When it comes to making behavior change around diet and exercise, it’s no secret that many people fail in their efforts. My guest would say that’s because too often we only concentrate on the things that drive us towards that change — whether willpower, or motivation, or the rewards that turn behaviors into habits — and that we need to think more about the obstacles keeping us from making the decisions we desire.
Her name is Michelle Segar and she’s a behavioral science researcher and health coach, as well as the author of The Joy Choice: How to Finally Achieve Lasting Changes in Eating and Exercise. Today on the show, Michelle explains why exercise and eating aren’t conducive to becoming habits — at least of the automatic variety — and why it’s more helpful to think of these behaviors in terms of “life space” and “choice points.” She makes the case for why we shouldn’t just focus on what drives behaviors, but also understand what disrupts them, and unpacks four of these disruptors: temptation, rebellion, accommodation, and perfection. Michelle then offers a three-step decision tool for dealing with these disruptors, and explains how to develop the flexibility to choose the perfect imperfect option that keeps you consistent and even celebrate and enjoy the decision to do something instead of nothing.
Resources Related to the Podcast
- Michelle’s previous appearance on the show — Podcast #575: Counterintuitive Advice on Making Exercise a Sustainable Habit
- AoM Article: How I Finally Made Flossing a Habit
- AoM Podcast #782: Anxiety Is a Habit — Here’s How to Break It (With Judson Brewer)
- Kurt Lewin
- Freakonomics episode that includes Daniel Kahneman referencing Lewin
- Grounded cognition
- Affective–Reflective Theory of physical inactivity and exercise
Connect With Michelle Segar
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. When it comes to making behavior change around diet and exercise, it’s no secret that many people fail in their efforts. My guest would say that’s because too often, we only concentrate on the things that drive us towards that change, whether willpower or motivation, with rewards that turn behaviors into habits, and then we need to think more about the obstacles keeping us from making the decisions we desire. Her name is Michelle Segar. She’s a behavioral science researcher and health coach, as well as the author of The Joy Choice: How to Finally Achieve Lasting Changes in Eating and Exercise. Today on the show, Michelle explains why exercise and eating aren’t conducive to becoming habits, at least of the automatic variety, and why it’s more helpful to think of these behaviors in terms of life space and choice points. She makes the case for why we shouldn’t just focus on what drives behaviors, but also understand what disrupts them, and unpacks four of these disruptors: Temptation, rebellion, accommodation, and perfection.
Michelle then offers a three-step decision tool for dealing with these disruptors, and explains how to develop the flexibility to choose the perfect imperfect option that keeps you consistent and even celebrate and enjoy the decision to do something instead of nothing. After the show is over, check out our show notes at aom.is/segar. Michelle joins you now via ClearCast.io.
Alright, Michelle Segar, welcome back to the show.
Michelle Segar: It’s great to be here.
Brett McKay: So we had you on a couple of years ago to talk about your book, No Sweat, which is all about how to become more consistent with your exercise without gritting it out with just will power. And I was telling you before we got on, I have referenced that episode so many times on the podcast whenever I have a fitness person on. It’s just some really great insights. You got a new book out called The Joy Choice: How to Finally Achieve Lasting Changes in Eating and Exercise. How is this new book a continuation of your thinking from No Sweat?
Michelle Segar: Great. That’s the question. And when I wrote No Sweat, I didn’t think I had any more ideas, so it was kind of a surprise to me when new thinking popped into my head. And here’s the relationship: No Sweat was about setting people up for converting exercise from a chore into a gift. And of course, as you know from what you just said, that has to do with picking activities that you enjoy, that feel pleasurable or satisfying in some way, and definitely not punishing. But no matter how much we set ourselves up for success in exercise and healthy eating, or really in any life area, the reality is is that we are going to confront challenges to our plans and our goals. And so The Joy Choice speaks to that. It explains to people what really gets in our way when we bump up against an unexpected conflict to either our eating plan that we were doing so great on, or that exercise or physical activity regimen that we’ve been doing oftentimes. And so I’ll just finish my answer there, that this book is all about how can we joyfully, easily, playfully address those conflicts so that they don’t get in our way?
