Simply Psyched | The Tim Tam Effect – Habit Hacks
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The Tim Tam Effect – Habit Hacks

Chances are you already know about the importance of setting goals that are S.M.A.R.T – Specific, Measurable, Agreed Upon, Realistic and Time Based – but how do you account for things that are D.U.M.B – Desirable, Unconscious, Motivating, and Bountiful – like Tim Tams.

Okay, the D.U.M.B acronym isn’t a real thing, I literally just made it up on the spot. But that doesn’t take away from the point, which is that –

Even the smartest goals fall victim to the forces of habit and the power of instant gratification.

The Tim Tam – Australia’s most delicious rectangular chocolate-covered biscuit (cookie) – is the perfect vehicle to explain this phenomenon:

Here’s a quick example:

Say I’ve set a goal, and I’ve even made it S.M.A.R.T:

Specific – I want to lose weight…

Measurable – I want to lose 20kgs…

Agreed Upon – I reeeeally want to lose 20kgs…

Realistic – I reeeally want to lose the 20kgs I’ve recently gained…

Time Based – I reeeally want to lose the 20kgs I’ve recently gained, before my birthday in December.

This sounds like a solid, well-thought-out, S.M.A.R.T goal, and it is. But what happens when you find yourself on the couch later that night, with a Tim Tam in hand?

Is your S.M.A.R.T goal going to be strong enough to overcome the delicious allure of the Tim Tam? Chances are, the answer is a big, fat (pun intended) NO!

There are a number of reasons why the Tim Tam will likely win, all of which are at the core of why habit formation is so difficult.

The first reason is – Tim Tams are incredibly Desirable. While this may seem obvious, it does put you in a tricky spot. A delicious, desirable food is in your hand, right now…. while your goal is waaaay in the future.

To reconcile these competing drives, your brain will probably try to convince you that this Tim Tam won’t make the difference. And, from experience, it will succeed, because –

Future goals have very little influence in present moment decisions

We consistently discount the effect that this one Tim Tam will have on our goal to lose weight, despite the reality – that this Tim Tam is in fact, a small but relevant member of our excess 20kgs.

The second reason is that eating Tim Tams may be an automatic habit, which are largely controlled by our Unconscious brains. Okay, its actually more of a sub-conscious mechanism (or non-conscious for the psych purists), but that would’ve mucked-up my D.U.M.B acronym 😉

In any case, one of the reasons habits are so resilient is that they don’t require a conscious decision.

We might even find ourselves a few Tim Tams deep before we become conscious of what is happening

This cycle is incredibly hard to break, but we’ll get to that shortly.

The third reason is that Tim Tams are Motivating. Believe it or not, our brains are hardwired to ‘reward’ us for consuming calorie dense foods. Whenever we eat a sugary and/or fatty food, our brains release Dopamine (one of our feel good endorphins).

Dopamine is an important part of our Reward-Motivated Behavioural System, which is, as it sounds, a system that rewards us for behaving in ways that enhance our chances of survival. It just so happens that back when our DNA was laid down, food was scarce.

Our brains needed a way to encourage us to seek out and consume high calorie foods – and Dopamine was that reward.

While your goal may be S.M.A.R.T, you’re pitting it against a biological system that’s designed to ‘motivate’ you to eat the Tim Tam.

Finally, Tim Tams may be Bountiful in your household. And, when you add this to the D, the U and the M, it’s super easy to fall off the wagon and eat a packet or 2. You may even find your thoughtful partner complicit in the habit, buying and presenting the Tim Tams you were strong enough to resist.

The solution is to support your S.M.A.R.T goal with a few simple Habit Hacks.

You may not be able to make Tim Tams less Desirable, but you can make something else even more Desirable. So, rather than trying to break the habit, replace it with an equally desirable one.

You see, a habit is much like a pathway through the jungle. The more you use it, the wider it becomes and the easier it is to travel along. So, while you cannot ‘break’ a pathway, you can let the pathway slowly grow over… and build a better, healthier, more enticing pathway right next-door.

You may find that drinking a ‘fancy’ herbal tea is a much healthier, equally desirable (not really, but you can at least pretend) behaviour that will help to replace you old Tim Tam habit.

Another hack you can employ is to utilize the Unconscious (subconscious) nature of Tim Tam consumption. Simply put your new fancy herbal teas in the spot that the Tim Tams used to live. You’ll likely find yourself reaching for the tea unconsciously, helping it become a new habit pattern.

To replace the Motivating Dopamine hit of Tim Tams – try getting out for a quick lap around the block. Exercise is one of the best ways to get a quick hit of Dopamine. And, even better – you don’t need to hit the gym or flog yourself to get an endorphin rush. A short, fast, intense burst of activity is the best way to convince your body to release some of the big D.

The last hack is the easiest. You can remove the Bountiful nature of Tim Tams by simply not buying them. While this may seem obvious –

People often discount the fact that Willpower is a limited resource

Once you’ve run out, the only thing that is likely to replenish it is sleep. So, try to do your grocery shopping when you are feeling fresh, full and energized. It’ll be much easier to resist the urge to buy Tim Tams than it will be to resist the urge to eat the Tim Tams you bought earlier.

To end with what I hope is by now an obvious point – these hacks aren’t just for Tim Tam reduction programs. If you can find some simple structural or environmental hacks to help your S.M.A.R.T goals, you will stand a much better chance at staying on the wagon.

For more on Habits, see The Habit Jungle, or to enquire about having me speak about Habit Hacking at your next Conference of Offsite event, contact me here.

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