What Skinny Margaritas taught me about habit formation

I’ve got a soft spot for Bethenny Frankel.

Sure, when it comes to the Real Housewives franchise, Beverly Hills (umm, hello Brandy Glanville) is my favorite.

But my kudos towards Bethenny can be traced to one groundbreaking innovation: The Skinny Girl Margarita.

Go ahead. Bring it. I’ll own my skinnies (both jeans and margaritas).

The ingredients are simple:

  • 2 limes
  • 2 oz of Tequila (Casamigos Blanco is my jam)
  • Tiny splash triple sec (Giffard)
  • A squirt of agave
  • And a splash of seltzer (Topo Chico)

And voila.

A punchy cocktail with very little sugar and (surprisingly) limited after-effects the next morning.

In fact, the cocktail is so good that I’ve had to take some drastic steps to reduce my intake.

I no longer keep limes in our house.

And since I don’t like my Tequila neat, no limes = no drinking.

Now this behavior fits quite squarely into James Clear’s 4-stage habit model detailed in Atomic Habits.

Specifically, the lime strategy addresses Step 1, the Cue. To drink less margaritas, one needs to make the limes invisible.

Problem solved.

Or is it?

Step 2, The Craving, is a bit more nefarious.

Here, if you want to add a good habit, you should Make it Attractive. (I.e. join a running group with a good friend in order to lose weight.)

And if you want to remove a bad habit, Make it Unattractive.

But having seen countless high-performers struggle to ditch bad habits (ranging from weed, Instagram, video games, pornography, and smoking), this advice doesn’t get to the heart of the challenge. It doesn’t get to the heart of the desire.

And therefore it rarely sticks.

Removing limes from the house doesn’t address the craving. 

So the next question becomes, “What’s behind the craving?”

What’s your underlying motive?

Clear argues that our reptilian brains are actually quite simple, they’re “modern-day solutions to ancient desires.” These desires?

  • Conserve energy
  • Obtain food and water
  • Find love and reproduce
  • Reduce uncertainty
  • Connect and bond with others
  • Win social acceptance and approval
  • Achieve status and prestige

I’ve taken the liberty to recategorize these desires a la Maslow’s Hierarchy. And you’ll see that once you pass “reducing uncertainty” the desires are clearly tied to how others see us.

What do you think is the underlying desire behind posting a thirst trap on Instagram?

An actual Thirst Trap from Wikipedia.

I mean, how else could you win social acceptance and approval?

What’s missing in your life?

A craving implies that there’s something missing in your life. One of those desires is going unmet.

Which makes it easy – deliciously tempting – to turn to the ‘Gram or the bottle. Clear lays it out quite viscerally:

A craving is the sense that something is missing. It is the desire to change your internal state. When the temperature falls, there is a gap between what your body is currently sensing and what it wants to be sensing. This gap between your current state and your desired state provides a reason to act.

We turn to our bad habits, because we want to feel differently. Adds Clear:

Even the tiniest action is tinged with the motivation to feel differently than you do in the moment. When you binge-eat or light up or browse social media, what you really want is not a potato chip or a cigarette or a bunch of likes. What you really want is to feel different.

So what should you do?

Breaking a bad habit is much harder than adding a good one and Atomic Habits is quite sparse on ways to make a bad habit less attractive.

I revisited the book’s chapters on Craving and only found two approaches. (On Twitter, Clear himself recommended I re-visit the chapter on Identity.)

The first, Temptation Bundling pairs an action you want to do with one you need to do:

Perhaps you want to hear about the latest celebrity gossip, but you need to get in shape. Using temptation bundling, you could only read the tabloids and watch reality shows at the gym. Maybe you want to get a pedicure, but you need to clean out your email inbox. Solution: only get a pedicure while processing overdue work emails.

Theoretically, you could say “I’ll only drink a margarita, if I do 10 burpees,” but that seems dicey at best.

(And I’ve tried it, here’s what happens. You either do the burpees and have the drink. Or skip the burpees and have the drink.)

The second approach involves The Seductive Pull of Social Norms. If you join Crossfit with your friend, the risk of shame makes you less likely to bail on a workout.

Similarly, since we don’t want to be judged for breaking habits we could make a public proclamation a la Dry January or even put some dollars on the line with the Stick app. Here’s how RadReader Taylor Schulte keeps his email checking craving in check.

Once again, dicey at best.

Using mindfulness to spotlight the cravings

First, we can use mindfulness to center our attention on these unhealthy behaviors. In the post how mindfulness helps us break bad habits, Elisha Goldstein points out that this self-awareness practice can “slow us down and creates space from the cravings (desires) and urges (feelings) that can control our attention and decision making.” With time, a mindfulness practice trains us to recognize the craving and gives us a “wake-up call” to pick another response. Goldstein recommends the following 5-steps to begin your mindfulness practice:

  1. Visualize yourself almost in the midst of whatever that habit is. If it’s food, visualize coming close to the food. If it’s rageful reactions, picture yourself being cut off by a car on the highway. You get the picture.
  2. Notice what thoughts and feelings arise in the body. Literally, see if you can identify where you feel that “urge” physically.
  3. In your visualization, don’t engage the urge, instead, relax your body and notice the body breathing, “in” and “out.”
  4. Staying with the breath, keep being aware of the visualization and the urge in your body and notice how the feeling peaks and eventually falls away.
  5. Thank yourself for doing this practice, it’s a great act of self-care.

Can you create a more compelling alternative?

Another approach to tackling these pesky cravings is to pull a little switcheroo. In the fantastic video How to quit any addiction from Improvement Pill, they argue that link between bad habits and addiction is closer than you think. You can’t just stamp out the desire or craving.

Therefore, they emphatically argue that habits cannot be erased and instead, they recommend swapping out a bad habit for a good habit.

They use the example of a social media craving/addiction (at the 3:39 mark). Boredom is a likely motivator behind the craving, which could be alleviated by reading a great book or calling a friend – Both of which are “good habits.” This activity then satisfies the brain’s pleasure receptors and over time, you’ll discover that calling friends is way more life-affirming than scrolling Instagram. A positive feedback loop will ensue, as you’ll gravitate towards the activity that makes you healthy and happier.

The true “why” behind the craving?

It turns out that you can’t hack your way out of desiring social acceptance, status, approval and prestige.

There’s no app for that.

So instead, we need a more thorough existential inquiry.

You can start by taking your bad habit and asking: “What’s really behind my desire to drink?”

Maybe you hate your job. Or your relationship is rocky. Or you always feel rushed.

For me, my desire for a Skinny comes from a very simple equation.

Every day I list ten things I want to complete. And if the stars align, I get 6 done. Usually it’s 4.

Frustrated by the many things I couldn’t complete, I gently numb myself with a lime libation.

Rinse. Lather. And repeat.

My self-inquiry into this behavior (using the 5 Whys technique) leads me to a very familiar place.

My self worth is tied to my achievements. Complete 10 tasks, achievement goes up. Boom, self-worth rides its coattails.

But complete 4? Ouch. Self-worth takes a hit.

Time to get on my bike and snag me some limes.

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