Brett McKay: Gotcha. And I think this… Again, this is kind of counter-intuitive because… Your approach in this book, because I think the typical approach when people have when they think, “Well, I gotta eat better. I have to exercise regularly.” They think, “Well, I gotta make these things a habit.” And you make the case that behaviors like diet and exercise, they aren’t actually very conducive to habit formation. Why is that?
Michelle Segar: Yes. So, first of all, let me just say I love my flossing habit. I’m so glad I have an automatic habit to feed my dog in the morning, or he might starve. So habit formation and automatic habits are wonderful for simple behaviors that we depend on. The problem comes when we try to create automatic habits for complicated complex behaviors. Habit formation is based on what’s called a habit loop, which starts with some type of cue. It could be walking in the bathroom or brushing your teeth. Then you do the behavior, and then there’s some type of reward, and that reward in our brain is very satisfying and helps create this association between the cue, the behavior, and then the reward, and thus an automatic habit that we don’t have to think about. And it makes… Who wouldn’t wanna offload our choices? We have so much to think about every day. The problem happens with complicated complex behaviors, because if you think about something like flossing, where does it happen? And who’s in there with you? Well, it mostly happens in the bathroom, and much of the time, there is no one else there to disrupt that cue from happening.
But when it comes to physical activity or healthy eating, we could be anywhere, doing anything with any number of people, with any number of unexpected curve balls coming our way, and the cues depend on a stable environment. And so with complicated behaviors, it’s very hard for that cue to stay stable. Now I do wanna add a caveat and… Two caveats. One is nothing is ever true for everyone. So for example, this isn’t true for my husband, who is what I call a habiter. He gets up at 5:30 in the morning before he has any distractions, anything to get in the way of his cue, the alarm getting him into the basement where he exercises. So people who are very disciplined and don’t have a lot of disruption in their life, what I call habiters, they tend to be able to form habits much more easily for complicated behaviors. But hopefully the difference between forming a habit for flossing and forming a habit for following some type of healthier eating plan, the distinction is clear.
Brett McKay: No, I think it is clear, ’cause eating is a complex thing. There’s… Timing can be off. Sometimes you are unexpectedly invited out to eat, and that wasn’t part of the plan, but you still wanna be social and engaged with these individuals, and so that throws you for a loop, and your… The habit is not gonna come in handy there because it’s not the same routine.
Michelle Segar: And again, oftentimes things that are common sense, we kind of easily adopt them and think, “This makes sense. I’m gonna do this,” or, “This was written about and it sounded really compelling,” but the problem is… Or not the problem is, the deal is, is that when it came to making changes in behavior, there’s always going to be assumptions underneath behavior change strategies, and if we don’t know to look at those assumptions and see if we meet them or not, then we won’t know if it’s actually gonna be the right fit for us.
Brett McKay: Got you. So yeah, one of those assumptions is that you can turn any behavior into a habit. Maybe, if you’re like your husband, you might be able to do that. But if you’re someone who’s not as disciplined or conscientious, you’re not gonna be able to turn complex behavior, like exercise program, into a habit, and you have to take that into consideration.
Michelle Segar: Yeah, not just person… Not just… Personality is definitely an issue. But the other part of it is if you’re managing the lives of many people and you’re juggling multiple roles and responsibilities, that adds a level of unexpected chaos and hubbub that would make a habit very hard to stand the test of time. An automatic habit, I should say.
Brett McKay: Well, another issue with behaviors like eating and exercise, unlike flossing… Flossing doesn’t have a lot of emotional baggage, typically. I get shamed every time I go to the dental… Dentist and the hygienist is like… They do that test where they check your pockets to see, and they can tell, “Oh, you got some four-millimeter pockets here,” and I’m like, “Oh jeez,” but I don’t really… I don’t have a lot of baggage about flossing. But exercise and diet, people over the years could develop just bad experience with those, and that can affect whether that becomes a habit or not.
Michelle Segar: Right, and that’s something else that we don’t think a lot about. So if we have any body shame that could be intertwined with exercising or trying to change our eating, or discomfort, or guilt, or sense of failure, for habits to form with that loop, we have to be able to have that reward. And so think about how feeling those types of complicated negative emotions could really thwart having the reward that is actually needed to form a habit. So that’s another one of the assumptions that you’re mentioning.
