I can’t eat a few bites of ice cream and be done. I’ll also never be the person to take a handful of chips and be satisfied. But it’s not because I have no willpower. It’s because I’ve made the mistake of assuming I can stop a bad habit through sheer force of will and nothing more. I now realize I need to take into account a specific quality of my personality.
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Who eats four potato chips?
When I was in college, I lived with a group of friends. The first time I saw one of them, a tiny, petite girl, take a bag of chips to the living room and then proceed to eat four chips and return the bag to the kitchen, I was flabbergasted. Who eats four potato chips?
Never in my life had I seen such a thing before. I even polled a few other roommates and asked if they do that. The general consensus was that if we’re going through the hassle of getting the bag and bringing it into the living room, we’re eating far more than four chips.
Despite being in the majority, that moment has strangely stuck with me.
I found it so difficult to stop myself after snacking on considerably more than I should. Why was she so content to eat so little?
Deprivation vs. “allowed to have”
Years later, I had a conversation with a friend who struggled with her weight as I did. I mentioned to her that I’d recently realized I was much more successful if I just didn’t eat things I struggled to stop once starting. It was far easier to just not eat it.
So instead of buying chips and always having the bag at home, I would only get them in a small, single serving bag at work if I really wanted them. Or I would just give them up altogether if I found myself buying them too frequently. Not having them available at all times, and in a large quantity, was really helpful.
I was surprised when she said she’d tried that and it didn’t work for her. She found that when she tried to avoid something to stop a bad habit of over-eating, it actually made it worse.
She felt deprived. Then she’d go out and buy something she knew she shouldn’t have and eat it all immediately. It caused her to binge. But if she had it in the house, and just allowed herself to have a small amount each day, it could last for weeks. She ate little bits at a time. Just knowing she could have it if she wanted it made her crave it less.
I had never heard that from anyone before. But I thought back to my roommate and her four chips and wondered if that was perhaps the same thing.
I figured everyone is just different and different techniques worked for different people. Then a few years ago, I read Gretchen Rubin’s book “The Four Tendencies.”
I’m an abstainer.
In her book, she identified some seemingly universal truths of various personalities. They essentially explain how we are each wired to form and break habits. We’re all different, but there are a group of tendencies that people lean toward.
As it turns out, my observation of my four chip roommate and conversation with my friend were put into clear words right here!
There are apparently two camps of people in this particular area. Neither is right or wrong, it’s just whatever works for you. So I was partially right there, I guess.
When she described how to know if you’re an “abstainer or moderator” as she calls them, I completely identified with the abstainer mentality. It requires so much more energy for me to moderate myself. I find it much easier and less stressful to just give something up altogether than to try to create rules around it.
I suppose that’s why it was easy for me to be a vegetarian and now a vegan. And why some people don’t understand how I can just avoid those foods so easily. (They must be moderators!)
Are you struggling to stop a bad habit?
If you’ve struggled to stop a bad habit it might be that you’re making this simple mistake! Perhaps you’ve been trying to give something up cold-turkey and really you need to allow yourself a little leeway. Alternatively, you may be making the situation way harder on yourself by allowing yourself a little freedom when you need to be strict and cut it out completely.
The great thing is this doesn’t just work with food! It can help with any bad habit you’re trying to stop. Maybe your bad habit is going out on the weekends and spending too much on drinks. Maybe you need to stop going to the bar instead of limiting the amount of drinks.
Whether it’s overspending on clothing, watching too much TV, too many drinks on Friday nights, or too much fast food, this could be the answer to finally kicking that bad habit once and for all! (Note that this is not a solution for a serious addiction, but rather a potential solution for general bad habits.)
Take notice of how you’ve tried to manage that habit in the past. Do you always try to just “moderate” it while allowing yourself to still partake? You may need to stop altogether. Alternatively, if you’ve tried stopping altogether and it always ends in overdoing it even more, you might need to just enforce a few rules on yourself and allow it to an extent, but not completely take it away.
There are, of course, other factors that can contribute to your success or failures, but this is a huge one! I know many times I’ve struggled it’s because I’m trying to moderate. Once I discovered that’s harder for me, I know how to be more successful! Look back over other habits you’ve changed, started, or kept. Then check out Gretchen’s quiz to see which you are. (Then check out The Four Tendencies for more insight, it’s a pretty good book!)