Weird Theory: Plan Bad Habits to Control Them

This is a controversial idea. And I certainly don’t recommend it for serious addictions. Try this at your own risk!

Last year, I experienced something that got my attention. I booked a flight to Detroit and purchased tickets to the Detroit Lion’s season opening football game. Since I’ve gambled at MGM properties in Vegas, I got a comped hotel room at the MGM Grand Casino in Detroit. I booked everything a couple of months in advance.

I barely gambled in those two months. To be precise, I went to a casino once. And the norm at that time was to go four to six times a month. Because I planned to gamble, I gambled about 10x less often than usual

When you have any bad habit, you get cravings for it. That’s how it works. And when I say bad habit, it does not automatically mean that I want to eradicate it from my life. Bad habits aren’t 100% bad or we wouldn’t do them, and some of them are better managed than eliminated. In the case of food addiction, elimination isn’t even possible because we need to eat to live!

Even though the football game was my primary reason for travel, I knew I would gamble as well. In the weeks leading up to the trip, every time I got or started to get a craving to go to a casino, that craving would defer to the bigger trip I planned. It was as if the hype of the big trip would literally absorb my smaller cravings to gamble at a local casino. It was a bigger, better, more exciting version of the craving, and because of that, it significantly weakened my desire to gamble in the near term.

Why Intuitive “Solutions” Are Often the Worst Ones

I’ll never forget what I found when researching for my third book, Mini Habits for Weight Loss, one of the very few weight loss books that correctly prioritizes psychology and behavior change over diet. I mean, who doesn’t know what foods to eat by now? Fruits, vegetables, minimally processed foods, etc. It’s the behavior change part that’s hard. Anyway, I came across this story:

The New York Times said of Danny Cahill, former contestant of The Biggest Loser: “Mr. Cahill, 46, said his weight problem began when he was in the third grade. He got fat, then fatter. He would starve himself, and then eat a whole can of cake frosting with a spoon. Afterward, he would cower in the pantry off the kitchen, feeling overwhelmed with shame.”

Genuinely, this seems like an intuitive way to approach weight loss at first, doesn’t it? Try as hard as humanly possible to not eat food, and especially not unhealthy food like cake frosting. That’s intuitive. That makes sense because it will lead to a lot of weight loss if you succeed, which is exactly what Danny desired. But the problem, as you can see by how this ends, is the ever-building pressure, and complete lack of release for it.

Every time Danny fights his craving, it gets stronger. The pressure builds. It gets stronger as Danny gets weaker. Eventually, the craving will be stronger than Danny’s will. At that point, it isn’t a minor slip up, but more like a dam breaking. All of the pressure he placed on himself to abstain suddenly and violently releases in a furious cake frosting binge. Then the shame comes, and the cycle continues.

Danny tried to lose weight by starving himself and creating a massive calorie deficit. That part worked, but it also created the most monstrous cravings Danny had ever experienced, resulting in frosting binges. And the whole process was the perfect storm of shame to keep Danny’s morale down and susceptible to further failure. I call craving management a hidden X-factor, because it matters more than most things, but it isn’t something people think to target with their solutions.

Counterintuitive Solutions Can Work When They Target Hidden X-Factors

Danny’s method is more intuitive than, say, scheduling time to eat unhealthy food. I mean, that sounds absolutely ridiculous when it is the very thing you want to avoid! And it may not be the absolute best strategy, but it will certainly work better than Danny’s approach because it addresses his cravings in a healthier way.

Depending on your particular bad habit, it may be better to schedule it than to let it happen “naturally” as your response to a craving.

Option A: Try to eat the best foods 100% of the time. It probably leaves you feeling deprived when you succeed, and shameful when you fail. And you’re likely to fail in small ways on a daily basis. Or in big ways, with dramatic failure and deep shame. Neither is good. Small daily failures and big dramatic ones can each continue the cycle of deprivation, shame, and regular unhealthy eating. 

Option B: Plan to eat fast food for dinner on Thursday, or even a full day of whatever you want to eat at the end of the week (cheat day). Any craving you get can be deferred to that day. You know your reward is coming. And this is an absolute weapon against temptation! Why? It removes any feelings of deprivation, because your reward is planned. If you know you’re getting five million dollars next week, you’re not going to feel poor. In the same way, knowing that your splurge is coming won’t let you feel deprived as you approach it, even if you’re having yet another salad. In this way, a planned splurge frees you up to make healthier choices in the days leading up to it.

Which option sounds better to you?

Option B not only feels better, but it is superior psychologically because it removes feelings of deprivation completely by providing you a definite reward and reduces opportunities to feel shame, which are the two primary enemies of anyone trying to change their diet. In addition to that, for all of the people who want to lose weight, very very few are interested in only eating kale for the rest of their lives. Complete abstinence from unhealthy food is unnecessary and undesirable for living a healthy life.

And the thing I love most about this idea is how much more rewarding it is at all times. Instead of these micro-failures and constantly caving to small temptations or dam-breaking failures, you let your planned splurge “soak up” all of that energy, building your anticipation higher and higher. Then, as planned, you get to indulge and release that pressure in a specific and smart way that you planned! In the meantime, it empowers you to earn the splurge. For gambling, that might mean working hard. For food, that might mean eating well and exercising.

Anticipation Is King!

This connects with another bizarre aspect of human psychology—anticipation is often stronger than the very payoff you anticipate! As your planned splurge soaks up the hype from your micro cravings, it can fill you with a lot of energy and excitement. The anticipation itself is a significant reward. 

I saw an article the other day that said something like, “the key to life is always having a vacation to look forward to.” I really enjoyed that idea. People glorify vacations for good reason, but the anticipatory aspect of an upcoming vacation is seriously underrated. Vacation brightens up the days that precede it, and perhaps darkens the ones that follow it (because the end of vacation is the beginning of work!).

The main thing you have to worry about with this strategy is “Senioritis,” a very real condition in which your hype gets so extreme that you can’t focus on anything else until you’re on the beach with a pina colada, or eating that cheat meal, or gambling in a casino before watching the Lions lose another game (seriously, I’ve been to four games now and have never seen them win in person. Perhaps they are building my anticipation?). But “Senioritis” only happens very soon before the event in my experience, and you could probably improve it if you struggle with it.

As I write this, we’re about three months away from the start of the NFL season. I might just have to attend the Detroit Lions season opener again, and book it early. In the end, the trip will probably save me money from soaking up all of my gambling hype just as it did last time. And hey, maybe the Lions will actually beat the Eagles? They are underdogs, but every dog has its day (or something). 

If you have a not-too-serious bad habit that you want to manage better, I encourage you to give this technique a try. At worst, you’ll have a little too much fun. At best, you’ll find a counterintuitive way to gain control over your cravings.

More applications:

  • Schedule social media or email time for 30 minutes once a day and don’t look at it otherwise.
  • Book a vacation in advance.
  • Plan a shopping trip.
  • Plan a TV series binge day.
  • Plan a day for video gaming.
  • Get dinner reservations at a restaurant.
  • Buy movie tickets in advance.
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