Brett McKay: Okay, so instead of thinking of implementing these behavior changes of diet and exercise in terms of habits, you make this case that you should think of it in terms of life space and choice points, and this came from a social psychologist named Kurt Lewin. Can you tell us about his idea of decision-making, and how you’ve taken that and applied it to diet and exercise?
Michelle Segar: Sure. So a lot of people these days are talking about Kurt Lewin. His work has kind of had a resurgence after a long time. And Daniel Kahneman, actually, was talking about this idea, and it was recorded on a Freakonomics episode, and so Daniel Kahneman said this was… I think he said, this is the best idea… Nobel Prize-winning, let me say. The man, Daniel Kahneman, was saying that the best idea he’s ever heard came from his mentor, Kurt Lewin, which is that instead of trying to drive a behavior, we should look at everything that gets in its way. And so if we take that idea and we think about the life space, which is everything we bring to a decision… At the point of choice, of any choice, that is our life space, and we bring our personalities to it. We bring our internal conflicts to it. We bring everything. And so, at this life space, which is this choice point, this point of decision, we’re coming with everything, not just, “I really wanna follow my plan, but I’ll feel like a failure if I don’t do it,” or this, “I know I can’t do it. Why even bother?”
Or, “Oh no, my phone’s ringing. It’s my kid’s school, I better pick it up.” I mean, everything comes to this moment of choice. So the question is, which forces… And this is part of this idea that there’s drivers and then there’s disruptors… At every point of decision, or what I’m calling choice points, there’s drivers and disruptors. And so which is gonna win out? And whichever forces are more compelling at the moment are going to basically flip the switch. Are you gonna do the choice you hoped for? Are you not gonna do it? Is there an alternative to the choice?
Brett McKay: Got you. Okay, so just to reiterate, with any choice, there’s things driving us towards that choice. And I typically, when we think about behavior change, we think about that. How can we drive ourselves to make the correct choice? But what Lewin says, you also have to think about what’s disrupting, what’s pushing you away from that choice. And like Kahneman says, you should ask, instead of, “How can I drive this behavior?” Ask instead, “Why aren’t I doing it already?” I think that’s really insightful.
Michelle Segar: It is really insightful, and it’s kind of interesting to note that that is also… Habit formation is based on a driver model, and…
Brett McKay: Right, yeah.
Michelle Segar: Right? It’s based on a reward driving a behavior and creating this unconscious association. So Kahneman’s saying, “Gee, we really would be… The most strategic thing we can do is figure out what is actually getting in the way and addressing those things.”
Brett McKay: And then this idea of not just choice points, but life space, thinking about the decisions in the broader context of your life. You can’t just think of diet and exercise as separate from your life. We’d like to think we can do that, that they’re sort of these separate systems, but in fact, they are part of our larger life experience. We have to integrate it not only with work, but our family life, stress levels, and if you don’t do that, you’re just kinda kicking against the bricks.
Michelle Segar: That’s exactly right, but we haven’t been taught… As a society, we haven’t been taught to think about the context, the many contexts, that are around these desired changes in behavior. But just like you said, it’s like if people start a business… And they start businesses without business plans, but oftentimes, investors are gonna look to see, “Okay, have you done your analysis?” What is it called? The SWAT analysis? Or some type of analysis where you show that you know what are the opportunities? What are the challenges? What are the competitors? We really need to come to changes in behavior in that strategic way, and the reason why is because we often think about changes in behavior, like, “I’m motivated right now. This is what I wanna achieve.” But if we switch our perspective from this kind of intense motivation, or the motivation bubble that gets us started to, “Gosh, I really want this behavior to stand the test of time through the ins and outs and ebbs and flows of my life, and that means I have to think about the context that it has to survive with them.”
Brett McKay: Okay. So let’s talk about these disruptors that push us away from the decision we wanna make, and you highlight four of them in your book. Let’s talk about the first one. It’s temptation. As a behavioral scientist, how do you define a temptation?
