As a teenager, my eating habits were absolutely terrible. A typical day consisted of bologna sandwiches, chocolate chip cookies, and lots of sugary drinks. When I got to college, my eating habits got even worse. Late nights with friends often led to eating pizza and junk food after midnight, too.
Since then, I’ve become much more interested in and knowledgeable about the connection between eating habits and the health of your body and brain.
Fast forward to today, and my eating habits could not be more different than they were as a teen. These days, more than 95% (but not 100%) of my calories come from natural, nutrient-dense foods, including several pounds of fresh/frozen fruits and vegetables every day.
From bologna sandwiches to spinach smoothies
People often comment these days about my supposed “willpower” with my eating habits. However, my approach to nutrition has nothing to do with willpower. It’s largely due to my view of food- as fuel for my body and brain. Another factor is a weekly habit that will seem counter-intuitive.
Once a week (usually on Sundays), I avoid my usual fare and eat something that would never make it on my plate during the rest of the week. Three specific examples are pepperoni pizza, ice cream, or cheesecake.
I refer to this as a Scheduled Habit Break. There are three main benefits of incorporating them into your life (in regard to nutrition or anything else):
- They establish clear boundaries and guidelines. You don’t have to waste time or energy making decisions throughout the week on how to handle unexpected, inevitable temptations.
- It becomes easier to stay on track the rest of the time– since you know exactly when a break is coming.
- A behavior is significantly more satisfying when experienced less frequently. Instead of a frequent, mindless activity that you take for granted, it becomes a more memorable, satisfying experience.
Scheduled Habit Breaks can be applied to any area of life (not just your eating habits). For example, if you typically work Monday to Friday with weekends off, you are already using Scheduled Habit Breaks with your job. In this case, the habit is going to work Monday to Friday, and the break is taking weekends off. Trying to work seven days a week would probably not be enjoyable or sustainable- even if you love what you do.
In today’s world, we are surrounded twenty-four/seven by harmful or low-value temptations that can keep us from being our best. Unhealthy foods are one example. Endless entertainment on your phone, computer, or television is another.
Your body, your career, and your life will pay the price if you give in every, or many, times that you are presented with something that provides immediate gratification. Paradoxically, one way to manage these temptations is to give yourself permission to enjoy them occasionally, instead of trying to avoid them completely.
A goal of perfection works against many people. On the other hand, intentionally being unhealthy or unproductive every now and then can actually make it easier to be healthy and productive much more often. For example, my weekend treat definitely helps me be stricter the rest of the week.
Note: The point here is not that you or anyone else needs to eat clean for 95% of the time, too. That’s what currently works for my goals and lifestyle. You might find that eating an unhealthy treat once a day or some other frequency (instead of once a week) works best for you.
What if you don’t want to indulge on a schedule?
If you prefer not to follow Scheduled Habit Breaks, you might prefer what I refer to as Flexible Habit Breaks. With this approach, you follow a habit for a certain percentage of the time (i.e. five days a week or 80% of the time), and you break a habit when you are in the mood.
One downside is that this approach forces you to make more decisions, since you do not have the clear boundaries and guidelines of a more structured approach. Another risk here is that your actual percentage of healthy, productive behavior can easily skew much lower than you realize. A less structured, “everything in moderation” approach is ambiguous, and it makes it easy to make excuses and look for loopholes.
While occasional Habit Breaks can help you on stay on track more often, it’s important to note some exceptions.
For some people, one drink can easily turn into ten. For others, one pull of a slot machine can easily turn into an entire weekend at the casino. For others, one visit to the mall can easily turn into thousands of dollars of frivolous purchases. If you find it very difficult to control a behavior, you might want or need to eliminate it from your life altogether- either immediately or gradually.
In addition, you might simply choose that a behavior is no longer worth it to you at all- even if it’s not causing you any major problems. For example, while I do indulge with pizza and desserts every now and then, I decided years ago to stop drinking soda completely. It just wasn’t worth it to me anymore, and it felt easier and worthwhile to eliminate it entirely from my life.
If you want to follow a healthy or productive habit every day or 100% of the time, don’t let anyone stop you. However, if you don’t have a serious problem controlling a behavior, it is fine to schedule or take an occasional Habit Break every now and then. In fact, it might actually help you stay on track more often than trying to be “perfect” 100% of the time.
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About the author: Pete Leibman is the creator of StrongerHabits.com and he’s the author of Work Stronger; Habits for More Energy, Less Stress, and Higher Performance at Work. Before writing Work Stronger, Pete worked as an executive recruiter for Heidrick & Struggles, a leadership advisory firm who serves the majority of the Fortune 500. In his free time, he teaches one of the largest group exercise classes in the Washington, D.C. area, and he has competed in the Obstacle Course Racing (OCR) World Championships.