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3 Proven Strategies for Breaking Habits

This is Part 2 in a 3-part series on Habit Eating.

(1) How Habits Can Control Your Eating
(2) 3 Proven Strategies for Breaking Habits
(3) 2 Key Principles in Creating New Habits


In Part 1 of this series, I described what habits are, how they are created, and how you can tell the difference between emotional eating and habit eating. It takes many rewarded repetitions for a habit to be created and that’s good, because once habits are created they are extremely hard to break. Habits are automatic behavior cued by context (where you are, what you’re doing), performed without intention, and with minimal thought. When performing a habit your mind is not engaged, and that’s a huge obstacle to change. Resolving to do better, an effective strategy for non-habits, doesn’t help with habits, though thousands of blog posts offer this type of advice.

In researching this article, I read controlled studies written by psychologists and published in refereed professional journals to find out what really works. There are two general strategies: (1) avoid the context that cues the habit routine, or (2) block or interrupt the habit routine after it’s been cued. Avoiding cues is most effective, but not always practical. I’ll talk about that in Part 3 since it’s related to creating new habits. In this article I’ll describe three strategies for blocking or interrupting habit routines after they’ve been cued.

From Automatic Action to Intentional Control

What makes habit eating so difficult to manage is that it’s performed automatically, without goals or intentions. Eating is cued by context, regardless of hunger level or the taste of the food. A pair of studies by Neal, Wood, Wu and Kurlander demonstrated the problem, and found an interesting way around it. It was published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin in 2011: The Pull of the Past : When Do Habits Persist Despite Conflict With Motives? [PDF].

They found that people with a strong habit of eating popcorn at movies would eat the same amount of popcorn, whether freshly made or 7-days old and stale, if cued by the context of a movie theatre. The data analysis showed that they ate regardless of hunger and taste – strictly out of habit. People with a weak movie popcorn habit ate much less of the stale popcorn in the movie theatre. And people with a strong movie popcorn habit ate much less of the stale popcorn if they were watching videos in a conference room – the cue of "movie in a movie theatre" was missing.

The question then became, is there a way to stop a person with a strong movie popcorn habit from eating popcorn at the movies? If making the popcorn taste bad doesn’t help, can anything help? The researchers found that a very simple manipulation was surprisingly effective: eating with the non-dominant hand. When right-handed people ate with their left hands and left-handed people ate with their right hands, it didn’t matter how strong their movie popcorn habit was. They ate much less of the stale popcorn in the movie theatre. Using the non-dominant hand took the popcorn eating behavior out of automatic control and put it back into into intentional control. That is, the person’s eating could again be governed by goals such as satisfying hunger, avoiding overfullness, and enjoying the taste of the food.

The non-dominant hand strategy is interesting because it operates without any effort on the part of the person doing the eating (beyond using the non-dominant hand). The subjects in the study didn’t even realize that their popcorn eating behavior was being observed. They thought the study was about personality differences in movie interests. The subjects with a strong movie popcorn habit didn’t know they’d been assessed in this manner (the popcorn eating questions were buried among unrelated questions), and had no idea that eating with their non-dominant hand affected how much they ate. They ate less effortlessly. Without any awareness on their part, their behavior became intentional rather than automatic, and that allowed them to respond in a goal-directed way to the bad taste in their mouth.

Tip: Next time you find yourself snacking in front of the TV (habit cue: TV), eat with your non-dominant hand.

Vigilant Monitoring and Willpower

The usual strategies for behavior change simply don’t work with strong habits. Education and information can change non-habits, but not habits. Study after study has found that strong habits override the best intentions. If you teach principles of nutrition to a person with a strong junk food habit, you just get an educated junk food eater.

Until the popcorn study was done, the only strategy found to be even somewhat effective in stopping cued habit routines was vigilant monitoring and willpower – noticing your impulses and thinking, "Don’t do it!" (Of course, the non-dominant hand technique won’t help with all habits, just habit eating.)

Vigilance and willpower only work as a short term strategy. Over the long term, it’s too tiring and can backfire (as with diets). But a short-term strategy can be useful; it can buy you time.

The other limitation is that vigilance and willpower only work with weak habits. If the habit you want to break is strong, however, there may be a way to weaken its pull. I’ll discuss that next.

Tip: With willpower you can block bad habits long enough to replace old routines with new ones – if you weaken the pull of the habit first.

Weaken Habits with Self-Care

Let’s say you have a habit of stopping at a fast food restaurant for dinner on your way home from work. You know the food isn’t healthy and it doesn’t even taste that good, but when you see the restaurant on your way home, you always stop. Then afterwards, you wish you hadn’t eaten it. Perhaps if you didn’t see the restaurant you wouldn’t be cued, but you can’t get home without driving past it. How do you break this habit?

