This blog was originally published on Medium. You can find the link here.
Working in the behavioral research and design industry provides me with great opportunities to work in various fields on all sorts of behavioral challenges. When you do this kind of work, every so often you’ll see yourself in your clients’ consumer research.
This happened to me back in April 2019.
I was doing research for a healthcare client, trying to understand the behavioral challenges of living with Type 2 diabetes. On day two of our interviews, I listened to a guy who I’d guess was between 55-60 and was completely jacked. He looked like a bodybuilder.
He walked into the room and everyone looked at him because he was attractive, had broad shoulders and big arms. Then he sat down and told the interviewer that he couldn’t control his eating, especially at night, and it cost him his health. In that moment, I sympathized with this guy and his struggle because I have trouble controlling my cravings at night, too.
In my 30s, I was big into Ironman triathlons, which meant I was burning enough calories to pretty much eat whatever I wanted. That all changed with the birth of my son, Nicholas.
I stopped running triathlons but my binge eating habit remained. Most nights, I sneak away to the pantry and grab some chips to eat. There is something about salty snacks that I just craved after the sun goes down.
As you might imagine, giving into these nocturnal cravings caused me to gain a few pounds. That’s why, as I was listening to this gentleman, it was a wake-up call for me. I knew I had to get my cravings under control.
Given my expertise in behavioral design and mindstates, it’s no surprise that my plan was to:
- Understand the trigger that leads to my nighttime cravings
- Identify the mindstate I’m under when that habit is triggered
- Design an intervention that would break my habit of eating after dinner
I’d like to share my process with you, as well as the results I’ve had so far. If you’re struggling with binge eating late at night, my hope is that this article will show you change is possible.
Step #1: Understand the Trigger
The first thing you want to do when you’re seeking to better understand a ritual or habit is to understand the trigger that starts the habit. In this case, I wanted to figure out what sparked my cravings. So, after I returned home following that week of research, I kept a sheet of paper next to me at night and made notes about what was happening. Three days in, I found the trigger.
Whenever my wife Melanie would turn in for the night, I realized I started thinking about food. Being alone and not having to answer questions about why or what I was eating, it led me to desire food that I knew was bad for me. Nobody would know, so what was the harm? At least, that was what I told myself whenever I’d sneak into the kitchen to eat chips.
Now that I knew my trigger—Melanie leaving the room—it was time for the second step.
Step #2: Identify My Mindstate
To successfully build a behavioral intervention, my next step was to identify my mindstate in these moments. Using the process I detailed in my book, Marketing to Mindstates, I determined that building around the cautious competence mindstate would make me least likely to snack.
When I’m in this mindstate, I seek to minimize the risk of losing credibility as a behavioral change expert. I had to ask myself, “Will, how can you go on stage telling people how to influence behaviors if you can’t even control your own and you’re borderline obese?”
That was the fear I had: if I wasn’t able to control my behavior, who would take me seriously as an expert on behavioral change? In the work I do, competence is very important to me.
Knowing the trigger and my mindstate, it was time for the third step.
Step #3: Design the Intervention
Similar to my digital detox, I created a card that would put me in the right mindstate and placed it on the ottoman that I prop my feet up on at night. Here’s a picture of the card:
Now, whenever Melanie gets up to leave the room and my mind turns to food, I look at my feet and see this note reminding me of my goal to be seen as a “competent behavioral change expert.” It offers me a chance to pause, reflect on what I’m doing, and make a mindful decision.
With habits, rituals, or impulses, we’re almost always acting mindlessly, following an invisible script. This card was helpful in creating a pattern interrupt and halting that script.
In addition to the card, I attempted to create another point of friction between myself and the chips. At first, I placed the chips on a higher shelf in the pantry, but that created a problem for Melanie in the morning when she made lunch for Nicholas. Also, it wasn’t that difficult for me to bring my step ladder over and grab them using that. So, my first attempt failed.
My second attempt was locking the pantry and giving Melanie the key. I figured if I had to ask Melanie for permission to snack, I wouldn’t do it. But wouldn’t you know it: cravings find a way. I discovered that I could bump the door—like Fonzie bumping the jukebox—and it would open.
I was thwarted once again in my effort to create friction. That’s when I had an epiphany: what if the best approach wasn’t creating friction, but rather redirecting my cravings to something besides chips. By going that route, I wouldn’t deprive myself of the emotional release I got from eating chips. Because, truly, that’s what snacking on chips at night was about for me. I wasn’t eating after dinner because I was hungry. I was eating to enjoy a release after a long day.
So, rather than trying to deprive myself by not eating anything, I redirected my behaviors to something that’s a bit better: decaf Nespresso. That warm beverage gives me a moment of relief, a moment to call it a day. And this moment gets me mentally prepared for tomorrow.
How the Intervention Has Worked So Far
I made the switch in July 2019 and bought decaf espresso pods for my Nespresso machine. When Melanie leaves the room, I make myself a warm espresso and sip it slowly. As I do that, my urge to binge-eat leaves. The warmth of the mug, plus sipping the espresso, gives me time to slow down, release from the stresses of the day, and get my mind right for tomorrow.
Now, do I always win? No. But have I diverted more than half of my cravings to a healthier alternative? Yes, I have. This small step has made a big difference for me. Not only have I lost a few pounds, but I’m doing it in a way where I don’t deprive myself of a helpful release.
If you struggle with binge eating or late-night cravings, an intervention designed around your mindstate could help you end that habit, or at least divert it to something healthier. What works for you will probably look different than what works for me, but the first step is to identify your mindstate when the habit is triggered, which you can do by reading Marketing to Mindstates.
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