Once, I removed processed sugar from my diet for a whole year. It was a simple (though not easy) way of showing support for a friend who was suffering and whose own diet was severely curtailed. Removing sugar was especially challenging since I was a big sweets lover at the time. (I will say, though, if you can successfully deny yourself sugar for a year, you may never go back. I permanently lost my taste for heavy sweets!)
Despite the success of that particular “taking away” experience, I’ve never been terribly effective at making changes through the deny-yourself approach. And there is fascinating, fairly new neurological research which explains why.
The mere warning, the simple admonition to stop something actually makes our brains light up with desire. (This is one reason to question the advertising of a certain alcohol company, for instance, that warns you should be careful while day drinking. Such research about how warnings end up selling more products than ever is now well in the hands of advertisers, and you can read all about it in Buy-ology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy.)
However, long before I read Buy-ology, I noticed that denial didn’t work for me.
So I added instead.
“Go ahead,” I told myself. “You can have the potato chips after you eat the apple.”
Apple? What apple?
The apple-a-day I had decided I would add to my diet.
More times than not, I would forget the chips—and if I didn’t, I was full from the apple and not as likely to eat a whole bag of chips on my own. (Sorry if I’m tempting you with this illustration. Eat an apple first?)
Adding instead of taking away. It makes neurological sense, and can be part of a larger dynamic that Charles Duhigg calls keystone habits. (A keystone habit is one that, when added to your life, tends to tip everything else into a more healthy direction. An example is exercise, which even has the power to help you overcome serious addictions. While there are some standard keystone habits, it is also possible to discover or create unique ones that are suited just for you, the way my apple-a-day was for me.)
Certainly, the things that don’t work for us need to go. And we feel lighter once they’re gone. But why not try easing them out, instead of attempting to take them away?
Add an “apple” to your life each day. And when you’ve been doing it for about three months, I’d love to hear how it’s going—on a keystone walk or over a keystone cup of tea.