A Key to Good Habits? Don’t Allow Ourselves to Feel Deprived.

A few days ago, I read Gretchen Reynolds’s piece in the New York Times, Losing 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. 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.

If you’re thinking, “Oh, Gretchen, I can’t wait to read your book which sounds so fascinating and helpful,” fear not, you can sign up here to find out as soon as it goes on sale.

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

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  • phoenix1920

    This is one of the most helpful observations yet for me!! I can’t go to stores because seeing things I want and not acting on that makes me feel deprived. Eventually after too many denials, my willpower snaps like a rubberband. When I avoid stores in general, I feel fine.

    This is advice that I can really see me harnessing. While this is useful for everybody, perhaps it is a very important tool for Rebels, who often seem to focus on authenticity and how something feels.

  • lauramich

    Gretchen, I strongly encourage you to check out the work of bariatric physician Yoni Freedhoff (in case you haven’t already). He blogs at “Weighty Matters” and, this spring, published a book called The Diet Fix.

    The first part of the book is devoted to busting diet myths, including these (relevant to the topic at hand):

    “It’s All About Willpower”


    “Dieting Must Be Difficult”


    I lost ~140 pounds during 2008 and 2009 and, while I discovered Freedhoff after I was already maintaining, his advice resonates with my own experience. Most of the time, maintaining my weight where it is now is not hard because I prefer how I eat and move. I do not feel deprived choosing steamed broccoli over fries when I eat out (and if I do decide to try the fries anyway, I will feel gross afterward, and reminded of why I usually get the broccoli).

    Freedhoff recommends that, before indulging, you ask yourself (a) “Is this worth the calories?” and (b) “What is the smallest amount I need to feel satisfied”? For me, that means choosing one piece of dark chocolate over a Snickers bar, or a scoop of homemade ice cream over a pint of store-bought. If the cookies in the break room look tempting, I remind myself that they don’t taste nearly as good as they look.

  • Jessica Armstrong

    I use this technique to stick to a budget. When my partner and I were saving madly for an overseas trip, I still budgeted us a small amount of “fun money” for us. Just knowing that we had some money that we could spend on whatever we liked without justification or worry, that was just for fun, made it so much easier to stick to our strict budget.

  • Penelope Schmitt

    Oh those loopholes. I find this very hard with food.
    I think that the best strategy for ME (as an abstainer) is that when I am going to have a treat, NOT to decided to have one ‘on the spur of the moment.’ I know there’s a family birthday coming up . . . and I can decide ahead of that occasion that I will have a ‘treat’ of some sort. But I had better not ‘treat’ myself to a cookie at the bakery counter on impulse. This once-in-a-while kind of departure would be the high road to ruin. This is true, anyhow, when a treat would interfere with a habit I am trying to establish or want to maintain.

  • I am really looking forward to this book. There are definitely some habits I want to gethank in to, but I have had a very difficult time starting any new things lately. I think that new strategies are going to be quite helpful.

  • Gillian

    The treat concept often works for me. I have a short exercise routine I do every morning Monday to Friday. Saturday/Sunday I have the “treat” of not having to do it which makes it much easier to get back to it on Monday. Similarly with food -by allowing myself an occasional treat when it will really enhance an occasion and bring true pleasure, it is much easier to abstain the rest of the time. I find too that by allowing myself an occasional small glass of wine, I am less tempted to drink half a bottle when I finally have some after a long abstinence. I find that I am a rather complex mix of moderator and abstainer.

  • Natalie

    I am with Penelope that I approve of pre-planned treats but not spur of the moment treats because (for me, might not be the same for everyone!) spur of the moment can happen just too often!

  • Sue

    This idea (or something similar) worked for me with exercise. When I thought of it as something I “should” do, it was hard to get into a routine. Eventually, I decided to count my daily walk or cross-country ski as a treat – my time for myself in a day otherwise filled with work and household/family responsibilities. Somehow, that made it much easier to make it a priority – does that mean I am basically a selfish person?

    • gretchenrubin


    • Mimi Gregor

      FWIW, I think that everyone acts from basically selfish reasons. Even doing volunteer work for a charity; it’s not so much for others as it is to make oneself feel good about oneself. And that’s okay. Perhaps a certain amount of selfishness must be wired into us to ensure our survival. Just a theory, mind you….

  • Debra

    Hi Gretchen,
    Do you really need us to sign up to hear when your book is going on sale: won’t you tell us through your blog?

    • gretchenrubin

      Oh I’ll tell you on the blog too! MANY TIMES.

