Fighting Holiday Food Temptation? Try These 13 Tips.

I think a lot about habits, and lately I’ve been thinking a lot about habits related to holiday eating.

The holidays are supposed to be a festive time, but many people feel anxiety and regret around food and drink—the holiday season is so full of temptation.

I have to say, I enjoy the holidays much more, now that I’ve got a better grip on my habits, than I used to.

Here are some ways to apply the strategies of habit-change to this challenge:

1. Buy food in small containers. Studies show that people give themselves larger portions out of larger boxes, so I don’t buy that economy box of whatever. Buy the little box of gingerbread cookies, not the giant box.

2. Make tempting food inconvenient—put cookies in a hard-to-reach spot, set the freezer to a very cold temperature so it’s hard to spoon out ice cream, store goodies in hard-to-open containers. The Strategy of Inconvenience is simple, but crazily effective.

3. Wear snug-fitting clothes. That’s the Strategy of Monitoring. When we’re aware of what we’re doing, we behave better.

4. Dish food up in the kitchen, and don’t bring serving platters onto the table (except vegetables).

5. Pile your plate with everything you intend to eat, and don’t get seconds once that food is gone.

6. Skip the add-ons: tell the waiter that you don’t want the side of fries. When I do this, I sometimes feel like Sally from When Harry Met Sally as I quibble about how my food should be served, but oh well.

7. After dinner, to signal to yourself that “Eating’s over,” brush your teeth. I’d heard about this habit, so I decided to try it, but I was skeptical. I’ve been amazed by how effective tooth-brushing is. This is the Strategy of First Steps–because that tooth-brushing is the first step toward bedtime.

8. Don’t allow myself to get too hungry or too full. This is the Strategy of Foundation.

9. Realize that, with some things, you might not be able to have just one bite. I sure can’t. In the abstainer/moderator split, I’m a hard-core abstainer. It’s far easier for me to skip cookies and chocolate than it is to have a sensible portion. The Strategy of Abstaining is not a strategy that works for everyone, but for some people, it’s enormously helpful.

10. Never eat hors d’oeuvres. This kind of bright-line rule, which is an application of the Strategy of Clarity, is very helpful.

11. Don’t eat food I don’t like, just because it’s there. No one cares if I have a serving of asparagus or cranberry sauce.

12, Plan an exception. Planned exceptions are a great way to break a good habit in a way that feels limited, controlled, and positive.

13. Watch for loopholes! Some loopholes that are especially popular during the holidays include the “This doesn’t count” loophole, the “Concern for others” loophole, and the “fake self-actualization” loophole. Remember, we’re adults, and we can mindfully make exceptions to our good habits, but everything counts.

Although it may seem festive and carefree to indulge in lots of treats, in the end, we may feel guilty and overstuffed. Which doesn’t make the holiday happier.

It’s a Secret of Adulthood: By giving myself limits, I give myself freedom.

Intrigued? Pre-order my book Better Than Before, in which I reveal the secrets about how we can change our habits–really!

NOTE: Email subscribers, I apologize for the glitch in the emails that you’re getting. It’s such a pain, I know — I’m experiencing it, too. Some terrific tech minds are trying to diagnose and fix the problem, so please bear with me. I hope to get it fixed soon.

Video: The Most Fun Way to Change Your Habits

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative.

My forthcoming book, Better Than Before, describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits. To pre-order, click here. (Pre-orders give a real boost to a book, so if you’re inclined to buy the book, I’d really appreciate it if you pre-order it.)

Here, I talk about the Strategy of Treats. Of the many habit-change strategies I investigate in my book, I must say, this is the most fun strategy.


What exactly counts as a “treat?” A treat is a small pleasure or indulgence that we give to ourselves just because we want it. Remember, a treat is different from a reward, which must be justified or earned.

“Treats” may sound like a self-indulgent, frivolous strategy, but it’s not. Because forming good habits can be draining, treats can play an important role.

When we give ourselves treats, we feel energized, cared for, and contented, which boosts our self-command—and self-command helps us maintain our healthy habits.

Studies show that people who got a little treat, in the form of receiving a surprise gift or watching a funny video, gained in self-control. It’s a Secret of Adulthood: If I give more to myself, I can ask more from myself. Self-regard isn’t selfish.