Remember that the purpose of habit – the reason you have this skill – is to allow you to perform tasks automatically while your brain is free to think about other things (see Part 1). Habits are efficient. They are always your quickest, easiest, and most effortless option. They require no thought. Anything you do instead will take more effort. The outcome of a new behavior may be more rewarding, but the effort of non-automatic action is a an anti-reward and a barrier – especially if you are overtired, under time pressure, or already worn out from pushing yourself. This state of mind magnifies the impact of habit. You may long for a healthy home-cooked meal, but if you haven’t shopped and you’re pressured for time, the fast food habit will win out.

If you want to improve your chances of making it past the fast food restaurant, get adequate sleep, and shop in advance so you can put a meal together quickly after arriving home. Are you reading this and thinking, "I don’t have time to sleep, shop, or cook"? If so, then you need to make some adjustments in your life. Make time for self-care!

I can’t tell you how often new members in the Normal Eating Forum post that they don’t have time to take care of themselves – they have too many things to do, too many other people who need them. They don’t realize that this is exactly why they are emotional eaters. Instead of honoring and attending to their basic human needs, they make do with food band-aids. Self-care is the first responsibility of every adult. Model it for your children!

Tip: Self-care makes you strong. Self-care gives you options.

The third and last article in this series will discuss the most effective habit-breaking strategy of all: avoiding the contexts that cue your habits. It’s not always practical, as I’ll explain, but if you’re in a position to do this, don’t lose the opportunity. Finally, I’ll discuss how to create new and better habits – not anecdotally, but based on the science.

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them.

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11 comments to 3 Proven Strategies for Breaking Habits

  • Cara Cara

    Sheryl, this is such an interesting post, and so relevant to my personal behavior, it seems. Especially love the insights about automatic action–I know I’ll be adopting that non-dominant hand strategy from now on. Thanks!

  • Cool! I’m glad it’s helpful! :)

  • Sundara Sundara

    Wow…what you said about self-care and food band-aids really hits the mark. Wow!

    Thanks- Sun

  • This is a great post – looking forward to more! I’m currently trying to break the “snack to relax” habit and while it’s excruciating to do, it’s happening . . . 3 weeks into it and discovering that 1) I *do* have control over myself in these situations; 2) the worst case scenario is that I’ll be a little hungry if I mis-read my cues and I really *am* hungry and 3) there are lots of other things I can do to relax and make myself happy instead of nibbling. Writing this here, it sounds so simple!?

  • Excellent topic and you’ve explained it beautifully. Thanks for sharing the deeper psychology behind habits – I learned a lot.

    I recovered from a serious eating disorder and one of the ways I found recovery was through reprogramming my thoughts and habits to not look at food like a drug to help me feel better. I hope this article helps other people struggling with their food addictions, too!

  • Sheri P Sheri P

    A couple of helful tips to try out, thanks. There are a couple of situations where I get triggered into habit eating and I will be thinking how these could be applied. The planning ahead for self care is the one I think most applicable to my current weak spots!

  • Lisa Lisa

    Wow, the self-care aspect was a part I hadn’t considered. As my NE friends know, I’ve struggled with night eating for decades. Nothing I’ve done to change the context– blockading the kitched, getting rid of certain foods– has been a match for the sheer brute force that takes over when I’m half asleep.

    I had shaken the habit for a while but then got back into it, and was able to tie it to the fact that my husband often isn’t around in the morning to help with the kids, so I don’t get to eat breakfast until 9 or 10, and even then, with a high-energy toddler at my feet. So I’ve felt like “stealing” a peaceful breakfast at 2 a.m. I talked about this with my spouse, and now he watches the kids for 15 minutes soon after I get up, so I can eat in peace.

    Never would have thought about this if not for your article, Sheryl!

  • Hi Lisa,

    That’s a really interesting idea, that sleep eating may arise from the habit area of the brain. I don’t think that anyone has actually tested that (it would be hard to do), but it’s very possible.

    I recall you mentioning in the forum that it seemed to happen at times when you felt stressed, so it makes sense that good self-care is the solution. Good self-care means figuring out what you need, and it seems you need a peaceful breakfast!

    - Sheryl

  • Sheri P Sheri P

    Seems like the lack of good self care contributes not only to continuing habit eating, but also to many cases of emotional eating (feeling too tired/frazzled from over-filling our schedules etc). I like how you (Sheryl) pointed out the barriers to changing habits, how it does indeed require more time/effort and so has a built in difficulty right there. That there is a reason we have the habits- that they are a kind of short cut to save ourselves in a way. Thanks for the article. I’ll keep checking for the next installment.

  • > Seems like the lack of good self care contributes not only to continuing habit eating, but also to many cases of emotional eating (feeling too tired/frazzled from over-filling our schedules etc).

    True! Self-care is just plain generally a good thing. :)

    > I’ll keep checking for the next installment.

    The third installment will be posted on Monday, April 2.

    - Sheryl

  • Karen Ligocki Karen Ligocki

    i really liked the self care part Sheryl… especially if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be there to take care of others use to be a saying of mine

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