This is valuable information pulled from my new Rebooted Body Action Guide: 8 Unhealthy Eating Triggers and How to Conquer Them. For more on how to conquer this and 7 of the other most popular unhealthy eating triggers, click here.
What would happen if you ate a handful of nuts every single time you got in your car, for a year? I know — strange example. But, on day 366, what do you think you’d be prompted to do upon entering your car again?
You’d be subconsciously triggered to find nuts. That’s because you’ve participated in a long cycle of what’s called “context-dependent repetition,” the building block of habitual behavior.
Habits are powerful. And once habits are developed, they can be difficult to break, even paralyzing.
The 21 day myth
The story gets worse. Most coaches and programs are lying to you about how easy it is to break bad habits and create new ones.
The prevailing myth is that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. I’m sure you’ve seen countless programs and trainers with curriculums based on that fairy tale. Unfortunately, it’s bogus.
So, what’s the real number?
A study was published in the European Journal of Social Psychology that tackled this exact question.
In this real world study, participants were asked to perform a self-chosen behavior in response to a once-daily cue (such as “perform said activity every day at breakfast”). Then the researchers tracked automaticity (the prompt to do things without conscious thought — e.g. a habit) to see when the growth of automaticity peaked, signaling the formation of a habit.
The results were all over the map, with one participant peaking at 18 days and another failing to form a new habit after 84 days of repetition. The average for participants to peak was found to be 66 days.
The study also demonstrated that the ability to form new habits depends strongly on the individual person and the complexity of the new habit. The final conclusion was that a number should not be placed on habit forming and that the 21 day assertion is absolutely a myth.
That’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that it takes longer to make new habits. The good news is that you’re no longer operating with bad information and thinking you’re broken for not being able to create new habits in your life.
My personal history with pattern paralysis
I suffered from two main pattern paralysis triggers for years: the desire for dessert after meals and unmitigated eating in social situations.
The first pattern — eating dessert after meals — was learned in childhood. I grew up in a family where dessert after every meal was the norm and I’ve carried that pattern with me into adulthood.
The second pattern — unmitigated social eating — is a pattern I’ve fallen into mainly because it’s a societal norm. There’s a similar societal norm called Happy Hour. Everyone knows what Happy Hour is because, for the most part, everyone desires what happens during Happy Hour. “How do I survive Happy Hour” is a question I receive often.
It was only during my reboot that I realized how damaging pattern paralysis is and how it destroys your relationship with food. Falling into these patterns brings you out of touch, leaving you unable to correctly identify hunger and satiety signals. It leads to disordered eating. It leads to a lack of control. It leads to a lot of negative things.
The reason I call it pattern paralysis is because it feels SO normal to you that it’s alien to do otherwise. It’s uncomfortable to not eat dessert after dinner if you’ve spent the last 30 years eating dessert after dinner. 30 years of a habit is hard to change — you feel tied up, almost like you HAVE to do it. Paralyzed.
This is one of the hardest mental and emotional roadblocks to overcome because it works hand in hand with emotional eating and other unhealthy eating triggers.
Healing Pattern Paralysis
You can’t just snap your fingers and kill the desire to eat in front of the television or have dessert after dinner. Automaticity, by definition, is a function of the brain that allows you to act out behaviors (good or bad) without conscious thought. In this case, it’s a strong and persuasive prompt for a specific food-related behavior.
Why don’t you have willpower in these situations? Because automaticity bypasses willpower. With awareness and focus, you could still employ willpower to overcome the trigger, but that assumes your willpower is functional at the time. Contrary to popular belief, willpower is a finite resource. More on that in the chapter on Ego Depletion.
I know this all sounds horribly difficult to heal, but you can absolutely break habits and form new ones. Here’s a few ideas to get you started:
Limit the opportunity to fail
Instead of trying to interrupt patterns and fight against them (a battle you might lose), you may be better off limiting failure points altogether.
When I was trying to heal from the pattern paralysis trigger of eating in front of the television I drastically limited my television time, especially at night when my trigger was strongest. I switched to reading and writing instead.
Use unavailability and substitutions
Again, attacking these patterns head on may not do the trick, especially if you’re making many other big changes in your life. So, baby steps would look like using the concept of unavailability and making substitutions.
