Do you know the feeling?
You’ve been staying away from an unhealthy habit for a while.
And so far, you’ve been doing quite well.
But then, from out of nowhere, overwhelming cravings start setting in.
Suddenly, you feel like you just HAVE TO have that chocolate, fast food, cigarette, or [insert your personal kryptonite here].
These urges can be hard to deal with. But they don’t have to be.
In fact, it can even be a lot of fun.
Want to Overcome Cravings? Play Tetris!
In a recent study (1), 119 people had their natural cravings measured.
They were then divided into two groups.
The first group was instructed to play Tetris whenever their cravings set in.
The second group was a control condition that involved waiting for Tetris to load (which it never did).
After just three minutes of playing Tetris, the first group reduced their craving by 24 percent compared to the control condition.
The Tetris players reported less vivid, less frequent, and less intense cravings for typical temptations like alcohol, food, and cigarettes.
How could that be?
Urges Are Like Ocean Waves
When a craving takes hold of you, it feels like it won’t go away unless you give into it.
But in reality, cravings usually only lasts for a few minutes.
Just like ocean waves, they arrive, crest, and then subside.
They start off small and then grow before finally breaking up and dissipating (2).
The Tetris strategy works because it provides a distraction to turn to.
Instead of getting caught up in the wave, you just let it run its course without acting on it.
Overcome Cravings With “Mini-Actions”
But what if you don’t like Tetris? No problem. With a little experimentation, you can find an alternative that works for you.
What’s important is that you find some kind of healthy or neutral behavior to engage in when the craving shows up. Here’s how:
- Reflect on when your urges occur. When do you typically give into cravings? What usually precedes them? Are there any particular triggers?
- Pick a “mini-action.” This is the alternative behavior you’ll turn to when the cravings set in (3).
- Create an “If –> Then” plan. This is also known as an implementation intention: If I sense a craving coming on –> Then I will [mini-action].
- Shape your environment. Make sure that your mini-action is always more readily available than competing behaviors.
- Measure your progress. Track how often your cravings appear, how often your mini-action is successful, and how often you give in.
- Reflect and readjust. Schedule a 15-minute weekly review to celebrate your small wins and adjust your plan. Experiment with different mini-actions until you find one that works.
A Practical Example
Let’s say you tend to have sugar cravings each day after eating lunch.
You decide that chewing gum will be your mini-action:
If I start craving sugar after lunch –> Then I will have a chewing gum.
You shape your environment by getting chewing gums you like and throwing away your usual sweets.
Each time you feel a craving coming on, you make a note on your phone or in a notebook to keep track of how it went.
Every Sunday morning, you evaluate your efforts. If the chewing gum mini-action seems to work, you keep going. If not, you create a new If –> Then plan for the upcoming week.
You then rinse and repeat that process until you’ve found an approach that works.
Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
– Viktor Frankl
You can’t control what cravings happen to show up on a given day. But you can control how you respond to them.
The beauty of mini-actions is that they fit neatly into the space between stimulus and response.
A simple If –> Then plan can be enough to interrupt your usual behavior.
And that’s all you need to create massive change in your long-term results.
So, why not give it a try right now?
Now, it’s time for lunch! Where are my chewing gums?
- Playing ‘Tetris’ reduces the strength, frequency and vividness of naturally occurring cravings
- Urge Surfing
- I’m not sure where I first learned about mini-actions, but I believe it was in a James Clear seminar.
Photo by Jennifer Pallian.