Changing Behavior is All about Those Micro Choices We Make

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Changing is All about Those Micro Choices We Make

Micro Choices

We make hundreds of food decisions every day. And that doesn’t include decisions about physical activity. If you can take control of all those daily micro choices, you could increase your likelihood of losing weight. So, how do you do this?

First, you need to make a list of the decisions you make most often about both food and physical activity. Here’s why: When you need to make one of these micro choices, it is usually based on memory. According to research reported in the Journal of Consumer Research, there are two types of in-the-moment choices — memory-based and stimulus-based.

When you make a memory-based choice you do not think too much because you’re relying on information you already have. For instance, if you’re in the supermarket and deciding which snack to purchase, you’re likely to go for the high-calorie choice because you know you like it and you remember that it’s tasty. These choices are generally “automatic, rapid, associative and affective.” There’s little thought involved.

In stimulus-based decisions, there is thought involved. When the choice is stimulus-based you’re more likely to make a conscious decision and choose a healthier snack. Stimulus-based choices are “controlled, slow, deliberative and deductive.” This may sound counterintuitive. You might think that stimulus-based choice is: I see the chocolate ice cream — the stimulus — it looks good, so I buy it. But what you’re actually doing is remembering that you like chocolate ice cream. If you’d never tasted it and didn’t know whether you’d like it, you’d have to think about buying it, and that would be a stimulus-based decision.

So, how do you avoid making unhealthy, impulsive, “memory-based” decisions? You need to think about your micro choices throughout the day, so that the healthier choice becomes part of your memory. When that happens, making healthy choices will be part of your automatic behavior. It’s difficult to think about more than 250 decisions per day in the moment, which is why you need to think about them ahead of time.

Another way to make better micro choices is to link the behavior you want to change to things you already do and determine when, where and how you will implement your new choices. The thing you already do becomes the trigger for putting your new intention into action. Peter Gollwitzer, professor at New York University, calls this step “implementation intention,” which he describes as linking “anticipated opportunities with goal-directed responses,” or, with relation to your weight-loss goal, having decided in advance how you will change you behavior and respond differently to a potentially -busting circumstance that has derailed you in the past.

Creating an “implementation intention” provides a framework for how and when you will use the new behavior. For instance, “Whenever I go to my favorite restaurant and order the chicken, I will ask to have it grilled, without butter.” The idea is as follows: Whenever “X” happens, I will do “Y.” If you’re conscious of what you want and why you want it, you’ll have a better chance of moving in that direction. Another example: “When I get up at 6:30 a.m., I will get ready for work, and at 7 a.m. I will put on my shoes, [putting your shoes on and/or 7 a.m. on the clock could be the trigger – the behavior you already do] and head to the kitchen to make breakfast. I will have cereal or egg whites. I will not skip meals this week.”

Research reported in the British Journal of Social Psychology found that when you are creating an implementation intention you need to make sure that you pick an environmentally appropriate and opportunity-ready situation. So, let’s say your intention is that when you wake up on Tuesday and Thursday mornings you will go to the pool and swim before work. If the pool doesn’t open until 9 a.m., and that’s when you need to be at work, it’s not a very good implementation intention.

So try the following:

1. Think about some of the micro choices you make each day regarding food and activity.

2. Write down some of the more common ones you can think of so that you stay focused. Remember that the more situations you can think of the better prepared you will be. Think about the following food-related situations, then come up with a few of your own: supermarket shopping, evening snack in front of the TV, office lunch time, midmorning snack. In terms of exercise, you should probably think about times when you can increase your activity. For instance, you can decide to walk to work instead of taking the bus. Use your feet as much as possible.

3. Create an implementation intention along with a new, desired behavior for each of these situations. If I see X, I will do Y. Set a trigger that will signal you to take the intended action.

4. Write down your choices and your triggers to help put these concepts into your memory so they can become automatic.

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