Having trouble starting a new habit or breaking an old one? A simple bowl of oatmeal pointed the way to help me do just that. Maybe the idea behind my oatmeal habit can help you too. Sounds odd, I know, but go with me on this…
Down at the American Legion, we joke about the oatmeal.
Most Friday mornings I have breakfast with a group of friends. There may be 14 of us or more, so we have our own room. Soon after sitting down, our waitress, Amy, comes in and takes our orders.
There are a lot of tempting choices on the menu. My friends order eggs of every style, hash browns, plates of biscuits and gravy, pancakes the size of dinner plates, there’s the sausage scrambled skillet, the “Legion Platter,” breakfast burritos, even country fried steak.
Some consult the menu before choosing, while others already know what they want and order from memory. A few are so consistent with their orders that they can simply nod, and Amy will know what to bring them.
I’m at the “head-nod” level of consistency. Eye contact, a brief bow of the head, a knowing smile, and Amy tells me what she’s bringing me: a bowl of oatmeal with fresh blueberries, and an English muffin on the side.
A few others have oatmeal from time to time, and we joke about its consistency – it’s thick and heavy, and the Legion does not stint with the portions. Ten minutes of eating and it seems I’ve hardly made a dent. We are convinced that as we eat from the top, more oatmeal spontaneously generates from the bottom. I’m often the first served and the last done.
But with all those delicious choices on the menu, why oatmeal?
It has to do with habit formation. I didn’t always have this oatmeal habit. When I first joined the group, I looked forward to a nice Denver omelet with plenty of hash browns on the side, or a plate of those massive pancakes.
It was all delicious, but the problem was that those weren’t the number or type of calories I needed – I had some racing goals I was trying to achieve, and losing weight was part of the plan to reach them. That heavy weekly breakfast may have been tasty, but it was actually making it harder to get there.
What I needed to be eating was the same as I was having at home: oatmeal. Preferably with blueberries. The combination of complex carbohydrates from the oats, and the fructose and antioxidants from the berries made it the perfect meal to help me get the most out of my usual long Friday workouts.
So, one week I resolved to try the Legion’s oatmeal. The first time Amy wrote down my oatmeal order, people took note, and some made faces. “Really? With all the other delicious options on the menu, who would opt for something so bland?” The order came with raisins; it was OK.
The next week, I ordered it again, this time with blueberries and just a little brown sugar; it was better. Same the following week. Pretty soon it became the norm. I got used to it, even kind of liked it.
It took several months of Friday breakfasts before I attained “head-nod” status, but once there, it became even easier to stick with the habit – the decision was already made before I even walked in the door. Even my friends could tell you what the order was.
“Ken always gets the oatmeal.”
And it worked. My weight resumed its gradually lower trajectory, training went well, and I met my training and racing goals later that season. But the real lesson of the oatmeal habit didn’t come until the day that I didn’t order it.
The Pretzel Bomb
It was a Friday in mid-October when Amy looked at me, pen in hand. Instead of nodding, I asked for the menu. A few heads turned.
Surprise turned to astonishment, and then audible gasps when they heard my order: The Pretzel Bomb.
The menu describes it as “a jumbo soft pretzel topped with scrambled eggs, onions, green peppers, ham, and drizzled with beer cheese sauce.” It was a record-scratch moment:
“Ken ordered the what??? The Pretzel Bomb???”
This was my celebration meal – it had been a great season of racing. I had even managed to set a few personal bests, which is getting harder to do as I approach my sixth decade. The Pretzel Bomb was my reward.
The “Bomb” was as massive, gooey, and delicious as I had envisioned. I ate every bit of it, sopping up the last traces of melted cheddar with the final morsel of soft pretzel. The guys encouraged me along the way. It was fun to have the dietary change-up, and to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment that my oatmeal habit helped make possible. (Though I have to admit the meal left me feeling heavy and sluggish for the rest of the day.)
The “a-ha” moment wasn’t about what I ate that day, it was about my friends’ reaction to my choice.
Our Habits Become Us
My oatmeal habit was no longer just something I routinely did. It had become part of who I was. Researchers have noted this relationship – a behavior is a physical action that we may perform, but our self-identity is critical to turning that behavior into a habit .
And maybe my friends recognized this change before I did. In their minds, I had become the kind of person who orders oatmeal every morning. In their eyes, that action, that new habit, was now woven into the fabric of my identity. Ordering the pretzel bomb was a huge departure from this identity, and that’s what caused their surprised reaction.
The benefits of this habit-identity relationship change are two-fold. First, on the personal level, it can extend to other areas. It’s easier to order the salad instead of fries, or get out the door for a run on a cold, rainy morning because that’s the kind of thing a person who eats oatmeal does.
Second, on the social level, we can recognize that any change we make may at first encounter some level of resistance. But if we persevere long enough, that attitude can evolve into acceptance or even support. At the Legion, it began as, “How can you eat that stuff?” But once I had kept up my oatmeal habit for a little while, it became an expectation, even a point of honor. “Hey Ken, better eat faster or that oatmeal will overflow the bowl. By the way, good luck in your next race!”
And if social support doesn’t come around, there may be some value in changing the environment so that we can tap into the powers of encouragement from others.
The Oatmeal Habit – The Takeaway
So maybe the big lesson in all of this is not to think of habits as habits at all. What we do – our behaviors, are expressions of our identity – who we are. A better approach may be to start by defining what we want that identity to be:
- A wonderful spouse and partner
- A person of integrity
- A good friend
- A respected leader
- A healthy, physically fit person
Once clear on that, we can think about what kinds of things people with those attributes do, and start doing them. The oatmeal habit taught me that the more we do those things, the more we become the kinds of people who do those things, and the easier it becomes to keep doing them.
The next Friday after the Pretzel Bomb, Amy once again appeared, ready to take our orders. When my turn came, she paused by my chair and raised her eyebrows in question. I just smiled and gave her a polite nod.
She wrote down, “Oatmeal,” and order was restored at the Legion.
 McCarthy, Mary, et. al. Healthy Eating Habit: A Role for Goals, Identity, and Self-Control? University College Cork, Ireland, p. 22.