There are times in the year, and times in life, when you feel like you’ve indulged too much in a food or drink, and know it’s time to take a break.
It could be that you’ve gotten in the habit of starting your day with a big, calorically-dense muffin, or have been hitting the after-dinner ice-cream too hard. Or maybe your Friday nights have become punctuated with big, indulgent blow-outs that throw off your entire week’s worth of fitness progress.
In my case, I’d been enjoying a few too many after work beers. It started with a big case that was on sale during the holidays, and then, little by little, became a normal routine. The problem was all those cold, tasty beers were taking their toll on my waistline and sense of well-being. I decided enough was enough, it was time to cut the cord.
As a person who LOVES good food and drink, I’ve been through this before, and knew the steps that work for me. Today I’ll share them with you, in the hopes that they’ll be of assistance as you work to weed out the unhelpful food and drinks from your own life.
(Note that these tips apply to your standard small vices, and not heavy-duty addiction. If you’re struggling with strong chemical addiction you’ll need to draw on professional resources and much bigger interventions than these simple tips.)
Psychology, not willpower
The first thing to understand is that giving up a tasty food or drink is a game of psychology. Your brain has gotten into a habit loop around this item, and momentum will drive you to keep completing that loop, especially during the first few weeks.
A habit loop is the combination of cues, routines, and rewards, each which feeds into and strengthens the cycle each time you go through it. To counteract this pattern, you need to take actions which will make a strong impression on your mind and break up the habit loop.
Here’s how I do it:
Have an epic final treat.
You might think that when you want to give something up, your first order of business is to cut out the offending item completely. However, I’ve found it helpful to have one last fling with your food or drink, and make it a special, memorable occasion. Kicking chocolate? Buy one last bar of your favorite, most expensive brand, and eat it with joy as the sun sets over the ocean (or whatever epic setting you prefer). The key for this final treat is that it’s special and memorable.
For my farewell beer. I poured an ice-cold Asahi into a fancy glass and drank it peacefully while looking out a window onto Central Park. Thinking about it now, I can still vividly recall the details and the happiness that quiet moment brought me. When you finish up your final treat in an epic fashion, you stake a signpost in your mind that says “Being hooked on this thing stopped here, and it was a lovely and cordial end to the relationship. Now I’m moving on to other things.”
An epic final treat gives you closure. When you face temptation going forwards, you have a bright line in your memory that reminds you of the choice you’re making to no longer partake.
Arm yourself with “if/then” statements.
When a coach wants a team to perform well, what do they do? They run drills, over and over, until executing the play is second nature. If/then statements are the drills you run in your head to give your brain practice at avoiding temptation. For example, in my case, I have the following three if/then statements written down near my desk.
“If I’m craving a beer, then I’ll remind myself how nice it is to feel lean and light in the summer.”
“If I’m out and am offered a beer, then I’ll politely decline and mentally remind myself how much better I'll feel later having stayed true to my convictions.”
“If I pass the beer aisle in the supermarket, then I’ll remember how good it feels to go on a run without a beer belly.”
I’ll read through these every few days, out loud. When a craving strikes, my brain has a game plan to fall back on. Instead of wasting a lot of mental cycles on rationalizations and willpower, I can just use one of my if/then’s and get on with the day. If there’s something you’re trying to give up, take the time to write three if/then’s, and refer to them often at the beginning of your period of abstention. They really work.
Say NO when it’s the next “perfect time for _______.”
In the first few weeks of going without your treat, it’s very likely that a moment will arise when you say to yourself, “Hmm… this would be a perfect time to enjoy _______.” For me and my beer treat, this came when I was outside grilling some vegetables on a warm afternoon. My brain was strongly nudging me to make the moment perfect with a hops-based beverage. “C’mon, what goes better than a hot grill and a cold beer?”
When this feeling came upon me, I dug in and made a point to strongly resist the urge and talk myself out of drinking anything but water. Not just because of the importance of breaking the habit loop, but because of the incredible power you get from saying no when “it’s the perfect moment.”
When you tough it out and get through those moments, you grant yourself the ability to say, whenever temptation strikes, “If I didn’t buckle then, why would I buckle now?” When you’ve passed on a perfect moment to indulge, you find yourself far less tempted by less-than-perfect moments, like sitting on the sofa watching TV, or mindlessly eating or drinking while scrolling social media.
If you’re serious about giving up a food or drink, it’s essential that you do NOT let a perfect moment carry you away. It’s easy to say to yourself, “Just this once, after all, what’s the point if I can’t enjoy the little things in life?” This approach will quickly devolve. “Special” moments will start coming more and more often, until you find yourself back in the habit loop, having your treat on the sofa in completely normal circumstances.
Remember that things only get easier.
Beating a food or drink craving isn’t an uphill battle. In fact, it’s a downhill battle! Each time you successfully circumvent a habit loop, that loop becomes weaker, and you gradually escape its clutches. It’s easy to understand this intellectually when you read it here, but in the heat of a craving, your brain tends to forecast its current situation into the limitless future. “This is horrible! I don’t want to feel like this forever! Why not just have the treat?!” The truth is most cravings pass within just a few minutes. You can help them pass by doing a few simple techniques.
1. Talk it out.
- Say out loud to yourself, “I know you’re wanting _____, but we have bigger plans right now.” Or go through your if/then statements. Dragging the craving into the light by speaking out loud makes it scurry back into the shadows.
2. Get moving.
- Movement lessens cravings and distracts you from your discomfort.
3. Eat or drink something else.
- A craving for a cookie goes away when you eat a banana. A craving for a beer goes away when you drink a can of sparkling water. The brain isn't as clever as it thinks, and will often be tricked by the simple act of eating or drinking anything, not just the object of your temptation.
Every time you successfully navigate a moment of craving, you pick up momentum in your downhill fight and increase your odds of success. Over time you’ll find the cravings happen less and less often, until they’re gone completely.
Be strict. If you backslide, the clock goes back to zero.
At Kenzai we avoid the pursuit of “perfect” fitness plans. Our motto is progress, not perfection. But when it comes to breaking a habit, perfection will get you further than allowing cheats and small transgressions to slide.
The reason is a quirk of habit loops. When you’re halfway in the process of dissolving a habit loop, and then suddenly go through with the loop and have your treat, it has the effect of not only solidifying that loop, but making it stronger than ever. The brain that was so starved of the thing it was craving lights up in joy, and says “Ahh, THAT’S the good stuff I was looking for, here’s an intense wave of pleasure hormones to remind you never to deprive me again.”
This effect will set your progress back to zero. You’ll need to start all over breaking up the habit, working through the steps outlined above. But this time it will be harder.
Avoid all that wasted effort and mental strain by being strict with yourself and sticking to your commitment. It takes roughly 60 days to be free of a habit loop to the point where you’re not expending mental energy on it anymore. Tough it out for those 2 months and break free! You’re worth it!
Patrick Reynolds // Kenzai Founder