Habits: Sticky or Slippery

The other night we finished everything that needed to be done for the day. We had cleaned up from dinner. We bathed the kids, brushed teeth and read some stories. 

As it wasn’t too late there was an opportunity for mom and dad to watch a show. Alexandra wanted to get started on some preparations for a 4 year old birthday party. I didn’t really want to make popcorn or some other snack from just one. So I headed off to the bedroom to read. During lent I’m trying to stay off my phone after 7 pm.

I got a chapter or two deep into 12 Rules for Life before I drifted off to sleep. Since I didn’t have a snack before bed and didn’t have any exposure to the light from my phone I had a great sleep. Add to this the fact that I didn’t have to set an alarm for the morning and this set the stage for a great day.

But this very easily could have gone the other way.

You see most evenings I do a sweep through the kitchen before bed. I’ll have a quick poke in the pantry to see what grabs my interest. It might be some chocolate. Maybe I’ll have some cereal. It could be a handful of Veggie Snacks.

These come in pillowcase size bags and are appropriately named 'Sensible Portions'.

These come in pillowcase size bags and the bag size is appropriately named ‘Sensible Portions’. (see top left)

Anyways, this got me thinking how our habits can be slippery or sticky. Here’s what I mean by this.

Our indulgences, treats, snacks and cravings can be thought of as sticky. Once we start it’s hard to stop. We tend to back to our old, less than optimal, ways. It can be really tough to shake a bad habit.

And on the flip side all of the positive things we try to do can be hard to sustain. We make one good effort and are quickly off the wagon. We get a good night’s sleep and follow it up with a full evening of Netflix. Good habits are slippery.

Below are 3 ways to compare and contrast slippery and sticky habits. Understanding these a little better will help us make better choices resulting in improved health, fitness and performance.


This one is huge when it comes to cravings. Have you ever had a craving for something? And for whatever reason the delivery of the indulgence is delayed. Your desire for that treat drops way off. It could be something as simple as wanting popcorn and then having to go and check on one of the kids. After taking care of the situation you realize you don’t really want popcorn anymore.

The same can be true when you want to go buy something for yourself. Maybe you’ve done the research. You’ve saved up. And you head down to the store and it’s crowded. You can’t find what you want. You can’t seem to find someone to help you. After enough time wandering the aisles seeking what you came to buy or someone to help you buy you eventually give up and leave. Later when someone asks you if you bought that item you say no and now aren’t sure if you still want to to buy it.

If you can't find what you want, or help to find it, you may end of not getting what you want.

If you can’t find what you want, or help to find it, you may end up not getting what you want.

Cravings are funny that way. They are very much in ‘the heat of the moment’ types of things. And once that moment passes you’re not as interested, if at all, in the treat or purchase.

The other thing about timing with treats is that the satisfaction is at the beginning and evaporates quickly. For example, when driving back from Vancouver I’ll stop around Vedder Road to fuel up. On one such trip I hadn’t eaten for a while and looked at all the options serving ‘food’ through a window. The combination of being hungry, wanting to get home and being tempted by the smell of the food led me order something greasy, fried and not at all nutritious. At the time you think it is appetizing. 20 minutes later down the highway I was looking for a rest stop as this ‘meal’ wasn’t agreeing with me and I was in desperate need of a rest stop.

So with treats and rewards we are tempted with the quick appeal of a burger, fries, ice cream or whatever. After consuming these foods the appeal is quickly forgotten and is quickly replaced by indigestion and an upset stomach.

Contrast this with the timing of lifestyle habits that are slippery. This can include getting a good night’s sleep, eating fruits and vegetables or getting in a workout. You typically feel better after making these choices. But we seem to have short term memories and forget how good it can be. And unfortunately, we also forget how bad we feel later when overindulging on treats.

The last point related to timing and our choices is to identify when we tend to indulge in certain foods or behaviors. For example, I know that I will go check out the pantry every night after dinner. I also know that I am more likely to be on my phone watching videos, checking social media or just surfing.

We need to be aware of the more common times when we indulge. And then we need to put blocks in place to prevent our actions from happening at these times that lead to an indulgence. Conversely, good choices need to scheduled in like an appointment. We plan to sleep every night from 10 pm to 6 am. We plan to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. And we make appointments for our training sessions. Notice that we don’t need appointments, reminders or a schedule to remember our indulgences. So we have to be doubly committed to scheduling in the good choices in our lives.

2. Work 

Treats don’t take any work. It doesn’t take any effort to kick back and surf the net. Now with all the food delivery services it’s easier than offer to satisfy a craving.

Is it any wonder rewards are sticky? Where’s the challenge in continuing a poor habit? You want it. It’s readily available. And often times it’s relatively economical.

On the other hand slippery healthy choices take work  and commitment. Training in the gym requires time and effort. Healthy eating requires shopping, prepping, cooking and cleaning up. Getting quality sleep every night means planning ahead. It means clearing a schedule, saying no to some things and unplugging digitally.

But there aren’t many things in life that we don’t have to work for that are truly satisfying. The student in school is prouder for the extra tutoring they did to pull off an A in math. The entrepreneur enjoys the lifestyle and future they have created for their family. The individual embarking on a fitness journey is happier to achieve their health and weight loss goal due to their efforts and sacrifices.

Make no mistake about it. Lifestyle habits that are good for us take work. And sometimes it can take a while for the results to appear. Lifestyle habits that don’t improve our health or fitness require little to no work. If it was easy everyone would do it. And everyone would have the best health and fitness. It will require work, effort and sacrifice.

3. Why

When we take some time to think about why we would choose well or not this helps us make better decisions. Let’s consider the case for a treat first.

When we have a treat or a reward this can be for a number of reasons. Sometimes this can due to a craving. For example, once in a while I’ll crave something sweet. It might be chocolate or ice cream. Dark chocolate or maple walnut for ice cream. But as to why I want a treat this might not be as clear. Right now, I’ve given up treats for Lent. Come Easter however I will be looking forward to have something fun to eat. So in this case this would be an indulgence after a period of sacrifice.

Other times I may want a reward for no good reason. Maybe I’ve had a stressful day and I believe that a couple of scoops of Parlour ice cream will do the trick. But there is also the possibility that I may be sleep deprived. When we get less than optimal sleep the amygdala becomes stimulated. This is the reward center part of the brain and it gives us the message or at least the feeling that we are due a treat. Similarly when we are sleep deprived the insular cortex becomes suppressed. This is the part of the brain helps us resist temptation. So we will be less able to say no to a temptation when we are sleep deprived. Sounds similar to a movie that sleep deprives a captured spy and then plies them with treats in order to extract secret information during interrogation.

Our answer as to why we want a treat can often be infantile. Answers such as ‘because I want to…’ seem to pass as justification for why we want or deserve to reward ourselves.

When we consider our why for making good decisions this takes on a deeper meaning. The reasons can be more selfless and be done for the benefit of others rather to be self-serving. For example, a father may exercise so he has energy and fitness to keep up with his young children. A mother may make and eat healthy meals so her kids witness and adopt this behaviour as they grow up to become adults. A teacher may get adequate quality sleep so they can give the best of themselves to their students the next day.

Take Home Message

Typically things that aren’t the best for us health-wise can be ‘sticky’ and become habits. I remember eating ice cream nightly for a couple of months. It was out of control and a hard habit to break. On the flip side healthy choices can ‘slippery’ are hard to make routine. Every January we see lots of examples of people heading back to the gym trying to make a slippery habit stick.

Going forward see if you can swap what is typically sticky for what tends to be slippery. Remember how timing, work and why factor into your health decisions. This will help you resist temptations and make better choices going forward.








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