When it comes to food, I'm what you might call a "grazer." Rather than eat three substantial meals a day, my natural tendency is to eat pretty much all day long. Which would probably be fine if, like most grazing animals, I was limiting myself to grasses. Unfortunately, like most Americans, I much prefer to snack on foods that aren't very good for me - highly processed foods that are high in fat, sugar, and calories. In addition to being a great way to pack on unwanted pounds, snacking turns out to be a very hard habit to break.
If you want to maintain a healthy weight, there is no great mystery - eat less, exercise more, and you will eventually reach your goal. So why, then, do most of us struggle to lose weight and keep it off? One answer is that we've developed a lot of bad habits that sabotage our chances for success. We snack too much between meals. We eat when we are bored, anxious, or depressed. We reach for the bag of chips or the candy bar, rather than the apple or the carrot sticks. We finish everything on our plates too quickly, rather than stopping when we've had enough to satisfy our hunger. We supersize it, when the "regular" size is already way too big to be good for us.
The thing about habits that makes them so difficult to overcome is that they are relatively automatic. In other words, we engage in these behaviors without the conscious intention to do so. It turns out to be particularly hard to stop yourself from eating too much when you aren't even really aware that you're doing it in the first place.
Fortunately, there are strategies you can use to put an end to these self-sabotaging habits. Recent research by Gabriele Oettingen, Peter Gollwitzer, and their colleagues shows that two strategies, when used together, create a particularly potent combination for habit-fighting: mental contrasting and if-then planning.
Mental contrasting, in a nutshell, involves thinking positively about how it will be when you achieve your goal, while thinking realistically about what it will take to get there. First, you imagine how you will feel attaining your goal, and then you reflect on the obstacles that stand in your way. For instance, if you wanted to get a high paying job after college, you would start by imagining the sense of pride and excitement you would feel accepting a lucrative offer at a top firm. Then, you would think about what stands between you and that offer - namely, all the other really outstanding candidates that will be applying for jobs. Kind of makes you want to send out a lot of applications, doesn't it? That's called experiencing the necessity to act - it's a psychological state that is crucial for achieving a goal. Daydreaming about how great it will be to land that job can be a lot of fun, but it won't get you anywhere. Mental contrasting turns wishes and daydreams into reality, by bringing into focus what you will need to do to make it happen.
Once you've set a goal, perhaps the most common problem we run into when actually trying to achieve it is missing opportunities to take action. We get preoccupied by other goals, or simply so distracted that we forget about our goal entirely, and don't notice an opportunity when it arises. Sometimes we "miss" opportunities because we are reluctant to take the necessary steps to reach our goal, especially when it is difficult or just no fun at all (As for myself, I am very loathe to give up all those delicious snacks). Whatever the reason, we are constantly letting opportunities to achieve our goals slip through our fingers. If we want to succeed, we literally need to learn how to seize the moment. This is precisely what if-then plans are designed to do.
Forming an if-then plan (or what Gollwitzer calls an implementation intention) starts with taking a goal you want to achieve, and then spelling out exactly when, where, and how you will achieve it: If I am in this situation, then I will take this action. For example, if your goal is to work out more, you might form the plan: "I will work out for an hour at the gym on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays before work." So if you've made an if-then plan, then you know that when it's Monday morning, it's time to hit the gym before work. You're less likely to let the opportunity to act on your goal pass you by.
In a study that will appear soon in the European Journal of Social Psychology, Oettingen and Gollwitzer, along with Marieke Adriaanse, Erin Hennes, Denise De Ridder, and John De Wit, tried putting these two powerful strategies together to help people overcome the often irresistible temptation of cookies and chips (they refer to this strategy combo as "MCII": mental contrasting + implementation intentions).
Female participants who wanted to reduce their unhealthy snacking kept a food diary detailing their daily indulgences. Half of the participants in the study were instructed to also complete a "mental exercise" to help them reach their goal (MCII). First, they engaged in mental contrasting by writing briefly about both the positive aspects of successfully reducing their snacking (e.g., losing weight, feeling healthier), as well as the primary obstacle standing in their way (e.g., the tendency to eat when bored or stressed). Next, they formed an if-then plan for how they would cope with that obstacle, replacing the unhealthy snack with a piece of fruit (e.g., "If I am bored and I feel like having a snack, then I will eat an apple.")
Even though both the MCII group and the control group were equally committed to reaching their goal of snacking less, over the course of the following week the women in the MCII group consumed a whopping 1125 fewer snack calories on average than those in the control group!
In a second study, the researchers showed the using either mental contrasting or if-then planning alone is far less effective than the MCII combo. Their data suggests that engaging in mental contrasting helps people to have greater clarity about what their obstacles to success really are, and as a result they form better, more effective plans. And it doesn't just work for snacking! Similar results have recently been obtained in studies of exercise, test preparation, and even time management.
So the next time you find yourself struggling to rid yourself of a bad habit, no matter what it is, try the MCII exercise: think about how great it will be if you succeed, identify what stands in your way, and make an if-then plan to deal with it. These simple steps are a tried-and-true recipe for success.
M. Adriaanse, G. Oettingen, P. Gollwitzer, E. Hennes, D. De Ridder, & J. De Wit (2010). When planning is not enough: Fighting unhealthy snacking habits by mental contrasting with implementation intentions (MCII). European Journal of Social Psychology.