For my dessert-after-dinner trigger, I did two things: I made sure there was nothing in my house that I didn’t want to put in my mouth (unavailability) and I switched out the bad stuff with things that wouldn’t hurt me (substitution). This allowed me to continue the habit for a short time while mitigating the damage and dealing with the prospects of breaking a habit that my mind didn’t want broken.
Rebooting your house/pantry/fridge is a HUGE first step toward success — using the concept of unavailability — because it completely bypasses the need for willpower and protects you against patterning.
If ANTI food is not easily accessible, success is a natural byproduct. Beyond rebooting your abode, you need to draw a line in the sand that says you won’t bring ANTI food into your home at any point in the near future, either. If that’s something you have trouble with, that’s a strong sign that you’re being influenced by emotional eating triggers as well.
Substitution is really helpful if your habit is tied directly to your emotional self. I made a deal with myself that I would continue with the dessert pattern, but I’d do so with a huge substitution: dessert would now be replaced with 85% dark chocolate. That’s about 5 grams of sugar versus the 50-100 grams of sugar in a normal dessert.
And dark chocolate is not hyperpalatable so it tends not to feed sugar and processed food addiction. This was a stepping stone for me to eventually conquer the desire to eat dessert after every meal.
The fastest way to limit the damage of this trigger while you work to escape it is to substitute smarter options. You’re still following the pattern, but you’re aware that it exists and you’re limiting the damage it causes. You’ll still need to do extra work to defeat the pattern itself, but you’ll limit it’s damage and control over you in the meantime.
Work through the emotions
Pattern paralysis is often tied to emotions and stories that we tell ourselves. Making substitutions is a good first step, but eventually we have to start looking inside and figuring out what emotions and stories are tied to these patterns.
When we do that, we’re free to decide whether these patterns are a healthy expression of those emotions. This process creates insight and deeper understanding, which is a powerful tool for wanting to make better choices.
To get started, begin journaling before you start trying to break a pattern. Journal your thoughts and feelings that come up during the act of carrying out the pattern.
After a few days of this, decide whether you want to try and quit the pattern cold turkey or whether you want to use the substitution method (see the chapter on Sugar Stressing for quitting cold turkey). Journal for another week after making that decision.
Look for recurring emotions in your journaling. Do specific events that occur in your life amplify this trigger? Is the trigger strongest at certain times of the day? Not only will this help you work through the emotions but it’ll give you valuable information for making adjustments that may help you break the pattern with less struggle.
Consciously change unrelated habits in your life
An interesting scientific study from The University of Hertfordshire found that people who are generally inflexible in their lives — that is, they easily fall into habits and patterns and schedules and don’t like when those patterns are altered — have a difficult time adopting new eating habits, quitting smoking, or dealing with any other major lifestyle change.
The researchers created a concept called DSD: do something different, where participants are asked to change up other daily habits that are completely unrelated to the habit they really want to change.
Examples include: not watching television for a day, driving a different route to work, not using a cell phone for a period of time, writing a poem, and so on.
What they found is that people who break free from small habits in their daily lives become less of a creature of habit in general which allows them to break free from more major habits, such as pattern paralysis.
Lastly, don’t fret over small hiccups
Another finding in the study I mentioned earlier about habit formation suggests that “progress over perfection” is still the best mindset to have. “Missing one opportunity to perform the behavior did not materially affect the habit formation process.”
Yes, you can let yourself off the hook for those missteps. It’s the damaging mindset of punishing yourself for slip-ups that leads to failure in the habit formation process because that self-punishment depletes motivation and resolve. Focus on the things you’re doing right, instead.
Start thinking about your own life. What are your specific pattern paralysis triggers? Where do you think they came from? When are they strongest? How are you going to approach conquering them?
If you want help taking action and want to discover 7 other top unhealthy eating triggers and how to conquer them, download my Action Guide: 8 Unhealthy Eating Triggers and How to Conquer Them — included with the guide is access to a private Facebook support group full of other people who are working through the exact same guide.
Kevin Geary is the founder of RebootedBody.com and a respected expert on cravings, eating psychology, and long-term habit change. He’s worked with thousands of men and women in over 35 countries around the world through his online academy and programs like Shut Down Your Sugar Cravings.