Michelle Segar: You know, I define temptation, I would say, more from my coaching than as someone who has actually done research on temptation. My experience is how people experience it that I work with, and here’s what they say: They say they feel like they’re being seduced or pulled, and it’s a visceral experience. And it could be a pull toward that chocolate cake that may not be on their eating plan, or a pull toward the couch and HBO Max or something instead of the plan to go to the gym. And so we’re used to thinking of temptation as something that controls us from the outside, but what I think is really interesting are the new theories that are about temptation and desire. And they propose… And there’s research to support them, that temptation, when we feel that visceral pull to do something like that, it’s coming from inside our brain. It’s not coming from the chocolate cake that’s in front of us. It’s coming from our history of experiences eating chocolate cake, not just the flavor, but the texture, and the mood we were in when we ate it, or the many times we ate it and who we were with and the connection we felt.
And so I think it’s really empowering to understand, no, it’s not just that that cake looks good. It’s that… And we could think of these as forces that are in our life space at these choice points, and so that’s… In that chapter, I talk about how we can kind of harness these new theories that are about how our brains work and the different systems in our brain to help us address the visceral pull we might feel.
Brett McKay: Yeah, I was gonna say that theory, in terms of food, you apply grounded cognition theory.
Michelle Segar: Yes.
Brett McKay: And that’s what you’re talking about. It’s like all the feelings you experience when you see that… I don’t know, that cheeseburger. Right? “Oh, when I had a cheeseburger when I was a kid, it made me feel good. I have memories of it.” You’re bringing that with you every time you have that choice to eat a burger or not.
Michelle Segar: That’s exactly right. The grounded theory of cognition is all about the sensory experiences that go with it and the meanings that go with it, and to a great extent, many of them are under our consciousness. But the really cool thing is that once you learn about these things, once you learn that certain things are there, but you might not have been aware of it, you shine a light on those experiences. And then you can be aware of them and name them, which also helps you have a… Are better able to control impulses to succumb to a temptation that you might not want us to succumb to.
Brett McKay: Yeah. You make this… You have this sentence says, “In its very essence, temptation is emotion remembered,” basically.
Michelle Segar: Yeah, I believe that came from an interview I did with Dr. Joel Nigg, who’s an expert in executive functioning. Yes. I mean, isn’t that a cool definition? It’s emotion remembered, but the memory can be… It doesn’t have to be consciously remembered. It can be unconsciously remembered.
Brett McKay: And then with exercise, there’s this idea of effective reflective theory of physical activity, which kind of helps explain why… We wanna exercise and we’re like, “Oh, I don’t actually… No, I don’t want to.” And we decide not to.
Michelle Segar: Yes. And so there are different theories about different behaviors, but there are some similar… Really kind of fundamental similarities, and one of the similarities is that our past experiences with the behavior contribute to the life space at the moment of choice. And if we had a negative experience, or PE, or we feel self-conscious in the gym, or whatever the reason is, those experiences, they call them in the paper, they say they tag exercise with an emotional meaning, or another word is “brand” it. So our past experiences, brand… Have branded physical activity, and like any branding process, it creates either a desire to approach something or a disdain to avoid it. And that’s why we have to be so conscious of what these behaviors mean to us. And again, once we learn that, then we can take back control.
Brett McKay: Right, and we had on the podcast a couple of months ago, Judson Brewer, and you highlighted his research as well, where he’s using these ideas of grounded cognition theory and ART, active reflective theory, to update your emotional values to these behaviors so that instead of being like, “Yeah… ” you’re like, “Oh yeah, actually, I wanna do those things ’cause I actually enjoy them.”
Michelle Segar: Yes, and value-based decision-making and updating the value of something, and really, that was the biggest part of No Sweat was helping people increase the value of exercise through converting it from a chore into a gift, and even though my process didn’t explicitly talk about the underlying brain mechanisms that Judson Brewer talks about, and I am a big fan of his, by the way, that’s what we’re talking about, and that’s what we need to do. That is part of the process, if you disdain exercise, no matter what your goal is, the research pretty clearly shows you just will not be able to sustain it. So the first step for someone is to figure out if you really disdain the eating plan you’re trying to adopt or the exercise program you’re trying to develop into a lasting change. Starting with figuring out how to create a positive meaning and experience is really gonna be the first part, because those experiences are so potent, emotion is… We probably talked about this in our last interview, that how we feel about something really determines whether we do it over time, so the emotions, the emotional meaning we have for any behavior is hugely impactful, and we’ve gotta be aware of that, and that is what the temptation chapter… That is… That’s the beginning, that’s the tip of the iceberg on that question.
