I think a lot about habits, and lately I’ve been thinking a lot about habits related to holiday eating.
The holidays are supposed to be a festive time, but many people feel anxiety and regret around food and drink — the holiday season is so full of temptation.
I have to say, I enjoy the holidays much more, now that I’ve got a better grip on my habits, than I used to.
Here are some ways to apply the strategies of habit-change to this challenge:
1. Buy food in small containers. Studies show that people give themselves larger portions out of larger boxes, so I don’t buy that economy box of whatever. Buy the little box of gingerbread cookies, not the giant box.
2. Make tempting food inconvenient — put cookies in a hard-to-reach spot, set the freezer to a very cold temperature so it’s hard to spoon out ice cream, store goodies in hard-to-open containers. The Strategy of Inconvenience is simple, but crazily effective.
3. Wear snug-fitting clothes. That’s the Strategy of Monitoring. When we’re aware of what we’re doing, we behave better.
4. Dish food up in the kitchen, and don’t bring serving platters to the table (except vegetables).
5. Pile your plate with everything you intend to eat, and don’t get seconds once that food is gone.
6. Skip the add-ons: tell the waiter that you don’t want the side of fries. When I do this, I sometimes feel like Sally from When Harry Met Sally as I quibble about how my food should be served, but oh well.
7. After dinner, to signal to yourself that “Eating’s over,” brush your teeth. I’d heard about this habit, so I decided to try it, but I was skeptical. I’ve been amazed by how effective tooth-brushing is. This is the Strategy of First Steps — because that tooth-brushing is the first step toward bedtime.
8. Don’t allow myself to get too hungry or too full. This is the Strategy of Foundation.
9. Realize that, with some things, you might not be able to have just one bite. I sure can’t. In the abstainer/moderator split, I’m a hard-core abstainer. It’s far easier for me to skip cookies and chocolate than it is to have a sensible portion. The Strategy of Abstaining is not a strategy that works for everyone, but for some people, it’s enormously helpful.
10. Never eat hors d’oeuvres. This kind of bright-line rule, which is an application of the Strategy of Clarity, is very helpful.
11. Don’t eat food I don’t like, just because it’s there. No one cares if I have a serving of asparagus or cranberry sauce.
12. Plan an exception. Planned exceptions are a great way to break a good habit in a way that feels limited, controlled, and positive.
13. Watch for loopholes! Some loopholes that are especially popular during the holidays include the “This doesn’t count” loophole, the “Concern for others” loophole, and the “fake self-actualization” loophole. Remember, we’re adults, and we can mindfully make exceptions to our good habits, but everything counts.
Although it may seem festive and carefree to indulge in lots of treats, in the end, we may feel guilty and overstuffed, which doesn’t make the holiday happier.
It’s a Secret of Adulthood: By giving myself limits, I give myself freedom.