Slug: habit-breakpoints Date: 2012-01-09 layout: post Title: Habit Breakpoints date: 2012-01-09 10:40 comments: true categories: lifehacks, health

One of the results I want to see from this year is to drop about 15 pounds from my “I-sit-at-a-computer-all-day” belly. I’ve never been a “dieter”, and I’ve scorned traditional diet foods / drinks, especially those with the artificial sweeteners in them, and prided myself on my commitment to good old-fashioned American refined sugar. Oh, I do love my sugar (and likewise, the sugars-in-waiting, carbs).

But over the last year I’ve grown forwards at a much faster rate then, say, upwards. Sideways hasn’t fared a lot better. I still enjoy the occasional hike or bike ride, but I haven’t got the energy, stamina, or interest to do the outdoorsy stuff Jodi and I used to love. This started to bug me, as did the decidedly forward thrust of my various American Apparel nerd shirts.

So after talking to some friends in the medical profession about it, Jodi and I decided to check out Jorge Cruise’s Belly Fat Cure book. Now, I know. It pains me to even link to a possibly faddish diet book with the words “belly” and “cure” in it. But the research we have been doing lends credence to the main idea behind the book: that sugar and carbs (including hidden sugars in all kinds of foods) are the thing that trigger our bodies into storing fat (via the insulin produced by the body in response to sugar in the bloodstream).

So, while we may or may not stick to the exact plan outlined in the book, we’re definitely starting already to reduce the amount of sugars we intake, and carefully checking foods we already have for those grams of sugar (4g of sugar is about a teaspoon of granulated refined sugar). And the thing that’s making it tough is the collection of unconscious processes we’ve developed for living life without having to think too much: habits.

Morning Coffee Notes

Take my morning coffee, for example - this is one that’s killing me. I’m no hipster. I like my coffee sweet and de-bittered with an artificially-flavored store-bought creamer. Getting a cup of coffee for me looks like this:

  • Take down a mug
  • Pour 3/4 full with coffee (brewed dark with about 2 Tbsp of grounds/cup)
  • Reach up to coffee cupboard
  • Take down Tupperware(tm) container of sugar
  • Add a ludicrous scoop of sugar
  • Snap lid back on sugar container
  • Close cupboard
  • Carry mug to kitchen island (I work from home)
  • Open refrigerator
  • Remove large container of creamer
  • Cream-ify coffee
  • Close creamer
  • Replace in fridge
  • Stir coffee
  • Place spoon in sink
  • Enjoy!

This all takes about 45 seconds max, and can be accompished while checking email on the iPhone, talking with Jodi about the day, or humming Prodigy tunes, and I can be back at my desk going “where did this coffee come from?”. It’s engrained. The human mind has an incredible capacity to store repetitive tasks in some kind of highly optimized, opaque data structure that can be played back without any input from the higher-order brain.

As a nerd, I love this. The times I’m paying attention, it’s a little rush going through this ritual with precision and efficiency. No time is wasted between getting a mug and that first sip. But… now I look at that ludicrous scoop of sugar I’ve been using, and get a little sick to my stomach. I have little doubt that this insidious - and oh so delicious - ingredient has been contributing to my expanding circumference.

Breaking Point

My morning routine obviously needs some changing, and with it being so ingrained, I need some ways to break up the routine so my higher-order brain can make some decisions. In programming we call these “breakpoints”, and when debugging, the program will pause at the breakpoint and let us examine the state of the decision tree and what the program is going to do next. So, I’m doing some simple life-hacking.

My first step was to put a small thing of Truvia (a sugar substitute based on Stevia) next to the malicious sugar container in the cupboard. It’s in the bright white and green packaging it came in, so it draws my attention and triggers a decision - proceed to the normal ludicrous scoop of the blissfully evil sugar, or try switching to something less likely to asplode my waistline and push me into diabetes?

Seeing as I don’t much care for the taste of Stevia (and by extension Truvia), I’ve tried (by steps):

  • reducing my application of sugar by 2/3
  • replacing 1/2 of that with Truvia
  • not using sugar altogether

So far step 3 is working the best: only reducing the sugar to 1/3 my previous amount still adds enough to trigger my craving for more. Truvia is sweeter than the equivalent amount of sugar, so reducing the sugar yet again by half and adding Truvia made it sweeter, but still had the strange taste I associate with artificial sweeteners, and the added sweetness seems to still trigger my sweet tooth.

Getting rid of the sugar completely has been a hard adjustment, but in the long run is going to be the best for me. And the habits die hard: I still reach for the sugar container when fixing a cup, then have to put it back. Perhaps the next breakpoint will be to just remove it from the cabinet.


Ultimately, this whole quitting-sugar thing is one huge life-hack: we’re trying to disrupt lifetimes of sugar addiction and do some major mental and physical re-wiring. It’s too early for me to know if it’s working, but I’ll probably post on my progress over the next few months. Have any eating habit hacks to share? Ping me at @steveivy on Twitter or Google mail.