changing habits

Several months ago?probably while I was making a pie?I heard an interview on Fresh Air with New York Times business writer Charles Duhigg about his new book, The Power of Habit.

What I remember most about that interview was Duhigg’s story about how he broke his “afternoon cookie habit” by paying attention to both the trigger and the reward of his habit. When he did that, he discovered that what he was craving really wasn’t a cookie, but that going to the cafeteria in the afternoon gave him the opportunity to chat with his colleagues. In the end, it was socialization that he was craving.

I’ve not (yet) had a chance to read Duhigg’s book, but this got me to thinking about some of my own less than desirable habits. As my body is changing in middle age, and as MVPS/Dysautonomia and other issues have become more problematic, I’ve been taking an even harder look at my health. One “craving” I’ve found particularly troublesome is for junk food.

Junk Food Still Life

What’s odd is that I don’t actually like this food. Chocolate tastes different to me today, at 42, than it did was I was in my 20s. Salt-and-vinegar potato chips still have tasty appeal, but now they give me a stomach ache and occasionally even burn my tongue.

But the worst was cola, specifically Dr. Pepper and Cherry Coke. I can’t think of any redeeming nutritional qualities of either of these products, other than the caffeine hit helping with stubborn migraines when nothing else works. But I’d still go on a cola kick every other month or so, lasting from a few days to a few weeks. It was stupid.

So, what was the reward? And what different activity would produce the same result instead?

It was tough at first to think of what the reward might have been. On the one hand, I liked being able to “eat like a normal person” every so often?something chronic illness doesn’t always allow me to do?but “normal people” should be eating better anyway, so I nixed that idea.

Was it that I was attracted to doing something bad? Alcoholism does run in my family?I’ve been sober since 1989?so I could make a strong argument there. But I didn’t exactly want to go hunting for more “bad behavior” as a replacement.

Then it finally hit me: I like doing the daring thing that everyone says they want to do, but don’t do because they tell themselves they shouldn’t or couldn’t.

And in the same moment, I realized that I’ve been doing just that all along.

A friend called recently to tell me how proud she was of me and how I was the bravest person she knew. I was floored by that, truly. I’ve not felt particularly successful or even enviable of late, but when she laid out for me everything that she saw?my writing books, picking up and moving cross country, trying new things (like pie baking and astronomy), going to Ireland to talk to people about religion . . . well, heck, I was pretty impressed, too.

I also realized that trying something new and seemingly difficult gives me a kind of rush?similar to the glee you see on the faces of people munching on Doritos in TV commercials. It sparks an enthusiasm that spills over into other areas of my life.

While I didn’t have a true junk-food or fast-food “habit,” I have learned something about the appeal of what that stuff represents, and I’ve been pleasantly reminded of the sorts of pursuits that have always gotten my juices flowing.

If things are feeling humdrum, I can turn to brainstorming new stories for excitement. Trying new knitting patterns and planning blog posts and a possible podcast are a lot more stimulating than french fries. Chips aren’t fun, but learning how to produce an audiobook is.

And if I find I really am craving salt-and-vinegar, I can easily make up a batch of marinated cucumbers that hits the spot.


Creative Commons photo by awrose.

Posted in thoughts from the spiral and tagged , .

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