When we don’t get any treats, we begin to feel burned-out, depleted, and resentful. And that’s a very bad state for good habits. Try never to let yourself feel deprived.

Have you found that giving yourself treats helps you maintain your good habits? Do you have any unconventional healthy treats? We should all maintain a large list.


Ta-Da! Check Out the Updated Look of My Site

Take a look around! My site has been redesigned (slightly).

I hope you like the changes.

The improvements will be most noticeable if you read this site on your phone or on a tablet. The experience should be much, much better.

Also, you’ll see that I’ve started to add a lot of material about habits–now available for downloading. Check out the “Get Started & Downloads” section above. There’s more to come, but much of it is up already.

We’ve checked and checked again, but with a site like this, it’s hard to catch everything that might need to be tweaked. A few thoughtful readers have already let me know about issues they spotted. If you notice a problem, let me know.

As always, readers, thank you for your enthusiasm and support.  My understanding of habits and happiness is so much richer because of my ability to exchange ideas with readers. I want to make this site as welcoming as possible for you.

“Everything Is Raw Material…But Without Proper Preparation, I Cannot See It”

“Everything is raw material. Everything is relevant. Everything is usable. Everything feeds into my creativity. But without proper preparation, I cannot see it, retain it, and use it.”

–Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life

“I Tend to Let Myself Off the Hook If It’s ‘Only’ a Commitment to Myself”

Habits interview: Leo Babauta of Zen Habits.

I’ve “known” Leo for years, though I’m not sure we’ve ever actually met in person. Maybe several years ago, very briefly. The crazy world of the internet! I’ve been a big fan of his work for a long time, and now more than ever. (For reasons you’ll be able to guess.)

He has a terrific site, Zen Habits. He’s also doing a Kickstarter campaign to do a book, Zen Habits, that people are buzzing about. It’s about to end, so if you’re intrigued, act fast.

Naturally, I was eager to pose some habits questions to Leo — a person who is as interested in the subject as I am.

Gretchen: What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded on the subject of habits?

Leo: The most important thing I’ve developed is a flexible mindset: when a habit inevitably goes off track, I consider this a part of the process, and learn from it, and adapt. My old mindset was one of a fixed plan — I had a plan, and if it didn’t work, I felt like a failure. That’s a good recipe for getting derailed at the slightest bump in the road.

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Exercise. I used to hate exercise, but now I feel great every time I have a great workout or run. I feel stronger, empowered, vigorous, joyful.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

When I was younger, I knew I should form healthy habits, but would always put them off because life seemed to stretch out endlessly ahead of me. I could always eat healthier or exercise or get my finances in order later, because there will be time. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that I wasted a lot of time on useless distractions and junk food, and that if I had just done the habits I now love doing, I would be much better off. I wasted years of my life, precious time that I can’t get back. I don’t regret it, but I’m a bit wiser now.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

I now know that I can be happy in any moment, if I’m present. So forgetting to be present is the only habit that gets in the way of that happiness. Which, of course, I do all the time!

Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

Doing my creative work early, focusing on one thing at a time, being mindful, exercise, eating healthy vegan food, being grateful and compassionate. Not in that order.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Yes, I’ve changed dozens of habits. I started with quitting smoking, and then started running (eventually running several marathons and an ultramarathon), eating healthier, simplifying my life, waking early, eliminating debt, meditating, learning to focus, learning to trust myself.

I learned that focusing on one habit at a time worked best, and doing small habits was important. I would commit to others and ask them to hold me accountable, focus on mindfully enjoying the habit, anticipate disruptions, adapt when things went awry, progress gradually. And lean on others.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I’m an Obliger, for sure! I do really well when other people are expecting me to do something, when I have a commitment with someone else … but I tend to let myself off the hook if it’s “only” a commitment to myself.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

Yes, I have lots of things that get in the way, but I’ve learned to take them in stride. Travel disrupts my exercise and eating habits, but I minimize the damage by eating vegan food and not overdoing it. Social gatherings also throw me off, but I just take them as bumps in the road that aren’t that big of a deal if you take the long view. In the long run, unanticipated disruptions are a part of the journey, and aren’t a sign that you’re undisciplined or anything. I try to breathe, smile, and enjoy each step.