Humans are creatures of habit. We like repetition.
We like repetition.
We like repetition.
We like...well maybe not that much!
But here's the truth: we will either keep repeating what we have always done and living the way we have always lived with minor tweaks here and there (usually to increase our immediate pleasure or reward) or we create new, intentional habits to help us manifest something we recognize as missing. The problem here, of course, is making these new shifts permanent habits - a part of our daily grind.
In my profession I see many people try to make lifestyle changes, but few know how to make the changes stick. I see it all the time: someone makes dietary changes with drastic and positive outcomes, then returns to old habits that sabotage all their hard won gains! The first few times this happened I was working in addiction treatment and chalked it up to addiction behaviour. Since I have learned that it's a phenomenon common to well, all demographics. Well, almost all.
But it turns out making habits sticky is a tricky thing.
Whenever I work with a client to create lasting change in their health, I always listen to them to try to flesh out their current habits. We all have habits. And you’d be surprised how many of them you are unaware of. For example, what is your cue to go to bed? Do you wait until you are nodding off and drooling on the sofa, have a preset time or alarm prompt, or do you have a routine show or activity after which you tuck in? It would seem easy to identify for some things, but for other things it can be rather fuzzy. What is the trigger for reaching for a bag of Doritos instead of a ripe peach for an after dinner snack, when truly you like them both, for example. Why does one seem so much more appealing than the other when it’s no more work and really no more reward. You get a few minutes of satisfaction from each, but one keeps giving nutritionally and one robs the bank. So why do so many make the lesser choice?
In “The Power of Habit, Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business,” Charles Duhigg explores this question in depth through a scientific lens. What he suggests is understanding and mastering what he calls the “three-step loop,” by which he means – cue, routine, reward – in order to change our habits and create new ones.
So understanding what the trigger or cue is for any habit is a start, followed by identifying the routine itself. Lastly, the reward you get for it needs to be unpacked. This is usually something we actually need to think about and challenge ourselves on. What do we get from being unhappy with our state of health? Do we get much needed time off work that otherwise we would be punished for? Do our partners or friends step in to help out more when otherwise we would be frantically struggling to do it all alone? This excercise requires some degree of self awareness and courage. It's not until we really flip our behaviours over and over in our minds that we are able to see the unconscious drivers. Then we ask, what would we struggle with if we followed through with that change. The deeper a client can go in uncovering these psychological aspects of habit, the more success I have with helping them change.
Another tool I use is helping clients identify WHY they want to make the change. And the why should be something that makes them emotionally charged. Look around and find someone who acts powerfully in any capacity, and you will see they do so not because of what they KNOW, but because of what they FEEL. Emotion motivates human beings. Logic does not. In fact, I would go so far as to say that choosing Doritos over a peach is ALL about the emotional association of the food, and very little to do with the actual taste or enjoyment of eating the food. Emotion is a powerful motivator. We need to learn to harness it in ourselves.
For example, I want to lose weight for a better life is not emotionally charged. It’s not passionate. I want to lose weight so I can look good in jeans isn’t any better. I want to lose weight to look great on my 10 year anniversary when my partner and I walk down the aisle and renew our vows – is emotionally charged. I want to lose weight because I am sick of being the fat person at the office and feeling so terrible about myself – is passionate. I want to get healthy because my knees hurt and I should is not emotionally charged. I want to get healthy because my mom passed of cancer and I have just been told I have a positive gene factor for the same cancer, is. Anything, good or bad, can motivate us if it causes a strong emotional response in us. Tap into that. Dig up the passion inside of you for what has brought you to take this step. Are you angry about something? Sad about something? Excited about something? Afraid about something? Good! Identify your feelings and get clear about them without judgement. Next, write them down where you will see them regularly. Nobody has to see it but you so you don’t have to censor yourself at all.
Writing goals is a technique many success coaches use because it works.
So, write what you want and why and make sure you have a very strong emotional response to it. And make it as specific as you can! “I want to get my drug use under control so I don’t scare my kids anymore, because that breaks my heart when I sober up and have to face it,” is a very strong motivator. Nobody else has to read it.