      This is an area where we writers must ask for the patience of those around us. In publishing today, so much depends on pre-orders, that it’s a place where we must make ourselves tiresome.

  • Going to the gym is now a treat in and of itself. That’s because on the days I go, I get out of the morning frenzy of getting the boys off to school. This has worked wonders for both me and my partner! As far as food goes, I find it a constant struggle, and have to accept that if I don’t pay attention, I do gain weight. The latest strategy I’m trying is to focus on allowing myself to get really hungry before eating twice per day, and not to ever eat until I’m uncomfortably full. I don’t expect to loose weight this way, but seems a sustainable way to maintain as it definitely allows treats!

  • Judy

    My friends tell me that they leap out of bed every morning and start unloading the dishwasher, folding laundry, exercising, etc. In the past, I have admired that get-up-and-go and have tried to do the same. I ended up feeling very deprived of what I consider a real treat – a quiet time to read, meditate, or write – in short, to savor the morning. I gave up trying to change my nature and now treat myself to a rich half hour every morning.

  • Leanne Sowul

    I believe in this “habit caveat” as well. I’ve never had success giving up desserts completely, even though I know how effective it is for health and weight loss. Instead, I allow myself to choose between a couple of lighter desserts that I’m never tempted to overeat, and use those as my after-dinner treat. I’ve found that strategy much more effective than attempting to deprive myself completely. The only thing I can’t figure out is if that’s a “moderator” strategy, or just an exception to the “abstainer” rule?

    • gretchenrubin


  • Sumita Jetley

    May be , deprivation brings much temptation .

  • Lee Davy

    HI Gretchin,

    This post resonates with me for two reasons.

    I gave up drinking by making myself believe that alcohol offers zero benefits. By chaining my beliefs there is no way I can feel like I am being deprived when I see other people drink.

    I have noticed that people who go through AA are made to feel deprivation for the rest of their lives. A lot of their members always talk about only being one sip away from catastrophe and also wanting to drink but not being able to control it. This is a life of deprivation and a recipe for disaster, so I will share this on my Facebook page as a help and guide to others.

    Secondly, I hate exercise. I attach pain to it. More recently I sent a goal to run a mile a day for the rest of my life (except if I am sick). I only allow myself to listen to my audio books when I run. If I get a great audio book then this is a treat. I look forward to my run because I am looking forward to my book.

    Keep up the good work and remind me when your book is published as I would like to review it for you and interview you for my podcast.



  • Andi Montgomery

    I recently learned of the work of the social psychologist Ellen Langer on mindfullness and the power of the mind on our experience. She worked on a study looking at a different side of the same coin. Housemaids were told to either think of their job cleaning as “exercise” or as “work.” Those who thought of it as exercise proceeded to make better food choices, lose weight, and have overall improved health. The “work” group remained the same. If you aren’t already familiar with her, I think you’d enjoy learning about her research and her life philosophy.

  • marie

    Interesting. When I “work out” at home, it feels like work. When I go running in the neighborhood, I get to try to identify bird songs, and see what everyone is doing with their landscaping and house projects. I meditate and count breathes. It gives me a mental break. Even though I resist thinking of myself as a serious runner, I enjoy it far more than something I am doing specifically for exercise, even though I started running again only for the exercise. I don’t care if I’m out in all kinds of weather. I think of it as the next best thing to backpacking, which would be a treat for me.

    Food-wise, I don’t buy a lot of the sweets I crave, but I always have excellent dark chocolate on hand. That’s my allowable treat, and because I can moderate it, I can avoid getting sucked into other treats that I can’t moderate.

    I do talk to myself about getting rewards for doing work I’m struggling with. For instance: rather than trying to resist the time-suck of the internet completely, I’ll tell myself if I work for half an hour on this difficult task, then I can watch a couple Gretchen videos! 🙂 That does seem to help resist the lure of distractions – when I can remember to do it.

  • Ash101

    One thing I’ve discovered recently is that I love plain greek yogurt with half a spoonful of honey. To me, this is absolutely a desert, but it’s healthy too. At dinner, I know that I can EITHER get seconds or get “dessert,” and I choose the yogurt every time.

    I don’t cook “light” food, so choosing yogurt over seconds probably saves me 300 calories at least.

  • banshee

    I frequent an online weight-loss community, and I am surprised at the unquestioning acceptance of the notion that something terrible will happen if we EVER feel deprived. Are we really such delicate flowers? To me, that belief seems leave the door open to behavior that would throw me completely off track. Talk about first world problems. I guess whatever works for people is what they should do.