Brett McKay: We’re gonna take a quick break for a word from our sponsors. And now back to the show. So another disruptor is rebellion, and this is interesting because why would we wanna rebel against a positive choice?
Michelle Segar: Well, as soon as I say it, people are gonna go, “Oh, yeah.” Well, because we rebel against having our freedom taken away. Via reactants theory, we know that human beings are motivated to reclaim their freedom when they feel that it’s been removed, so on a higher level, if we’re trying to exercise or change the way we’re eating because we think we “should do it”, or our doctor told us to, or our company is somehow either incentivizing us in ways that feel controlling or punitive, well, I’m gonna wanna rebel against that. Actually, I have a story to really explain this. I have a colleague who worked for a company that… Well, I wouldn’t say incentivized, there were programs in place that he would pay less for monthly insurance if he lost weight and went to the gym and attended weight watchers, and they tracked him, it was an electronic tracking system.
And he did all these things to get the inexpensive health insurance, but as soon as he got home, he was like, “Screw this,” and just went to town. And that is rebellion in its true essence. And guess what? He recognized what was going on, and he’s like, “You know what? I’m gonna pay the higher insurance premium because this is just a psychological nightmare, and I’m not taking care of myself.” So that might be an extreme example, but it really does reflect why we would rebel against something that we, in theory, think we really want.
Brett McKay: Now, I’ve had that experience too, and you talk about this in the book, there’s these companies who’ve developed apps that are geared towards better eating or exercising, where they’ll send you a notification and say, “Hey, it’s time to do your exercise.” You just tap it and then it gives you the workout. And what the research has found is that people actually rebel against that. The first time, they’re like, “This is great, I’m getting this kind of coach,” but then after a while, it’s like, “This is really annoying.” And then they just turn it off, they don’t wanna do it anymore. I had that experience, I downloaded this app, it was a habit app actually, to help me floss, remind myself to floss, so it’d send me this notification at night on my smart watch. And at first, like, “Oh, this is great,” and then after a while, like, “This is so annoying.” And then it keeps bugging you, it’s like, “It looks like you’re not doing your flossing, Brett,” and I’m like… I just deleted the app. I’m like, “No, you’re annoying.” [chuckle]
Michelle Segar: It goes from a nudge to a nudge.
Brett McKay: Yeah, don’t wanna be a nudge. Alright, so we have temptation, we have rebellion. Another one disruptor is accommodation. I think this happens a lot for people, particularly around their diet, what’s the accommodation disruptor?
Michelle Segar: Well, it’s different depending on which behavior, but let’s jump into the example that I use in the book. So, accommodation reflects consistently placing your plans, your self-care plans, your exercise needs, whatever, always behind the needs of other people or other projects. So if we’re talking about eating, I had a client and she had a three-family reunion every year at the same time, and people always bring these wonderful, delicious foods, and a few weeks or months before this very celebratory weekend happened, she started following a new eating plan. She felt great, she was proud of herself. There was no rebelling in sight, this was…
She was all in. But on one of the evenings, one of her friends took out a special cake that she had baked just for this occasion, and my client felt like she didn’t have a choice about eating it, she was accommodating what she perceived as the celebratory needs of the full group. And so that’s an example of how, with accommodation, how someone with eating could think, “Gosh, I don’t wanna be a bummer, I don’t wanna burst the bubble, I don’t wanna be the no person,” and that’s just one very straightforward way with eating, how accommodation works. Of course, there were many other alternatives to her, but she was so stuck in, “I need to make sure I meet other people’s needs,” that she didn’t have the consciousness or the mental prowess to figure out the many alternatives that were there.
Brett McKay: With exercise, that happens too as well, “My kid needs to do this thing, so I’ll go do that thing with my kid, instead of exercising.”
Michelle Segar: Yeah, or my work is always more important, it’s always more important trying to get to zero on inbox, just in like, “Oh, oh yeah, I know I had planned to go outside and take a walk, but I’ve got 50 emails. Let me see if I get down to it.” But it’s like if you consistently make those choices… Now, sometimes we have to make the choices, that’s not what accommodation is, accommodation is consistently placing your eating plans, your exercise goals, whatever they are, below all these other needs.