"I want to be skinny so I can look good when I get my latte from that skinny, condescending bitch at the espresso counter," is also a strong emotional motivator. But making it specific in your mind with a date, the clothing you will wear, the earrings, the walk, the order, the guy standing next to you, the feeling... THAT will motivate you! Get real and get clear, because this is the drive behind all the changes you are going to undertake. And if there is more than one reason, put them all down. Just make sure they get you emotionally charged!
I also think it’s important not to make this common mistake: focusing on stopping something. We need to focus on what we want to manifest, not what we want to avoid. Trying to stop something often fails because it leaves a void. And with nothing new to focus on, we return to the old habit. But, if instead of stopping that old habit, we replace it with a new one – one that is intentional and will bring us closer to our goal – now we are going to have success! For example, I won’t eat sugar anymore is a recipe for disaster. Everywhere you look you are now looking for sugar. I eat sugar in x y z so I will replace that with (insert product or recipe) to help me achieve my health goals, is very effective.
To this end I always assist clients to identify some habits they know are not helping them realize their health goals and find new habits they can replace them with. It’s a myth that only junk food tastes good! Healthy food tastes a thousand times better IF you know how to make it to cater to your tastes. This is where hiring a professional comes in, to help teach you the skills you need to set you up for success. Not eating some naughty food is a lot easier when you have a delicious healthy food to enjoy instead!
The next step I suggest to clients is to do the new habit every single weekday for 2 whole months. Practice ingrains habits. At first new habits are hard, then they become effortless when you repeat them enough. There is a sort of momentum that happens. I don’t recommend everyone do them on the weekends because a let it all hang out day is important for some to recharge, and when we sabbath our mind should be on deeper/ spiritual issues – family, community, self growth, creative endeavours, what makes us happy. But on weekdays it’s very important to repeat habits to ingrain them.
It’s essential to take some time at least once a month, preferably with professional guidance, to assess your progress. This is why I have clients schedule monthly check-ins. This is particularly important if clients have any addiction problems, which can cause tremendous guilt when the client uses. The guilt can break all resolve and make them spiral. Don’t make this common mistake!
Some people get sober and never look back, but many more take 2 steps forward and 1 back for a while before they find balance and are able to be consistent in managing their impulse to use. This is the same with sugar and carbohydrate addiction, by the way. Balancing the body biochemically will help with this, but it will take time. Don’t fall prey to all or nothing thinking if you slip. Evaluate honestly and get better at anticipating challenges before they happen the next time. And should a lapse happen, don't waste time and energy on guilt. Get your game back on and keep pushing for the results you know you want to achieve!
Lastly, I think part of changing habits is telling friends, family, and workmates about the changes you are making and bringing them on board, too. You want them to get excited for you and support you and keep you accountable. If you have identified someone who can go on this journey with you, sharing with them will be great, as they will be on the same page. Not doing this can lead to our greatest struggle with self control around food, because of the emotional charge of wanting to be part of the group. Telling your friends and family to help you by ensuring x,y,z are on the table at the next get together and a,b,c are not, is not selfish or bad. It's just smart, and if they're honestly supportive, they will be thankful for the clear direction about how to help. And, truly, you will likely inspire someone else who needs to make a change!
Again, the principles to making changes that stick are simple if you break them down:
1. Figure out your cues, your habits, your rewards.
2. Write down why you want to change. Tap into your emotions about this and use that to motivate you.
3. Be specific.
4. Read or recall it often.
5. Add your new habits with professional support, if at all possible. It may seem you can't afford it, but if you look at what you're spending on junk food and take out each week and on other things you don't need, you can usually offset the cost.
6. Repeat the new habits every weekday to ingrain them.
7. Evaluate how you did at least once a month, with professional support.
8. Share the changes you're making with your support group to garner support and create accountability.
As you can see, making changes that stick is a process that takes time and energy and intentionality. For this reason, I highly recommend only making a few changes at a time to keep from being overwhelmed. When I counsel clients on lifestyle changes we always break them down into doable action plans, a few at a time. Contact me if you feel you need professional help to change your nutritional habits. And please share any insight you have into making changes stick in the comment section below.