My current emphasis: how to make good habits and break bad ones (really)

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A Few Reasons Why It’s Hard to Know How Much We’re Eating.

pretzel-bigEvery Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day, or Quiz Day.

Today: A partial list of why it’s hard to monitor how much we’re eating.

The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting piece today, The Problem with Portions: From Applebee’s to Yoplait, Food Makers Struggle to Find the Size That Sells.

It caught my eye, because I’ve thought a lot about portion sizes as part of my research for my forthcoming book on how we make and break habits. In that book, I identify all the strategies we can use to shape our habits. To find out when the book goes on sale, you can sign up here.

Portion size is an issue for the Strategy of Monitoring. Monitoring is one of the four “Pillars of Habits,” along with the Strategies of Foundation, Scheduling, and Accountability. The Strategy of Monitoring doesn’t require that I change what I’m doing, only that I know what I’m doing. This is crucial to habit formation, because once I recognize what I’m doing, I may choose to behave differently.

Monitoring has an almost uncanny power. People who keep close track of just about anything tend to do a better job of managing it.

But several aspects of eating that make monitoring difficult. Consider just a few observations:

1. It’s often surprisingly hard to gauge “one serving.” We’re poor judges of how much we’re eating, and studies suggest that we can eat servings that are about 20% bigger or smaller than a “serving size” without realizing it. Also, in what’s called “unit bias,” we tend to finish a serving if it seems like a natural portion of “one,” and we tend to take one serving, no matter what the size. In a study where people could help themselves to big pretzels, people took one; when people were instead offered big pretzels cut in half, they took one half-pretzel.

2. Consuming something from the container makes it impossible to monitor how much we’re taking. Whether the product is candy or shampoo or cat food, the bigger the package, the more people use. (In what seems like an aspect of the same principle, I’ve noticed that I finish books faster when I have a bigger stack from the library.)

3. Many ways of consuming food involve multiple bite-sized servings, such as dim sum, tapas, hors d’oeuvres, petit fours, appetizers ordered for the table, which makes it hard to know how much we’re eating — which is likely part of the appeal. One way to monitor in such situations? Save the evidence left behind: the pile of bones, the peanut shells, the candy wrappers, the day’s coffee cups or soda cans or beer bottles.

4. We often tell ourselves that something doesn’t “count.” Ah, that popular “This doesn’t count” loophole, as described in the hilarious Strategy of Loophole-Spotting! Taking bites while cooking, eating off a child’s plate, sharing an order of dessert…

5. Context matters. One study of package design showed that people avoid the smallest and largest beverage sizes; therefore, if the smallest drink size is dropped, or a larger drink size is added (such as the Starbucks Trenta), people adjust their choices upward.

If you’re interested in the psychology of portion sizes, check out Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating and Lisa Young’s The Portion Teller.

How about you? Have you found ways to monitor portion size — or identified situations that make it difficult to monitor?

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I'm just about finished writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we can make and break our habits. If you’d like to hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.

Andre Agassi and the Odd Energy around a Finish Line.

agassi-2Agassi extravaganza continues.

I recently read tennis star Andre Agassi’s memoir, Open, even though I’m not interested in tennis, because so many people recommended it to me. And I must say, the book is fascinating.

The other day, I posted a happiness quotation from the book.

Yesterday, I noted that Agassi is an Obliger (if you want to know what that is, read here), and his autobiography presents an excellent example of that perspective.

Today is the last Agassi reference, I promise. This passage  caught my attention, because it’s about the power of the finish line.

As I’ve mentioned many times before, I’m hard at work on a book about how we make and break habits, which will be available March 2015 (sign up here to be notified when it goes on sale).

One thing that took me a long time to realize, in the study of habits: the danger of finish lines. They came up in my study of the complicated Strategy of Reward.

Setting a finish line does indeed help people reach a goal, but although it’s widely assumed to help habit-formation, the reward of hitting a specific goal actually can undermine habits.

The more I thought about finish lines, the more I noticed…there’s something strange about finish lines. They have a weird, unpredictable power. They need to be considered very carefully. They affect our habits in ways we might not expect.

Agassi captures this beautifully.

The finish line at the end of a career is no different from the finish line at the end of a match. The objective is to get within reach of that finish line, because then it gives off a magnetic force. When you’re close, you can feel that force pulling you, and you can use that force to get across. But just before you come within range, or just after, you feel another force, equally strong, pushing you away. It’s inexplicable, mystical, these twin forces, these contradictory energies, but they both exist. I know, because I’ve spent so much of my life seeking the one, fighting the other, and sometimes I’ve been stuck, suspended, bounced like a tennis ball between the two.

Here’s an example. My friend Adam Gilbert founded the terrific program My Body Tutor, to help people get fit and healthy through accountability. He told me that sometimes, people will do very well with their new healthy habits, and then when they get within a few pounds of their goal weight, they drop out.

This really surprised me. Wouldn’t the promise of hitting the finish line keep people going? Yes, sometimes. But sometimes people become uneasy as they near the finish line — just as Agassi explains. Or people cross a finish line, say by reaching a goal weight, and they immediately push off in the other direction, with contradictory energy, and seem to hurry to undo all the work they’ve done.

