“[Habits] shape our lives far more than we realize—they are so strong, in fact, that they cause our brains to cling to them at the exclusion of all else, including common sense.”
― Charles Duhigg, The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business
Overweight people often believe they’ll never solve their weight problem without first addressing underlying emotional issues. And I don’t blame them – it seems intuitive. The reasoning goes something like this:
“I’m eating to fill some sort of emotional void. Fill the void, and voila. Problem solved.”
But things that seem intuitive aren’t always true.
Ask yourself this:
When you’re eating emotionally, are you really eating emotionally? Or are you eating habitually? The distinction matters for two reasons:
1. Habits are easier to change than emotions. We understand habits, and we understand how they are formed.
2. Behaviors color your emotional experiences. Changes in behavior beget changes in your emotional perception of events. So, in many ways, habits precede and impact our emotional experiences.
Sure, you might be eating to cover up an emotion – but let’s take a look at that more specifically. What’s really happening is that you have developed a habit of dealing with emotions by eating. Incidentally, you might have ALSO developed the habits of grazing at night, or of eating all the office donuts before anyone else gets a chance.
We tend to forget the extent to which we are creatures of habit. We live under the illusion that we are making many more conscious decisions than we actually are. The truth is that our surroundings, circumstances, and friends all have enormous impacts on triggering behaviors. And behaviors trigger emotions, which in turn further affect behavior.
The more we repeat a behavior, the more likely we are to repeat it again under similar circumstances. So forget the psychotherapy! Use the power of habits to achieve your goals.
How to Harness This Power:
1. Learn about habit formation. An excellent start is “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.
2. Learn to avoid triggers. Fit people don’t keep tempting foods in the house, and then wonder why they can’t stay in shape. Learn your triggers plan your environment so as avoid them. It’s easier than saying NO to a jar of Nutella at 2 in the morning.
3. Learn how to install new habits. Habits are just loops that your brain likes, sometimes to the exclusion of common sense. You can install new habits by actively repeating new behaviors and connecting those behaviors to specific cues. Examples:
- every time I order lunch, I order a salad;
- every time I get home from work, I go for a twenty minute walk.
Once a habit exists, it’s nearly impossible to completely override it. The habit will always be there in the shadows, waiting for a trigger.
So you don’t want to accidentally install bad habits – and in fact, the improper installation of habits is largely to blame for yo-yo dieting.
So do your research. Start slow, and be mindful of your own specific circumstances, triggers, and behaviors.