Yay! It’s almost the holiday season and you know what that means: lots of sweets, followed by self-loathing, then the bi-annual remarkably sad go at a new diet. Don’t worry. After a month of effort, you’ll be ready to quit said diet as you get distracted by a new political scandal or the next iPhone.
It’s how trying to “be healthy” happens for most people – at least that’s how it worked for me. And if you’re like the general population, you’re out of shape because of “bad” habits that are keeping you in the less than desirable state of softness.
Habits are influenced by what we like, what we want to do, and it just so happens we’re wired to want to do things that are going to feel right for us in the short term. A lot of times when we try to switch to a habit that’s in line with delayed gratification like not eating ice cream or exercising more, it really goes against what we want to do short term. Basically, breaking bad habits are so damn hard to do.
But sometimes, regular people like you and me pull off epic lifestyle transformations and actually seem to enjoy it. How are they breaking the cycle and rewiring their sugar loving couch potato brains? I did it in part by understanding:
- The basic psychology behind habits
- How to identify a “bad” habit
- How to form new habits
- How to engage my motivational system via starting goals positively rather than negatively
The first problem most people have when trying to lose weight or gain muscle is that they start by trying to change habits without any understanding of how their mind works. As a result, people spend a tremendous amount of time working against themselves rather than working with the habitual system and motivational system we humans are wired with. By skipping this step, we’re failing at changing our behavior even before we define what we’re even trying to do.
What is a habit?
Before we can effectively change our habits, we need to have a basic understanding of how habits work in the first place. If you deconstruct a habit, you’ll see that it’s actually a 3-step pattern:
- Step 1: the trigger. This tells your brain to go into automatic mode and let a behavior unfold.
- Step 2: the routine. This is the behavior itself
- Step 3: the reward. This is something that your brain likes that helps it remember the “habit loop” in the future
How to change bad habits:
Identify your trigger:
If you want to make a lifestyle change (for good this time) and remove a “bad” habit from your day-to-day, I’d suggest you create a habit diary for 2-weeks. Get a small notebook that you can carry with you or leave in an area where you are usually triggered to do your habit and just be with yourself when you do it. When do you do your habit? How are you feeling at the moment? How do you do it?
Let’s say your bad habit is mindless late night snacking. Where are you sitting? In front of the TV? What is the physical sensation you’re feeling? What is your inner voice saying to you? What time is it? What are you craving?
Write it all down. Really commit to this project and make it a non-negotiable. This is your life we’re talking about for goodness sake. You may find that at some point, this habit was rewarding for you and actually served a good purpose but now you’re just doing it because you always have and your brain is just wired to keep you doing it.
Change your behavior:
But first, what NOT to do. Don’t start by saying, “Self, you’re going to eat less and stop late night snacking.” The problem with this is that it’s a negative goal which is NOT something you want to do.
Your habit learning system is an active learning system which means it wants to associate habits with the environment. If you say you don’t want to do something, you’re focusing on not acting and your habit system can’t learn not to do something. Have I confused you yet?
That basically means, every time you don’t act, your habit learning system doesn’t learn anything because there’s nothing to learn.
What you need to do instead is create positive actions that you’re going to perform in that particular situation. Create a new set of actions that’s going to interfere with what bad habits you’re doing now. What is something you can do while you’d normally be munching on nachos? If you’ve identified in your habit diary that when you get the urge to snack while watching TV, your hands feel antsy – you could try knitting, lotioning, or scrapbooking while watching TV. You could try drinking water. You could prepare ahead of time easy-to-grab cucumber sticks as replacement for the carby sweet gooey stuff. Try anything that will get in the way of the bad habit.
Practice self-compassion when you fail:
You will fail throughout this process and it will feel bad. Allow yourself to feel bad, then learn what you can do better the next time. Dutch poet Piet Hein the Dutch poet once wrote, “The road to wisdom? — Well, it’s plain and simple to express: Err and err and err again but less and less and less.” That’s the way life works.
Even the best writers you’ve seen have produced a ton of garbage and they had days where they couldn’t write anything. What sets them apart from the average writer is that they looked back and reflected on what happened that day so they could avoid it the next time around.
To me, that’s the critical part of making a lifestyle change – whenever you’re learning to do something new, you have to realize that a tremendous amount of your capacity to get something done is actually learning how to do it and figuring out all the ways NOT to do it along the way.
I hope this has inspired you to learn a little bit about how behavior works and to take ownership over that crazy brain of yours. This will put yourself in a situation where you can be much more effective at changing your behavior in the long run, actually succeed, and teach others how to do the same.