Brett McKay: And that’s an easy one to fall into, because you feel like you’re being a good person, it’s kind of playing to your idea of altruism, but in the end, it’s hurting you.
Michelle Segar: Well, it’s also what we’ve been taught to value in society, that’s why we think we’re being a good person, is we have been taught to be productive and to be successful, and to take care of all the people we love, but that’s an extreme… We haven’t been taught that it’s an extreme message, but really it’s much more adaptive to be in the middle. If you’re always taking care of yourself to the exclusion of other people’s needs, then you’re selfish and that’s a bad thing, but really there’s a middle ground that’s the sweet spot.
Brett McKay: Alright, the final disruptor is perfection, and I think we talked about this in No Sweat as well, but how does this idea of perfection disrupt our good choices?
Michelle Segar: Well, perfection is… I’m gonna say, this is the icing on the cake, this is the cake and the icing and the platter. We’ve been taught to have all-or-nothing thinking in society, and so when we come to a choice point where we had planned to… We were just talking about going outside and taking a walk, and a conflict arises. If I can’t take the 45-minute walk, then the only alternative is nothing, and that is how most people come to choice points. But in a way, it’s become a dogma that it’s… We have very perfectionistic ideas about what our exercise and our eating needs to look like, and this dogma has… It blinds us to the numerous many options that are right in front of us, but we haven’t learned, we haven’t been taught, been socialized to understand that being flexible is actually the most adaptive response we can have, so that the alternative to all-or-nothing is, ta-da! Something is better than nothing.
Brett McKay: And I see this perfection problem hitting people particularly if they decided to follow some strict restrictive diet like Paleo or Whole30, whatever, it’s like, “Well, I didn’t do it today. What the hell? I’m just gonna eat this giant cake, why not? ’cause I’ve already blown it.”
Michelle Segar: And that’s what tends to happen, and research shows when you come to these choice points with restrictive strategies, it boomerangs and it backfires, but… And again, I wanna say this here, ’cause it’s appropriate, this is a place also where there might be individual differences, where someone, and I think it’s the minority of people, but I do know some people who literally have to follow their Paleo diet to a T. The problem is, is that everyone has been taught to follow whatever diet to a T, and that is not what research shows results in sustainable change for most people. So what we need to do, we really need a revolution on this, we need to revolutionize our thinking, our belief systems, our mindset, so that we begin to understand that something is better than nothing, “I’m gonna make the perfect imperfect choice because that is what will keep me on the path of lasting change.”
Brett McKay: Okay, so every choice point we have when it comes to diet or exercise, there’s possibly gonna be a temptation, there… You might have a feeling of rebellion, accommodation or perfection. And I guess for every person, it’s gonna be different what that disruptor is, correct?
Michelle Segar: Correct.
Brett McKay: Okay, and so I guess by knowing what the disruptor is, it’ll allow you to figure out how to approach this choice. Is that the idea?
Michelle Segar: That’s exactly right, and if people are interested in seeing whether they… How they score on these disruptors or what I call traps, decision traps. There’s actually a quiz on my website that people can take. But the thing is, is that it’s understanding what… Again, self-awareness is what we all need to make changes that we can stick with, so being able to say, “Oh, I know that this is my trap, or this is one of the things that really gets in my way. I’m noticing it. Hello, temptation! I see you staring at me.” The very act of naming what has the propensity, what has the possibility of derailing our choice or getting us into some kind of non-optimal self-talk or self-denigration, we can take some of that power away. So that’s the power of knowing what our traps tend to be.
Brett McKay: And then to counter or to make a… What do you call it? Joy choice. You’ve dealt with this acronym called POP. And I like the sort of metaphor you’ve created, these life choices that we experience are kind of like bubbles. We have this idea of different possibilities, but every one could be popped at any moment because of circumstances. How we respond to how that original idea pops, is what you talk about with this acronym, POP. So let’s say we face this decision point with our diet or exercise, say we want to exercise. We have this plan of what our ideal workout plan would look like. The choice is there, but then something comes up to interrupt it, how can this acronym of POP help us navigate that choice point?
