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I used to love Diet Coke. That’s not completely true, I used to love regular Coke. However, I learned that it was full of sugar which would make me fat and give me diabetes. So I drank Diet Coke. Which I now loved. And what’s the harm?!? In this post, I will share why I decided to quit Diet Coke. What worked and what didn’t. Finally I will share how you too can quit Diet Coke, or any other bad habit you haven’t yet been able to break.
Why Quit Diet Coke?
I don’t feel great when I eat sugar or sweeteners, and for the most part I stay away from them. But everyone needs their treats and Diet Coke was mine. I felt like I deserved it. And it doesn’t have any calories, so what’s the harm of having one once in a while??
Honestly, if I had really had had it once in a while it wouldn’t have been a problem.
But I didn’t have it occasionally. It would start out with having it once in a while, and then I would have another one. Soon I would have one most days. And if I was honest it didn’t make me feel great. It also didn’t work well with my values. I didn’t feel right about drinking something so artificial on a regular basis.
How do You Quit a Habit?
What didn’t Work:
Many of us have heard of, and tried, to remove an unwanted behavior by snapping a rubber band on our wrist. This way we associate the unwanted behavior with pain.
This method together with the negative reinforcement described below was originally described by BF Skinner who is known as the father of Operant Conditioning. I’m sure punishment as a deterrent of unwanted behaviors can have a degree of success, for me it failed on two accounts:
First, as the pain was self inflicted (I decided to skip the rubber band and instead bit my tongue when I wanted a Diet Coke), it was a lot easier, and nicer, to just skip biting my tongue rather than not having a soda.
Second, I really don’t believe in punishment as a good method for change and improvement, wanting the change process itself to be enjoyable enough that I keep trying and experimenting.
Negative reinforcement is when doing something removes discomfort. One of the most common habits that’s built on negative reinforcement is brushing your teeth. If you don’t brush your teeth they will start to feel icky and when you do brush them it goes away. Finally you brush your teeth regularly to avoid that icky feeling.
Negative reinforcement could have worked in this case. Drinking a lot of Diet Coke didn’t make me feel great, however the bad feeling was less direct than in the tooth brushing example, as I didn’t feel immediately better by not drinking it.
Actually, I felt deprived as I was loosing out on the kick I got from the caffeine and sweet taste.
Using it as a Treat
For a long time, I thought this was the key. I had no issue with drinking Diet Coke every now and then, as long as it didn’t became one of my major food groups. So I figured that I’ll have it occasionally as a treat. It didn’t stay occasionally for very long though, as I often wanted a treat. To make it work decided to make a rule:
I’ll have Diet Coke with lunch on Friday’s. Rule set, problem solved. Until I needed a treat, or wanted one on Saturday too, and that was ok because it was the weekend and….
This whole story may sound silly because ok, some caffeine, but Diet Coke is not that addictive. And you’re right, it’s not (I’m an ex-smoker, I know!). What it is, is something having something that I experienced as positive. It’s sweet and the coffein made me alert. This created a positive reinforcement and with that creating a habit that was difficult to break.
How did I Finally Quit Diet Coke?
Understanding the Habit
Every habit has a trigger and a reward. Something that makes you do the habit (action), a trigger, like brushing your teeth directly after breakfast. It also has a reward like feeling good after exercising (or not having icky teeth).
We have already discussed the reward of my Diet Coke habit above but I now set out to understand the trigger (also known as a habit cue).
After considering when I actually had a Diet Coke I realised that I only had it with meals as I didn’t like it as much without food.
Further, I didn’t often have it for dinner as I was concerned that the caffeine was going to keep me awake. My trigger was lunch! I wanted a Diet Coke with lunch.
I also considered my values and I didn’t have a big problem with very occasionally having a Diet Coke. I did however have an issue with using a completely artificial product, with no apparent benefits, as a reward and something to look forward to and be cherished.
After all, I had spent years trying to moderate my Diet Coke habit, thinking of it as a treat. I had put it up on a pedestal as a great thing that was worthy of craving but thinking of it logically, was it really that good? That special?
Making a Value Based Decision
If I was designing my life, what would I want to drink with lunch? The answer is water. I’m happy to drink other things with breakfast and dinner, but when I think about it, me personally will not have a better life for drinking anything other than water for lunch. I am a person who drinks water for lunch. That’s a part of me, of my identity.
Note that this had nothing to do with Diet Coke, it had to do with my values. The type of person I wanted to be. I also did not forbid myself to have a Diet Coke.
If I wanted to have one at another time of day I was perfectly welcome to do so.
This was an important part of the solution as it helped bringing that Coke can down from the pedestal. Instead it became something that was readily available and that I could have anytime I wanted and not this special magical wonderful treat I had built it up to be.
Changing the Action
The trigger was still there. I was still having lunch every day and that triggered me wanting a treat. So I got sparkling water with some lemon. It was more of a treat than tap water but it still fit my value of being a person who drinks water for lunch. So I did it one day, and then another. As James Clear says in his book Atomic Habits:
I didn’t become a person who drinks water for lunch over night. But every day I made the decision to drink water I cast a vote for the person I wanted to be. The person I would be if I sat down and designed my life rather than just living with the habits I had happened to pick up along the way.
The other thing I did was to stop buying Diet Coke. This wouldn’t stop me from having one when I was out and about, but not constantly seeing a can in the fridge, not having one ready and cold when lunch time came around, would also make it a lot easier not to fall to temptation.
Changing a Habit
The easiest way to change a habit is to replace it. To quit Diet Coke, stop eating sweets in front of the telly or to stop buying that shiny trinket: think about what your trigger is that leads to the action.
Is there another action you could take instead that would be more in line with your values? Is there anything that would fulfill the same need?
Decide on something to try that you think might work, like swapping those sweets in front of the telly with fruit, and then you try it for a period of time and then you review how it worked.
An apple didn’t do the trick? Maybe some frozen mango would work better??
If you keep casting those votes for being someone who eats fruit in front of the telly, the evidence for this new identity will build up. And every day will take you that one step closer to being a person that acts in accordance with their values.
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