by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.
So here’s a scenario to consider:
One of your goals is to eat healthily for 12 weeks. That means no junk food of any sort.
And you’ve been doing pretty well for the past 8 weeks.
But someone puts a beautiful bowl of crisps right in front of you and you’ve always loved crisps! You pride yourself in having really good self-control but your hand is about to reach for a big handful of those delicious treats.
Okay, so let’s pause that scene for a moment.
What’s more likely to stop your hand from delving into the crisps and ruining your record?
a. Exerting your self-control and resisting temptation right on the spot? OR
b. The strength of the new habit you’ve been setting up, which somehow weakened your excitement about crisps?
Let’s give it another hoot for the strength of habits. The answer is b.
As a matter of fact, it is hugely about your habit strength. (Goodness, of all the things we could measure, did you ever think one could be called ‘habit strength’?)
Just how good is your habit strength when up against a favorite junk food snack?
You’re about to find out!
The self-control spectrum
When you think of self-control, whether it is pertaining to yourself or a client, there’s a fair chance that you associate that word with success, or a positive outcome. Do you agree?
Usually these outcomes are considered to be the result of the ability to refuse desires for immediate gratification – sort of like resisting that bowl of crisps in front of you. If the end result of that situation is that you resisted the crisps, then it is deemed that you have good self-control.
We normally associate good self-control with an effortful process that requires conscious attention or deliberation. As a result, we believe that those who put in the mental effort to resist the snacking action have more self-control.
But here’s the twist: research suggests that self-control around snacking can also be effortless.
The researchers call it ‘effortless inhibition’.
Let’s see how that’s even possible next.
Effortless inhibition of the snacking impulse
People who are better with self-control (inhibition) around snacking have more success in regulating their behaviour not because they ‘resist’ temptation each time, but because they:
- prevented the creation of a bad habit or an addiction in the first place, by not putting themselves in the position where they have to resist or inhibit those impulses regularly, and
- established strong routines and automatic habits through repetition, resulting in weaker desires when presented with single temptations or even removing the dilemma of having to resist.
Take a moment to think about that!
Those two things combined help inhibit the unhealthy snacking effortlessly.
There are many strategies to prevent the creation of a snacking habit or an addiction AND to create strong routines that remove the snacking dilemma. Think of ways that you can stack up the conditions to make it happen.
Here’s a few examples:
- Altering your environment so the temptation is no longer around.
- Curating your current shopping list – or creating a brand new one.
- Avoiding the pastries and snacks isles and sticking to your new shopping list.
- Not keeping any sweets or snacks at home or work.
- Keeping food (even healthy ones) out of sight or out of reach.
- Circumventing the street of your favourite bakery.
- Looking away (and holding your nose!) if you do walk by it.
All of these things are part of what is called ‘choice architecture’, whereby you arrange your circumstances so the need for a choice (the dilemma) is removed.
Consider this: you can better your self-control by creating effective routines, or habits, which are carried out automatically, rather than by forcing the inhibition every time that temptation arises. In other words, you can boost your habit strength.
Enter: habit strength
Habit strength is another word for automatically repeating a habit. It’s a function of the frequency with which an action has been repeated in a stable context and has acquired a high degree of habitual automation.
So when you repeat the habit that you have set up, and do it regularly and automatically, it can be said you have good habit strength.
Here’s a visual representation of habit strength:
The results of this study point out that the connection between self-control and unhealthy snack consumption is dependent on your habit strength.
Habits mediate the relation between self-control and behaviour.
I think that’s fantastic news. Particularly for those who struggle with a snacking issue.
This proves the fact that self-control can result from behavioural automation rather than an effortful path.
When your routine becomes that strong, resisting the snacking impulse can be effortless.
You can learn how to install strong routines here: Forget About Willpower: How to Install New Habits and Achieve Great Things
And if you’d like to become a go-to expert on this, we dive really deep into eating psychology in our Advanced Clinical Weight Loss Practitioner online course.
How about you?
How would you rate your habit strength? Do you have any automatic habits that have helped you to successfully steer clear of unhealthy snacking?
Jump in the conversation below and share with our very supportive community! Pass this along to someone you know who would love to know that self-control around food doesn’t need to be effortful.