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A few days ago, I read Gretchen Reynolds’s piece in the New York TimesLosing weight may require some serious fun, about a study that makes a point that I think is incredibly important.

In the study, women were sent to walk a one-mile course in the next half hour, with lunch to follow.

–Half were told that their walk was meant to be exercise, and they should think of it that way, and monitor their exertion as they walked.

–Half were told that the walk would be for pleasure; they’d listen to music through headphones and rate the sound quality, but they should mostly enjoy themselves.

Afterward, they were asked to estimate mileage, mood, and calorie expenditure.

The “exercise” group reported feeling more tired and grumpy — and at lunch afterwards, they ate significantly more sweets than the “for fun” group. (The piece discusses other studies that show the same kind of result.)

Reading this study reminded me of one of my important conclusions about habits: If we want to stick to our good habits, we should try very hard never to allow ourselves to feel deprived.

When we feel deprived, we try to make things right for ourselves. We begin to say things like “I’ve earned this,” “I deserve this,” “I’ve been so good, it’s okay for me to do this,” “I’ll just do this now, that’s fair, but tomorrow I’ll be good.”

Feeling deprived means that we’ll feel justified in invoking many of the most pernicious loopholes: the Moral Licensing loophole, the Tomorrow loophole, and the Fake Self-Actualization loophole.

The lure of loopholes is why the Strategy of Loophole-Spotting is so important.

Once I realized how dangerous it was to allow ourselves to feel deprived, I grasped the importance of the Strategy of Treats. It’s a delightful strategy, yes, but it’s not frivolous or selfish.

Treats help us to feel energized, restored, and light-hearted. Without them, we can start to feel resentful, depleted, and irritable.

When we give ourselves plenty of healthy treats, we don’t feel deprived. @gretchenrubin
(Click to Tweet!)

And when we don’t feel deprived, we don’t feel entitled to break our good habits.

It’s a Secret of Adulthood for Habits: When we give more to ourselves, we can expect more from ourselves.

And when we can frame a habit as fun, that’s useful too. This year, I started walking once a week with a friend. It started as a way to get more exercise, but now I view it as a way to get more friend time. Now that same habit is a treat.

In my forthcoming book about habit-formation, I talk a lot about how to avoid feelings of deprivation. There’s the Strategy of Abstaining, of course, for my fellow Abstainers; there’s “consumption snobbery,” that works too; there’s delay, within the Strategy of Distraction.

How about you? Do you find that deprivation makes you feel justified in indulging or breaking a good habit?


Gretchen Rubin is the author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller The Happiness Project—an account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific studies, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier—and the recently released Happier at Home. On her popular blog, The Happiness Project, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness. For more doses of happiness and other happenings, follow Gretchen on Facebook and Twitter.

Image courtesy of Bunches and Bits.