The last vestige of childhood tradition for many of us recovering Catholics is deciding what to give up for Lent. This year, I decided to give up sugar. Usually I prefer to give up liver or Brussels sprouts, which I find ever-so-easy to deny myself compared to sweet treats, while admittedly less likely to fit the Lenten goal of character-boosting deprivation. As a heart attack survivor, I’m not even really a big eater of sweets, ironically.
But lately, ever since I made this stupid Lenten resolution, all I dream about morning, noon and night are butter tarts, cinnamon buns and that divine Espresso Chunk chocolate from Denman Island.
Essentially, what I’m trying to do is kickstart a healthier habit, if only for the 40 days of Lent.
But why is making a deliberate behavior change like this so darned hard? If you ask Dr. B.J. Fogg, founder of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford University, here’s how he would answer you:
“Three elements must converge at the same moment for a behavior to occur:
“When a behavior does not occur, at least one of those three elements is missing.”
There are two types of behaviors, Dr. Fogg adds: one-time and repetitive. His Fogg Behavior Model (FBM) shows how changing ongoing repetitive behavior is the result of those three specific elements coming together at one moment.
So let’s set aside what Dr. Fogg dismissively calls “the fuzzy mass of psychological theories” about behavior change out there, and look at my no-sugar-for-Lent challenge through the FBM lens.
Here’s how I might approach my Lenten goal:
1. maintain my motivation by focusing on improvements to my overall quality of life – like feeling good, having fewer cravings for sweets, or losing a few pounds (which they tell me will make me feel better than the momentary thrill of a homemade Nanaimo bar will);
2. reduce my ability to consume sugary treats by simply not bringing any cash with me when I’m out for my daily walk so that I’m unable to make a quick pit stop for a Rogers dark chocolate-dipped-in-crushed-almond-brittle ice cream bar on my way home;
3. remove the trigger by crossing the street in Oak Bay Village to avoid walking past the bakery and thus leaving noseprints on the window and drool stains on the sidewalk.
Dr. Fogg also likes the idea of introducing tiny habits into behavior change strategies, ideally when a tiny habit can directly and conveniently follow a trigger, as opposed to requiring multiple steps to implement.
Examples of good trigger-tiny habits include:
- “After I brush, I will floss one tooth”
- “When I hear my phone ring, I will exhale and relax for three seconds”
- “After my head hits the pillow, I will recall one positive experience from the day”
Dr. Fogg calls my particular Lenten goal a Gray Span behavior (reducing a behavior for a specific period of time, as opposed to permanently eliminating it and facing a bleak joyless lifetime without a single Tim Hortons maple dip).
Examples of other Gray Span behaviors include:
- Health: Two drinks max at Happy Hour tonight.
- Environment: Drive a car less often this month.
- Commerce: Spend less on lunch this week.
Gray Span behaviors, Dr. Fogg explains, are common in interventions for health (“eat less”), environment (“consume less”), and personal financial security (“spend less”).
Compare these goals with what’s known as a Purple Span behavior which is a behavior that we want to increase in intensity or in duration (for example, go to the gym more often this month).
I like these ephemeral Lenten resolutions, because they, like other Gray Span behaviors, are somehow hopeful. Do something for just ___ days, and then work on repeating it.
If you want to.
And I can keep on doing anything for 40 short little days, right?