Your client wants to stop snacking in the evening but keeps finding themselves piling into packets of crisps when they sit down to relax. They feel annoyed with themselves and think it reflects some sort of character flaw.
They ask you for help and you offer suggestions, but you’re privately wondering whether you’ve got much to offer as you have your own dodgy snacking habits that you’d rather not mention.
Why we do what we didn’t mean to
Psychologists call the discrepancy between what we want to do and what we actually do the “intention-behaviour gap”. Our ‘bad’ habits show how little influence our overall good intentions can have on established habits.
Why does your client keep eating the crisps when they don’t intend to?
If we’ve snacked on crisps in front of the TV countless times before, we’ll have created an association between the TV watching and the crisp eating. Doing the same sequence of actions in the same situation repeatedly creates a habit.
The beauty of a habit is that we don’t need to use valuable brain-space to do things we do often. Our brains cleverly relegate these frequently-done sequences to automatic control, and we call that automated sequence a habit.
The downside of habits is that they don’t involve any reference to our overall life-goals. They are set off by the situation – TV watching in our example. Our earlier promise to ourselves to abstain tonight has disappeared into thin air!
Research on habit change can help you to help your client (and yourself!)
Studies on habit change** suggest that what helps to replace an unwanted habit with a desirable one are:
- A clear overall goal
- An “if-then” plan
To help create the clear overall goal, visualisation is a powerful tool.
If-then plans are specific action plans that go beyond a general intention not to eat the crisps. The plan specifies the where, when and how of the specific situation that leads to the crisp eating, and creates a link to the desired response.
The “if” part of the plan means identifying precisely the cue or trigger for the unwanted habit. If your client isn’t sure what this is, invite them to use cue monitoring – noting down exactly what just happened when they carried out the unwanted behaviour each time it happens.
Once they know what the cue or trigger is, your client is primed to notice it and making the “then” part of the plan gives them a much better chance of doing what they planned.
When they’ve already thought through what they’ll do, they won’t need to work out what to do in the heat of the moment, because they’ve done that with a cool head earlier. The plan has removed the room for deliberating about “shall I or shan’t I?” And if they keep carrying out the if-then plan, it will become a habit in itself.
The “then” part of the plan
To replace the crisp-eating habit with a new behaviour, they need to know what they want to be doing instead. This is something they need to get clear about, even if they want to be doing nothing in particular instead – maybe they just want to watch TV with no crisps passing their lips. So, get them to decide what the new habit will be – will it be to eat an apple instead, or do nothing, or do a puzzle whilst watching the telly to divert their thoughts from food?
Putting the if and the then together
It’s as simple as, “If I am watching TV and I want to eat something then I will eat an apple”. It’s not rocket science, and it will only change one habit. But in her study of replacing an unhealthy snack with a healthy one in response to the same cue, Adriaanse found that if-then plans like this led to 90 kilocalorie a day reductions in snacking, which adds up when it happens every day.
Avoid using a negative intention
The research found that using negative intentions, such as “if I’m watching TV and want to eat something I will not eat crisps” didn’t work as well as “if I’m watching TV and want to eat something I’ll have an apple”, probably because thinking about deliberately NOT eating crisps actually strengthens the awareness of the crisps. Which is not what you want!
Here are the simple steps that Adriaanse and Verhoeven suggest.
- Identify the most important trigger for the unwanted behaviour (keeping eating after a late evening snack)
- Rewrite the personal trigger as an “if…. Phrase” (“if I have had my late evening snack…”)
- Ask your client what they want to do instead (rinse mouth with mouthwash to stop me eating more)
- Make this into a “….then” phrase (“then I will go and rinse with mouthwash”)
- Make the “if” and the “then” phrases into a single sentence
- Repeat the “if-then” plan silently or mentally rehearse doing it, and make it easy to do (by putting the mouthwash nearby)
Remember that the effectiveness of the if-then plan depends on the strength of your overall goal intention. If your client is struggling, go back to the visualisation work I mentioned earlier.
Training in how to help your clients change how they eat
So much of achieving weight loss that’s easy to maintain is to do with psychology. I teach up to date evidence-based clinical skills from cognitive and behavioural psychology in my workshops on The Psychology of Weight Loss. We have professionals from a wide range of backgrounds and disciplines on our trainings and would love you to join us.
**Adriaanse, M. and Verhoeven, A. (2018) Breaking Habits Using Implementation
Intentions. Chapter in Verplanken, B. The Psychology of Habit Change. Springer publications