Building Healthy Habits: Hide Your Triggers!

Building Healthy Habits- HideThe office where I work has a tradition of assigning everyone a new desk each quarter. At first, I was skeptical about this–it has some obvious drawbacks, like the time lost to physically moving all of your stuff four times a year. But one major advantage I’ve found is that it limits my exposure to unhealthy food triggers, at least part of the year.

My first several months here, I sat next to the kitchen. This means that saying no to the catered lunch or platter of brownies wasn’t a one time deal, but something I had to do repeatedly throughout the course of the day. It won’t surprise anyone to learn that my willpower would eventually crumble, usually around 2 or 3 pm after several hours of meetings and mental exertion, and I’d be sitting there with the remains of dessert in my lap feeling bad about the poor choice I’d just made.

Now I sit across the office, too far to go into the kitchen with my headset without losing my phone call. As a result, I am much better at resisting danishes and coffee cakes. For a while, I was able to replace them with M&Ms brought in by a coworker until the next lottery moved our seats away from each other. Now, I am treat-free in the immediate area of my desk.

Thank goodness. I’m eating much better.

In his work on habits, Charles Duhigg notes that a lot of “bad” behaviors result when cues, like a bowl of tasty candy, prompt a behavior, eating it, which leads to a reward, the delicious taste. He uses an example of how he would wander to the kitchen at work each afternoon to eat a cookie and chat with a coworker. Duhigg eventually figured out that the real reward was the chat, not the cookie, and was able to transition the cookie out.

This is what I deal with at work. Shot in our kitchen on a regular old Wednesday.
This is what I deal with at work. Shot in our kitchen on a regular old Wednesday.

That doesn’t work for me.

The fact is, the candy or cake is the reward I want. I’m putting the brownie in my mouth because I want to taste the freaking brownie and have brownie in my belly. 

For me, the key to breaking the habit is removing the cue, or trigger. It’s making sure I don’t see the brownie, or at least that I’m not exposing myself to it over and over during the workday and having to resist it multiple times.

I’ve seen at least three other perspectives on why trigger removal might work for different types of behavior:

  • In the book Scarcity, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, the authors point out that when we have a limited resource, we tend to disproportionately focus on that resource. For example, dieters may ruminate on food. Under this framework, you can see why having a rotating set of pastries and snacks might capture my cravings.
  • The third explanation has to do with willpower, which has been recast as akin to a muscle in the sense that all people have a limited amount of it which can be increased through exercise and depleted through use. I don’t usually grab a cookie immediately; it’s only after seeing it for several hours, during which I’m also dealing with work tasks, that I finally cave. By 3 pm, I’ve used up a lot of my willpower. Every time I have to say no to the cookie is a dent in my willpower reserve.

My best strategy for avoiding tempting but unhealthy foods is to never expose myself to the trigger in the first place. I don’t buy chips or chocolates. I know that a bag of Cheetos may have 12 servings but only 1 Amy serving, so it stays on the store shelf.

Breaking certain habits means avoiding the cues or triggers for those habits. Which habits have you been able to reshape with this strategy?