Michelle Segar: Sure, so first, let’s think about it this way. Usually at choice points, life bursts our bubble. Something happens and we think… We have all-or-nothing thinking and it just goes… Our bubble goes down the drain. But instead, POP is this proactive, self-owning action, “I’m gonna pop my plan.” Metaphorically… That we had ’cause we can’t do it, and we can open up and release the options that are in front of us. So, POP now is an acronym that we are proactively choosing the process to go through. It stands for pause, because… I didn’t make up the wisdom of the pause, it’s been around for thousands of years. The pausing lets us both name our trap, which takes away some of its power. It also gives us a space so that we can figure out how to respond instead of react unconsciously through a trap or something else. It allows us to harness our conscious attention, so that we can engage our executive functions, which are our innate mental abilities that let us problem solve. So, that’s what pause does.
Then the O in POP is, open up our options in play, and that’s just a fun opportunity to just think, “What else can I do? Hmm… ” I don’t have 45 minutes for my walk, I could walk for 15, or maybe I go down to the basement and ride the exercise bike for five after dinner, or maybe I see if a friend wants to take a walk for 10 minutes before dinner, or I pop into the gym for seven minutes. I mean, there’s all these options always available, but we haven’t been taught to think about it. And research shows that when we help people see things in a certain way, it actually helps them embrace the concept. So, by the very essence of the POP process and acronym, people are learning how to think more adaptively.
And then, the third part of POP is the second P, Pause, Open up your options and Pick the joy choice. And the joy choice is anything. It’s the perfect imperfect option that lets us do something instead of nothing. And that could be as simple as, “I am simply gonna walk to the mailbox, which I might not have done, and that’s gonna be my joy choice today, because that’s all the time I have or that’s all I have energy for.” And by its very essence, we are choosing to be consistent, and that is something that we can feel success about, and joyful.
Brett McKay: No, and you can apply this POP to any one of those different traps. As you were talking about this, I was saying, well, say your trap is accommodation, you get invited out to dinner, which you weren’t expecting, to the Cheesecake Factory, and so you accommodate it, it’s like, “Well, I wanna go, because I wanna be with these people that I enjoy.” But you could be like, “Okay, this doesn’t fit my eating plan exactly, how can I still join them in this dinner without it just disrupting things too much?” And you could say, “Well, I’ll get a salad, a big salad instead of the cheeseburger with a cheesecake afterwards.” That’s a way you could use this POP process to counter the accommodation trap.
Michelle Segar: Yeah, I mean, you could say, “Gee, I’d really like a hamburger and I wanna participate in the celebration, but I know the hamburger isn’t gonna make me feel great, so how about I have half a hamburger?” It’s really about teaching people to make compromises that in the past would have been considered as “failures”. But in fact, it’s the compromises, it’s the trade-offs that research suggests best keep us on the path of lasting change. And the more we do it, the better at generating different options we get. So it is a process of learning, and it might not be… People, it takes time to learn, to memorize an acronym POP. But I also suggest to my clients that they make a contact, so when they get to the choice point at the beginning of learning it, they don’t have to remember it right away. They can just pull up POP, and read it, and go through the process.
Brett McKay: No, I’ve done this POP process sort of intuitively over the years, because I think one of my big troubles with working out consistently was always perfection. It’s like, “Well, if I can’t do the actual workout, I’m not gonna workout at all.” And a couple of years ago, it just changed to, “Well, I don’t have time to get the whole workout in, so I’ll just do the main… ” I do barbell training, so I was just like, “Well, if I can’t get the whole thing in, I’ll just do the main lifts,” and I won’t do the bicep crawls and the assessor, I’ll just clip that. Or I’ll even reduce… Like, say I’m really clipped for time, really short for time, so what I’ll do instead, I’ll just do two sets instead of three sets, and that will shorten it and allow me to get some work in. And then it’s not the full workout, but I got something in. And it keeps that, I guess, that fly wheel turning, of consistent exercise in my life.
