Despite the lack of recording, I’ve really ramped up my Sunday Meal Prep Habit since moving back to the States.
I hit a glass ceiling in Spain. I’d make 6 lunch meals, which involved trips to 2 or 3 stores/markets. It took an hour to prep and store, and then I had to deal with the glass jars I stored them in.
Eating healthy, pre-prepped lunches during the week was effortless (this word/feeling is key - I’ll get back to it later), and I attempted to do little bits here and there to increase that habit, because a lot of meals were obviously left unaccounted for. But none of it worked - we were stuck hovering at the same output.
I’ve started to call this Limited Natural Growth.
Limited Natural Growth - A well-established habit naturally has a growth spurt, then plateaus.
Getting past that plateau requires other techniques.
I’ve since moved back to the States and things are a lot easier. We got a car and don’t have to haul things by hand. One store usually has everything. Salads don’t have to be made, they come in pre-mixed bags. We can shop for an entire week. My “Sunday Meal Prep” has essentially transformed into a “Sunday Shopping” habit.
But we still encountered the onerous task of deciding what we were going to cook.
It seems pretty inconsequential, but decision making itself has its own willpower cost. As in Spain, we found ourselves dithering, and more often than not I would balk, leaving the bulk of the burden on Lydia. I felt we were going to hit another plateau, until Lydia decided to randomize our weeks.
Lydia had a dream - she wanted to cook through entire cookbooks and now, with access to everything, she can do it. So she entered every title of every recipe from her favorite clean eating cookbooks into a spreadsheet and randomized them for dinners.
It’s been two and a half weeks and has felt effortless. With my system of mechanistic change, I’m trying to chase that feeling. To me, a really good progressive program should feel like it doesn’t bog you down, like you aren't dipping into reserves of motivation or willpower.
This plan has worked so well, I began to wonder what was going on. It turns out it has a name: The Novelty Effect.
The Novelty Effect is best summed up in an excellent article on the subject by Clive Thompson on Medium:
"My behavior is governed by what psychologists call “The Novelty Effect” — the short-term boost in performance that comes from changing the environment around you."
The power of changing things up is not to be taken lightly. It grows you. It’s the reason why 30-day challenges are so great - they get you to do more than your usual routine, and that feels exciting. In doing so you rise to the occasion.
Of course, you also fall back down.
Thompson continues by stating:
“Temporarily” is the key. A change to our environment can invigorate us by changing the intellectual furniture of our everyday lives. But as soon as we become habituated to the new, the improvement fades."
However, by introducing one day (Sunday, in my case) when I planned to randomize the rest of my week, something amazing occurred. I could potentially ride this temporary wave indefinitely. It’s Structured Randomness.
A few years back on a work trip I met a fellow travel journalist who described a project. In it she tried a new workout every week for a year. Based in Colorado, where demand tends to be high for all things fitness-related, she tried everything from acro yoga to trapeze. She got so addicted she kept it up for years.
The gamification experts often describe player types that can be appealed to in games. The Bartle Taxonomy of Player Types includes Killers, Achievers, Socializers, and Explorers, but it’s the last one that I want to focus on here.
Explorers like new things, to reveal a new world, or discover hidden places. It’s a button of addiction that can be pushed in programming, and so too (I believe) with Structured Randomness. It activates the fun and addictive centers, appealing to my appreciation of cooking and experiencing food.
I’ll continue to monitor it, but I think this is a watershed moment not only for eating healthy, but for all other habits.
Because of the concept of Limited Natural Growth, it’s often very difficult to break free from plateaus. This results in fully formed habits that, unfortunately, don’t progress or do you any good.
The standby techniques are just pushing the habit in small increments or using intense, brief challenges. Those have never sat well with me because in practice, they're a pain. For both, you're dipping into that well of motivation or willpower, and though it works for one habit, if you're trying to do it for 10, that well dries up fast. The key is effortless change.
But beyond this project, Structured Randomness appears to result in a more broad-spectrum human experience. Lydia once did a project where she read a book in a new genre she’d never read before every month for a year. We’re planning to see if we can eat at a restaurant that serves food from every country in the world here in Houston (though, since we’re going alphabetical, it may not be “Random” but it’s at least “Structured Variety”). And at one point we attempted to try one new restaurant or activity a week, to break free of the rut of habits and the intense, often repetitive practice that is commonly considered a precursor to mastery. Broadening horizons just exposes us to more, and that, I feel, is a good thing.
I don’t know how this technique could apply to things like meditation, or writing, but it bears a lot of future thought.