Sometimes the choice to eat that soft, chewy cookie does not really feel like a choice at all. The cookie, so full of chocolate chips, offers an immediate reward and immediate satisfaction. How can that one cookie be a serious threat to gaining a few extra pounds or worse, acquiring some chronic disease? Besides, it’s only $0.30, how could you possibly turn it down?
This decision-making process is part of a theory known as the “intention-behavior gap”. This theory explores the gap between the intention to change a specific behavior and actually doing it. Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is about managing healthy food choices and balancing the energy we take in, with the energy we burn up. If a healthy life were motivating enough in-and-of itself, Americans would not have such a high rate of obesity.
For the past decade, research in health psychology has rigorously studied this gap. This article (click here) explores the continuing struggle between choosing short-term satisfaction or long-term health. A defining conclusion shows only 53% of individuals with the intention to engage in healthy behaviors are actually able to make them happen consistently. What can we do differently to stay motivated?
We now know self-regulatory planning is an important factor in behavior change. To ignore the cookie that is calling your name, start with action planning. Research is now moving beyond motivation suggestions, like smaller plates, portions and eating slower, towards action planning suggestions. Action Planning is more than goal setting, creating an if-then plan as discussed here (If-Then Plan). It is the “if – then” plan, creating a plan to implement when faced with a specific choice like the cookie. These ‘If-Then’ plans significantly improve the rates of success, narrowing the gap (Sniehotta et al, 2005; Ziegelmann, Luszczynska, Lippke & Schwarzer, 2007; Gollwitzer & Sheeran,2006). Action planning connects environmental cues with new options by specifying when, where and how to act. For example, to ward off the cookie craving, carry a piece of fruit with you or resolve that you must first walk 45 minutes. These cues, attached to a plan, trigger the action without having to contemplate what you are going to do.
Three strategies to create a successful action plan:
Strategy 1: Set specific, short-term goals. The goal should be measurable, and have a specific and short time frame, between one and two weeks. Specific, short-term goals help you build self-confidence about your ability to engage in your new healthy behavior. Completing your short-term goals encourages you to continue to set more challenging goals.
Strategy 2: Set actionable goals. These goals are tied to one behavior that you have direct control over. Examples of actionable goals are “reduce amount of sodium,” or “eat 2 pieces of fruit daily.” In contrast, examples of goals that are not actionable are related to body weight (“lose weight”), blood pressure (“lower blood pressure”) or other physiological measurements. They are not specific, so they can’t reach them and don’t get the sense of achievement. Achieving a specific and actionable goal creates the satisfaction of success and builds more self-confidence. Goals should not control you, but should enable you to exert more control over your environment and your behavior.
Strategy 3: Create if-then goals. By initially thinking through possible situations that will challenge your ability to adhere to your goals, you can create possible alternative choices for your brain to choose from when you are actually in that situation. An example of an if-then goal would be “If a friend invites me to dinner when I am on my way to the gym, then I will not skip my workout. But I will see if they would be willing to wait 30 minutes in order for me to get a short, but hard, workout in.” These goal statements need to be specific with an alternative option on what to do when faced with challenges.
Other tools that are helpful are diagrams to help you plan alternative and visually document your strategy. Brigham and Women’s Hospital developed the Behavior Chain Diagram (click here) and Harvard Health Publications developed a user-friendly customizable behavior change template (click here).
One more tool that can be used in action planning is completing a Force Field Analysis. Most behavior changes are related to forces that help either you achieve your goal or forces that prevent you from reaching your goals. For example, some forces will improve your physical fitness, such as working out and getting regular sleep. Other forces will decrease your physical fitness such as watching too much television or eating too many sweets. Thinking about the different forces that affect your goals, will help you create more specific strategies to reduce your restraining forces and increase your driving forces. List your restraining forces and then develop action steps to help minimize them.
Practice, practice, practice for long-term behavior success! The more often you turn down the cookie, the stronger the neural pathway becomes, and the easier it will be in the future to make the same choice. Creating long-term habits takes time and you will get there.