The intention-behavior gap

It's hard for so many people to understand why recovery can be so difficult.  All you have to do is eat, or keep your head out of the toilet, or stop binge eating, or get off the damn treadmill already.  It's one thing to know that this is what needs to be done.  It's quite another to actually do it.

For one, the neuropsychological changes caused by eating disorder symptoms can make it difficult to interrupt the cycle (it can make it almost impossible to see that there's a cycle that needs to be interrupted, for that matter).  For another, behavior change is complicated.  Very complicated.

I worked in public health for several years, and figuring out how to implement successful behavioral change--whether it's anti-tobacco messages or everyone's favorite current dead horse, obesity--was largely an exercise in futility.  It's easy enough to tell people that smoking is bad and you should eat more veggies.  It's also relatively easy to get people to absorb these messages.  It's quite another to get someone to put down the cigarettes and start eating broccoli.

This is known as the intention-behavior gap.  That's the technical name for knowing what you need to do and not doing it.

It's been a frequent issue in my recovery.  I can argue circles around myself to justify things, and come up with great reasons why it's to "hard" to eat lunch or take a break from exercise.  Behavior change is hard.  No one is going to argue with that--at least, no one who's broken a nasty habit or changed a major behavior.

But as I've progressed in recovery, as I've slipped and come clean and learned from my mistakes, I've learned that there are some general actions I could take so that my behaviors would match my intention of ongoing recovery.

I learned about batch cooking one summer when I was living in Baltimore and commuting into Washington DC every day.  It was two hours each way.  Getting home, wrung out and exhausted, at 8pm was not conducive to cooking dinner.  That wasn't an eating disorder excuse, that was just reality.  It would have been easy to turn that into a great reason to simply not eat, or to just nibble on some cereal before I passed out from exhaustion.  A conversation with my dietitian reminded me about batch cooking.  On Saturday or Sunday, I would cook all my meals for the week.  That way, when I got home, all I had to do was shove something in the microwave.  Easy peasy.

There were other things, like (when I was more in binge mode) not eating out of the box, packing my lunch the night before, or turning in my gym key to apartment management.

I've never been all that good at analyzing these things in the moment.  Usually, "the moment" is about damage control and getting more stable.  But looking back, I can generally (okay, with lots of help from my therapist) identify what went wrong.

What are some intention-behavior gaps in your recovery? How can you start to address them?

posted under , , |


Anonymous said...

scary question but worth asking. i need to plan more time with people i feel safe with because alone time (i have a lot of it) is hardest. not allowing myself to get overly tired is a big thing. when i am my hunger cues are practically absent. when i'm in save the world mode (which has happened a lot lately via my own battles with ed care and hoping to change that) or learning a new something mode i get VERY single-minded. it would probably be a good idea to set alarms on my phone to remind me to stop, slow down and go eat, because otherwise i don't even remember the intention.
that's big-time honesty for me. :) thanks for the good reminders.

Dana Udall-Weiner said...

I think planning ahead (like batch cooking, as you mention), is key. Also, maintaining low levels of stress is a good idea, because then we are less frazzled and generally able to make better decisions. And finally, trying to be more comfortable in the moment, even with the hard stuff, is super important. I'm still working on this last one, which might be a life-long process. As you say, change is easier said than done!

Ally said...

interestingly I've found (now that I'm aware and am noticing these things) that the intention-behaviour gap in regards to actually eating is bigger the less I eat. I hadn't realised before that the longer I go without eating the harder it is to actually get food onto my plate. The indecision as to what to choose is almost paralysing. I have at least learned that I can fall back on my safety food to get myself started again.

KL said...

I'm dead smack in the middle of an intention-behavior gap right now. I've been working with my nutritionist to lose some weight. Lately i've become seriously obsessed with the scale. I find myself weighing/counting EVERYTHING. I've spent the better part of the past 20 years with no scales in my house. Now I have 3. There are "very good" reasons for all of them. (ie, I should know my weight, the digital is easier to read, the dial scale says I weigh less, the kids like to play on them). This week my nutritionist asked me to stop weighing myself and to stop reading labels. She says that the focus is health, not weight. I agree with her.

However - I saw myself on tv lately and let me tell you, my focuse is VERY MUCH about weight. I don't intent to fall back down the rabbit hole of weight/body/number obsession, but i've got 1 foot in the hole and the other foot on a banana peel.

In terms of bridging the gap-i'm talking about it. I'm writing about it. I'm doing it where I can. Years ago I had a therapist that used to say "you don't have to be ready to change. You just have to be ready to talk about it." I'm ready to talk about it. And for right now, that's the best I can do.

C said...

I never really thought of the term "intention-behavior gap", although it fits me perfectly. I was so annoyed with my friend the other day because she was telling me about her friend at college was able to get through her eating disorder because she is very disciplined and when she says she is going to do something, she does it. To me, although I know she didn't mean it that way, made it seem like I have no will power and/or I don't know what I am supposed to do. But I do! I clearly have will power if I was able to starve myself. And I clearly know what I am supposed to do. I do. I know I am supposed to eat my meal plan and that it is okay to eat what I dean as unhealthy. I know I should stop counting calories. I know I should stop trying to control my food even know. But I can't. Ugh. Just have to keep convincing myself this is not the life that I want.

Again, thanks for the post!

hm said...

1. Panic.

That makes all my willpower, desire to live, and desire to "do the right thing" just slip away, for the immediate desperate need to dissolve my panic.

2. Failure.

"I'm going to DO this!" turns very quickly into "FUCK THIS" when I make a mistake. I am my own worst enemy. I can do advanced Calculus, but somehow I MISCOUNTED my portions day before yesterday, then caught my mistake a day later, and realized that on that day I had come up short. (I can't count to fucking FIVE? I'm an idiot. Fuck this. I can't do it.)

3. Mirrors.

Every mirror I walk by is an opportunity to freak out, and go on an internal mental verbal abuse spree against myself as I see a whale reflected back at me. Then we revert back to the first issue- panic.

How can I overcome these things?

1. Try to find some other outlets besides limiting/starving when I am in panic mode. Cutting seems a quick alternative but still not a healthy one. Working on other options... deep breathing, mindful meditation, expressing the irrational fears to someone I trust.

2. Cut myself some slack. Tell myself that one mistake isn't worth going back to trying to systematically kill myself by limiting. "Do the next right thing."

3. Become a vampire. No fucking reflection in the fucking mirror.

Ha- just kidding. Maybe intentionally turn my head away when I walk past one though.

Blogger said...

VistaVapors is the highest quality electronic cigarettes provider on the market.

Post a Comment

Newer Post Older Post Home

ED Bites on Facebook!

ED Bites is on Twitter!

Search ED Bites

About Me

My photo
I'm a science writer, a jewelry design artist, a bookworm, a complete geek, and mom to a wonderful kitty. I am also recovering from a decade-plus battle with anorexia nervosa. I believe that complete recovery is possible, and that the first step along that path is full nutrition.

Drop me a line!

Have any questions or comments about this blog? Feel free to email me at

nour·ish: (v); to sustain with food or nutriment; supply with what is necessary for life, health, and growth; to cherish, foster, keep alive; to strengthen, build up, or promote


Popular Posts


Recent Comments