Michelle Segar: That’s exactly right. In the past, when I might not have wanted to go into the gym for 45 minutes and do a full set of hand weights because I was just exhausted, but I said, “Michelle, you know what? Go in and do three sets of three.” Literally, do a quarter or 20%, and instead of viewing it as not worth doing, view it as the joy choice, the perfect imperfect option that lets you do something. I mean, that is the new mantra. That is what will get more people successful, feeling good and staying consistent. It’s so counter-intuitive in a way, that if we give ourselves permission to do less than the ideal or the bull’s eye, that somehow we’re failing. But it’s the opposite, when we let ourselves do less, we actually do more.
Brett McKay: No, that’s the thing. Every nutritionist I’ve talked to, health expert I talk to, the thing they say that will lead to lasting success is you just have to be consistent. And that perfection… I think for a lot of people, the perfectionist thing gets in the way of being consistent ’cause they just… It’s all or nothing. So if you can just do something, that is probably better for you in the long run than just not doing anything at all.
Michelle Segar: And can I just add something right here?
Brett McKay: Sure.
Michelle Segar: Actually, last week when I was giving a key note, someone raised their hand and said, “Well, how do we stop someone from creating a bad habit of not doing anything or not doing enough?” And it’s a great question, right? But the answer is, the other way doesn’t work. The other way for most people, which is trying to aim for a bullseye doesn’t work. So, would you rather have people be consistent with doing less than might be an optimal dose of something, or would you rather have people do nothing of the gold standard? And the logic is clear that a better model for the way our human brain works and the way our chaotic lives are lived is that we have to learn how to be flexible and… But it’s one thing to tell people that being flexible is the solution, and it’s another thing to get them to really feel great about it, and that’s the point of the book. I want people to celebrate when they make the perfect imperfect choice.
Brett McKay: Well, how do you do this process, this POP process when you’re feeling particularly stressed or tempted? ’cause it is a… You’re bringing in your executive function to do this, and research has shown when you’re really stressed out, that executive function kind of goes to the back burner and our lizard brain takes control. Is it just a matter of practicing?
Michelle Segar: Yes. It is a matter of practicing, and I find that when I’m stressed, the act of noticing that and saying, “Can I POP it?” Like I use POP for everything now, I don’t just use it for choice points with exercise and eating, I use it when I might be irritated at someone in my family. Can I POP this? What are my… Let me pause, let me open up my options here, let me pick the joy choice. Yes, so if we can name the stress and see it, then we immediately take back some of the power in that situation, and then we can shift into harnessing our executive functions. I really like what Judson Brewer says, which is, “Get curious.” So as a first step, I think getting curious, “Hmmm,” and that’s… He even says that, “Hmmm, I notice that I’m feeling stressed right now, I wonder what that’s about.” I think the friendlier we are, the more curious we can be, instead of just feeling like, “Ugh, I can’t believe it.” Or when we notice and have awareness, that gives us an observer perspective, and again, this is paramount, this is core wisdom in the mindfulness movement, when we can self-observe, we really do have much more control. And so the idea is that we can notice the stress and then shift into the POP process. And I found it very empowering to say, “I’m gonna POP that stress,” or, “I’m gonna POP that anger,” or, “I’m gonna POP that in my plan and see what else I can do.”
Brett McKay: As I was reading your book, I got… You were saying that you use this process for things beyond eating and exercise, and I think it works for other complex behavior change as well. I think typically, people make new year resolutions, like “I wanna be less angry,” and I think this POP process can help them. Whenever you feel angry, think about, “Okay, what’s going on here? What are my options besides lashing out?” And then you pick the one that’s a better option besides lashing… The one that you enjoy.
Michelle Segar: And then you celebrate.
Brett McKay: Yeah, well, Michelle, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Michelle Segar: I’ve had so much fun, Brett, thank you. People can go to my website, which is my name, Michellesegar.com. And I know that this is being aired on the 25th of April, so if people are intrigued by the ideas we’re talking about and wanna learn more about the science or method, if they order before the 26th, midnight tonight, they can participate in my four-session live book club with a workbook where we’ll go deeper into these issues. But there’s more information on my website and the quiz too.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Michelle Segar, thanks for your time. It’s been a pleasure.
Michelle Segar: Thank you so much.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Michelle Segar, she’s the author of the book, The Joy Choice, it’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about her work at her website, Michellesegar.com. Also, check out our show notes at AOM.is/segar, where you can find links to resources and we delve deeper into this topic.
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