Finish lines. There’s an odd atmosphere around them. Agassi captured it better than I’ve ever seen elsewhere.

What about you? Have you seen unexpected behavior emerge around a finish line — in yourself or other people?

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What Andre Agassi Can Teach Us About Habits, Happiness–and Ourselves.

Andre-AgassiFor yesterday’s weekly quotation, I quoted from tennis star Andre Agassi’s autobiography, Open.

It’s a fascinating book, on many levels (and I say that as someone who has no interest in tennis).

I’m always particularly interested when something sheds light on habits or happiness, and as I read the book, several observations stuck out at me.

First, Andre Agassi is an Obliger.

For my upcoming masterpiece, a book about how we make and break habits, I’ve written extensively about a framework, the “Four Tendencies,” that I’ve developed.

The framework helps to explain why people can make or break habits–or not. People fall into four categories, which describe how people tend to respond to expectations: outer expectations (a deadline, a “request” from a sweetheart) and inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, keep a New Year’s resolution).

Your response to expectations may sound slightly obscure, but it turns out to be very, very important.

In a nutshell:

  • Upholders respond readily to outer and inner expectations (I’m an Upholder, 100%)
  • Questioners question all expectations; they’ll meet an expectation if they think it makes sense (my husband is a Questioner)
  • Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike
  • Obligers meet outer expectations, but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves

 

Agassi is a classic Obliger. He’s able to meet others’ expectations (his father’s demand that he excel at tennis, his girlfriend Brooke Shields’s desire to get engaged) but struggles to meet his own expectations for himself.

He also demonstrates “Obliger rebellion,” a striking pattern in which Obligers abruptly refuse to meet an expectation, or when they rebel in symbolic ways (Agassi rebels with his hair and clothes).

If you want insight into the Obliger perspective, this book is an outstanding resource. Agassi shows the tremendous energy and accomplishment that Obligers can bring to bear, and also the anger and resentment that can arise from Obligers’ feeling that they’re working towards others’ expectations.

For you Obligers out there, who have read the book, did it strike a chord with you? Did you identify?

(If you’d like to see me discuss each category in  a video, look here: Upholders, here; Questioners, here;  Rebels, here, and Obligers, here. If you want to hear when my habits book goes on sale, sign up here.)

Agassi insight #2 tomorrow!

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“I Feel as if I’ve Been Let in on a Dirty Little Secret: Winning Changes Nothing.”

agassi“But I don’t feel that Wimbledon changed me. I feel, in fact, as if I’ve been let in on a dirty little secret: winning changes nothing. Now that I’ve won a slam, I know something that very few people on earth are permitted to know. A win doesn’t feel as good as a loss feels bad, and the good feeling doesn’t last as long as the bad. Not even close.”

–Andre Agassi, Open: An Autobiography

Agassi is referring to the “negativity bias,” the phenomenon that means that generally, bad is stronger than good. Alas.

Stay tuned; I’m going to write more about Agassi’s autobiography. It’s fascinating for many reasons–and I don’t even like tennis.

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Why I’ve Grown Wary of Accepting Anything That’s Free.

freebuttonOne habit that I try hard to cultivate is to stay on top of clutter.

Clutter seems trivial, but I’ve found — and many people have told me that they’re the same way — that clutter weighs me down more than it should. Something like a crowded coat closet or an overflowing inbox is a petty problem, but then when I clear out that area, I feel so much more energetic, creative, and happy. It’s weird.

I have a lot of habits that I follow to stay on top of clutter. I follow the one-minute rule (anything I can do in less than a minute, I go ahead and do without delay).  I don’t get organized. For more tips to beat clutter, check here.

(I write about more clutter-fighting habits in my forthcoming masterpiece about habit-formation. If you want to hear when the book goes on sale, you can sign up here.)

Because I’m focused on clutter-busting, I’m now very wary of anything that’s free. Getting something for free makes it feel like a treat—and oddly, it makes me feel greedier. I’m excited when I get something without paying—even if it’s something I’d never choose to buy. For instance, getting free food and drink is a challenge to my healthy eating habits, and in fact, research shows that getting a food or drink sample makes shoppers feel hungrier and thirstier, and puts them in reward-seeking state.

Also, an important strategy for habit-formation is the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting, and getting something for free can provide loopholes. For example, we can use it to argue that “this doesn’t count,” as in “These cookies are compliments of the chef, they’re free, they don’t count.” But everything counts.

Now, instead of unthinkingly accepting a freebie, I ask: would I choose to buy this thing? If not, I probably don’t really need or want it, even if getting it feels like a treat.

When I spoke at a company, I mentioned this habit during the question-and-answer period. Afterward, the event organizer said, “I know this is ironic, but here’s a little something for you.” He handed me a company water bottle and a box of fancy chocolates.

“Thanks!” I said. “This looks great, even if it is free.” We both laughed—but in fact, I  really didn’t want those freebies. My family already has a lot of water bottles (because these days, they’re so often given out for free), and I don’t eat chocolate. I appreciated the kindness and generosity of the gesture, and I accepted the things, because I didn’t want to be rude, but I had to figure out ways to get rid of them usefully, which was a bit of trouble.

How about you? When you consider the sources of clutter in your life, do you find that freebies make up a percentage of the stuff?

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