When I was in college, I used to eat at least once a week at a restaurant that had blackened chicken pasta on the menu. I loved this dish so much that it was the only thing I ever ordered.
I can’t even imagine eating this now. I don’t eat meat anymore, but even if I did I wouldn’t eat anything blackened. The dish was swimming in a spicy cream sauce that would now make me sick. And I for sure wouldn’t eat an entire meal that could have fed a whole family.
Even back then I knew that this meal was not a good idea. I was so stuffed after I ate it that I felt sick, and it was so spicy that it kept me awake. I actually had to take a sleeping pill to stop waking up in the middle of the night.
The worst part about it, however, was not how the meal made me feel physically. I really wanted to stop eating it, because I knew it was unhealthy. But when I tried to stop and couldn’t, I felt like a total failure.
Part of the problem was that I loved eating at this restaurant. My friends and I would sit on the patio, drink wine, and talk and laugh. The entire experience was so enjoyable and so familiar that by the time it was time to order, my brain had shut down all thoughts of being healthy. It was on autopilot — and I ordered my same unhealthy meal every single time.
One night, for whatever reason, I asked the waiter if I could add broccoli to my meal. This simple, positive act made me feel good about myself and like I had done something healthy, even though I still ate the whole dish. And it was so much easier to do than trying not to eat it at all.
This one small addition to my unhealthy meal led to more changes. I started asking for tomato sauce instead of cream sauce. I started asking for the chicken to be grilled instead of blackened. I started adding more vegetables, which eventually became substitutes for the chicken. Eventually the dish became a whole new meal.
The really exciting thing about all these changes was that it made me see the whole experience differently. I realized that it wasn’t just the meal that was the problem: I was eating too much, and I was also drinking too much and eating too late. Making these distinctions made it even easier to make more healthy changes — at this restaurant and at all the others where I ate. And it all started with one simple addition.
Of course, I ended up losing weight. And I didn’t have to cut anything out to do it.
Diets are all about cutting out. They’re about making massive eliminations rather than incremental additions. But adding to what you already do is so much more effective than trying to stop doing it at all. Here’s why.
It’s easier than eliminating. Adding something to a behavior is much easier than trying to eliminate the behavior. That’s because adding requires no willpower, whereas eliminating requires a lot of it.
When you try not to do something, all your energy is focused on that one thing. This makes it even more desirable — which means you need more willpower to resist it. When your willpower gives out, you fail. Feeling like a failure lowers your confidence, making it much less likely that you will be able to ever stop doing whatever it is that you’re trying not to do.
Adding requires zero willpower. You don’t need it, because if one change doesn’t work, you just move on to the next one. Even if you’re not able to make one particular change, you’re not a failure — the attempt itself makes you successful. And coming up with small additions to what you already do gives you infinite possibilities — which is so much easier than your only option being “I’ve got to stop doing this.”
It disrupts your pattern. Adding a small change to an established behavior sends a signal to your brain that something different is happening. It feels impossible to quit a habit altogether. That’s because it’s extremely difficult to override the neural network that’s been established from repeating the behavior over time. But when you make a small change to the behavior, your brain gets jolted out of the pattern and can receive new information about it. Disrupting the pattern of a behavior stops it in its tracks and allows you to change its direction.
It gives you a small win. Because adding is easier than eliminating, you’re more likely to be successful at making a change. This gives you a small win that creates momentum and motivates you to keep going. Small wins empower you and build your confidence, which is the opposite of how you feel when you keep failing over and over again by dieting all the time.
Small wins add up to give you exponential results. They change your behaviors, which become new habits, which becomes a new way of living.
Adding something small to a habit is easier than trying to eliminate the habit. And when you have so many options to choose from, you can experiment and figure out what works for you and what doesn’t. You can pick changes that are easy to make based on your preferences and your lifestyle. Then you’re more likely to make these changes stick, which means you’re more likely to change your habits.
Feeling successful and like you’ve done something positive increases your confidence and your sense of control. And every time you make a change, you feel empowered to keep making more. You also gain new distinctions that you can use to take the next step. Tons of small steps over time lead to very big results — results you can never get when you’re stuck dieting.
I finally quit eating my beloved, unhealthy pasta dish — by turning it into a completely different meal. I made small, simple additions to it instead of trying not to eat it. Instead of eliminating, I added. Instead of stopping, I started.
And instead of failing, I succeeded.
Change How You Think
Think of a habit you’ve repeatedly tried to break. Identify two ways the failures have changed your perception: of the habit and of yourself. Does the habit seem even harder to break because you haven’t been able to? Do you feel demoralized from trying over and over again without being successful? Do you think that the feeling of failure compels you to engage in the habit even more? Think about these connections and write down any insights you gain. Use these to help you while you change what you do this week.
Change What You Do
Think of a bad habit you have. Maybe you like to eat junk food, maybe you’re inactive, or maybe you smoke. Instead of quitting entirely, think what you could add to the habit to make it slightly healthier. If you like eating junk food, you could drink a glass of water when you do. If you’re inactive, you could stretch while you’re watching TV. If you smoke, you could read something inspiring while you do. Write down three small additions you could make to improve the habit, and add one this week.