So, you have made your eating disorder recovery commitments, which might look something like this:
I will eat without any restriction.
I will not engage in any unnecessary movement (formal exercise or lower level movement).
I will not engage in other purging behaviours.
I will not try to do anything else to manipulate my body weight or shape.
Commitments such as these are an excellent way to lay out in black and white for yourself (potentially sharing them with others too), your intentions. They are a decisive way to say, this is what I am doing so that I can overcome this eating disorder.
In reality though, it is easy to make these commitments, with the full intention of making them real, but then find in practice that it just ain't happening. This is perhaps not surprising when the intentions are so broad. Happily, a tool called If-Then planning can help with taking your superb commitments to another level and this post explains what this is and how it works.
The Gap Between Knowing Your Commitments & Achieving Them
For most people (if not all), there can be a big gap between knowing what you want to do in order to overcome the eating disorder and actually doing it. It is all too easy for distractions, procrastination, strong existing habits and powerful emotional reactions to side track you from your excellent intentions.
Therefore, it is important to find ways to be sure you can take consistent action, even when obstacles try to hijack you.
This is when If-Then statements come in.
If-Then statements are very simple.
It is as simple as, if x happens, then I will do y.
These simple statements take your commitments or goals out of the clouds and pins them down to concrete moments or situations in your daily life.
If-Then Statements Work
If-Then planning can be used for all aspects of life, where people want to change their habits, change their lifestyle or achieve goals that are hard to reach. Research into these simple statements shows that you are 2-3 times more likely to succeed at sticking to your intentions if you use an If-Then plan than if you don't.
When you are aiming for goals that are related to something as difficult as overcoming an eating disorder to achieve, anything you can do to make sticking to your commitments and intentions easier, is definitely worth implementing.
Why Do If-Then Statements Work?
On a brain based level, if you can pin your commitments or intentions in recovery down and tie them to specific triggers or situations, (such as, 'if I am thinking about food, I have to eat the most dense and scary thing I can find'), the lack of choice makes it easier to form the neuroplasticity and rewiring you want as you have already determined the path.
'If-Then' statements can take away that element of indecision (the should I, shouldn't I or the what should I eat / what should I d0) that is so difficult and anxiety provoking in recovery and can help you instead to maintain focus and nail down stronger commitments. This means that the neural connections that you want and in fact need to build brain circuitry that is not driven by an eating disorder are forced into being.
If-Then statements ultimately speak your brain's language.
The human brain enjoys contingency patterns, 'if x then y' and frequently uses this process, on an unconscious level, to guide our behaviours and instantaneous decisions. When we make our own intentional If-Then plans, we are encouraging our brain into a pattern it understands but in a new direction of our choice.
Link If-Then Plans To Daily Cues
Cues and triggers are the very thing that the brain recognises and that lead you to take habitual paths without conscious awareness. These cues or triggers can be the fact it is a certain time of day, a pattern of behaviours that cue you to take the next behaviour, certain automatic thoughts that trigger a behaviour or something in your environment that triggers a habitual action.
Commitments will be more successfully achieved when you relate them to a cue. Decide exactly where and when you will act on your commitments and you ultimately create a link in your brain between the situation or cue (the If) and the action that will follow (the Then).
Examples in recovery might be:
If it’s morning and my eyes are open then I find food and eat it.
If I’m thinking about going for a walk or run then I’ll grab snacks, sit on the couch and message a friend for support.
If I’m comparing my portion size to someone else’s then I will deliberately get double the portion they are eating!
If I’m body checking and applying negative thoughts about my body, then I’ll immediately lovingly rub the area I’m criticising and think positive thoughts about it instead, visualising the recovered future I am working towards, knowing a bigger body will help get me there.
Considering the first of these examples more closely, the situation (the If) of it being morning and you being awake, through the if-then plan will begin to be wired into your brain directly to the action, I find and eat food. Now the situation of waking up in the morning is something of greater significance to your brain, and subconsciously, your brain will start scanning your environment for the 'if' part of your plans. When it recognises the 'if' part is happening, it will start to attempt to activate the 'then' part, so that this becomes your new automatic response. This means that even if you are more distracted than usual, you are more likely to still achieve your original commitment.
In this way, If-Then plans need less in the moment conscious effort, mental energy or even willpower than is needed for just a written commitment alone.
If-Then Plans For Unexpected Events
The above use of If-Then planning relates to linking the cues to things that you might encounter every day in your general life. However, If-Then statements can also be used for unexpected situations that might occur, in which you still want to maintain your commitments through your actions.
For this, you need to consider situations that might not happen but that you want to be prepared for and should have these statements prepared and rehearsed before you encounter and become tripped up by these events.
Lay out ground rules for yourself with If-Then plans by thinking about different situations before they happen and it takes away the need to make difficult decisions in an unexpected and probably more stressful situation.
Examples here might be:
If I’m in a restaurant, looking at the menu and undecided, I will let the waiter decide for me.
If a friend invites me out for lunch then I will say yes immediately and order the scariest option, no matter what they are choosing.
If I get stuck when I am out and can't get home to eat at the time I planned, I will go into the nearest fast food restaurant for a full meal deal.
Get detailed and plan for all types of triggers and situations you can think of.
In doing this, you will remove your ability to make excuses for not following through on your commitments and it will strengthen your ability to keep to them instead.
Put If-Then Planning Into Practice
When in the process of overcoming an eating disorder, in order to put If-Then planning into practice, it is important to take some time to sit down and think about them in more detail.
Your If-Then plans need to be meaningful for you and relevant to your personal and daily situations and circumstances.
Reflect on what points in your day, you are more likely to get pulled off course in your process. Where do you most need contingency plans?
Set yourself up several If-Then statements for all sorts of cues (Ifs) and the recovery positive action you want to follow those cues with (Thens).
Write out your statements that are relevant to your commitments and your life.
Share them with others.
Stick them on the wall or somewhere you can refer back to them regularly so that your brain really builds that link between the If... cue and what it needs to guide you to do next when it recognises the cue is present.
And ultimately, commit to your statements. Don't question them when the time comes, just follow them, knowing this is right for you.
If-Then planning could really take your commitments to a new level of not just committing but consistently acting on those commitments, even when life gets in the way. Ultimately, If-Then planning could help take the process you are working through to overcome the eating disorder from hard slog, frustrating and painstaking to just a little easier.
If-Then planning makes your brain work for you in a way that the brain understands and that will take you to the results you desire.... positive new non disordered and life freeing habits.
If you like to listen, as well as (or instead of read!) then this blog post is a transcript of a podcast episode which you will find on my podcast series, Feck it, Fun, Fabulous and Free in Eating Disorder Recovery... available on this website, on all mainstream podcast platforms and on YouTube!