I can’t just snap my fingers and force myself to stop eating out. Sheer willpower never works.
To make a sustainable, habit-forming change, I need to dig down to the root cause. WHY am I dining out in the first place? There are plenty of potential reasons. Which of those trigger me?
This is more than just a theoretical question. It strikes at the core of how habits are formed.
The Power of Habit
A few months ago, I read the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. When I reached the end, I immediately flipped back to the beginning and started re-reading it. Yeah, it’s that good.
Charles had a habit of buying a chocolate-chip cookie every afternoon. He gained eight pounds. His wife made pointed comments about his growing belly. He needed to stop.
So he put a Post-It note on his computer that said “NO MORE COOKIES.” Epic fail. The next afternoon, he was gnawing on a cookie.
“It feels good, and then it feels bad,” he wrote. “Tomorrow, you promise yourself, you’ll muster the willpower to resist. Tomorrow will be different.”
“But tomorrow the habit takes hold again.”
So he turned to psychology for the answers. Experiments show that there are five categories that serve as habitual “cues”:
- Emotional State
- Other People
- Immediately Preceding Action
That makes sense:
Location — When we’re at our desks, we work (or check Facebook). When we’re in the driver’s seat, we drive. When we’re sitting on the toilet … well, you get the idea.
Time – We don’t think about changing our socks in the middle of the day. But in the morning and at night, it’s automatic.
Emotional State – Do you know anyone who scarfs down chocolate when they’re upset? Enough said.
Other People – You act differently around specific people. You adopt a demeanor, a tone. You discuss certain subjects. You develop a slang or vernacular. You order certain types of food or drinks. You divulge or withhold certain information. You feel relaxed, uptight, bored, happy — almost without realizing it.
Immediately Preceding Action – Back to the toilet example. At a certain moment, you reach for the toilet paper. You don’t consciously deliberate this decision. You don’t weigh the pro’s and con’s. It’s automatic. It’s almost a reflex.
Charles wanted to apply this psychology lesson to his own life. So every time he felt the urge to buy a cookie, he jotted down some notes:
Location: Sitting at desk
Time: 3:36 pm
Other People: None
Preceding Action: Sending Email
He continued taking these notes daily, until he saw a pattern. Four out of five of these factors fluctuated. Only one stayed constant – the time of day.
“The reward I was seeking was a temporary distraction,” he wrote. “And the habit … triggered between 3:00 and 4:00.”
So he found a different way to grant himself the same distraction. Rather than buying a daily cookie, he started taking a 10-minute break to chat with a friend, everyday between 3 pm and 4 pm. He even set an alarm on his watch for 3:30, to remind himself to do this.
How to Stop Eating at Restaurants
Back to the restaurant dilemma. There are plenty of potential reasons I might eat at restaurants: taste, socialization, convenience.
If I’m doing it for convenience, my alternative must contain that same convenience. I can’t replace a 30-minute activity with a 90-minute activity. The first day that work piles up, I’ll be back to my old routine.
If I’m dining out so I can socialize with friends, my alternative must also be social. The first day I feel lonely or bored, I’ll be back to my old routine.
It’s not enough to simply pledge to “eat out less.” I had to get to the root of why I’m doing it. I needed to identify the trigger.
So, like Charles, I began observing patterns. Every time the urge hit, I’d jot down notes.
The trigger, I discovered, was feeling cooped up in my house and needing a symbolic end to my work day.
I wake up at 8 a.m., get dressed, make coffee, plod into my home office, and start working. By 6 p.m., I still haven’t left the house – and I feel so stir-crazy that I call my boyfriend and say, “Let’s try that new Mexican place.”
Once I identified that trigger, I started finding alternatives that featured the same reward. I began working from Starbucks and other coffee shops around town. I started running mid-day errands.
At 6 p.m., the trigger time, I grab an energy bar and head to the gym. I get the same reward — a psychological “end” to my work day – without spending hundreds every month at restaurants.
Habits are Hard to Break
I could have written a simple blog post that says, “Top 10 Ways to Save Money. Number One – Eat at home more.”
But that would be intellectually lazy. (And it wouldn’t help anyone.)
I could have written a blog post that says, “Top 10 Ways to Save Money. Number Two – Drop your gym membership. Exercise at home.”
But that would be counterproductive. (For me. Maybe for you, too.)
We know hundreds of money-saving tactics. But we struggle to integrate these tactics into our lives. Doing so requires something far more demanding – a change in our daily habits.
We can’t change our habits with Post-It Notes, pep talks and Top 10 lists. We can only change them by understanding our human psychology – what drives us? We can only change our habits if learn how to manage our urges, rather than fight them.
This is the first post in my new article series, The Habit Project – which looks at how we can weave new habits into our daily lives.