In a recent coaching call, a client that I’ll call Cheryl, shared a concern about her recent weight gain after she hit 40. “I’ve always eaten whatever I want, but I’ve always had a great metabolism so it didn’t seem to matter. Well, not anymore. I need to stop eating that way, but I just can’t seem to do it.” How do you change your bad habits?
Decisions or Habits?
The reason why Cheryl has found it difficult to change her behaviors is that she probably isn’t even consciously making decisions when she reaches for food. Charles Duhigg, in his book, Power of Habit offers this surprising statistic: “More than 40% of the actions that people perform each day weren’t actually decisions, but habits.” So, while you might think you’re making a decision to eat this or that – or exercise today (or not), you may be driven more by your habits.
Overall, habits aren’t a bad thing. Habits emerge because the brain is looking for ways to save effort. And, that’s good. Just imagine how overwhelmed we’d feel if we had to consciously deal with even more daily decisions!
Habits Aren’t Destiny
When I told Cheryl about his, she asked, “Ok, then, how can I develop good habits?” My answer: “The same way that you developed those bad habits…by doing the same thing over and over again until they become second nature.
If some of your habits aren’t serving you well, you can change them. The key, though, is NOT to try to just stop the behavior itself. You’ve already tried that many times, right? It just doesn’t work.
The brain is always trying to simplify your life. What you want to do is replace the negative choice with something healthier. But, first we have to understand the anatomy of a habit.
Habits Involve A Three-Step Loop
Habits, according to Duigg, involve a three-step loop that becomes automatic overtime:
Ever since she was a kid, Cheryl would have dessert after dinner. So her loop involves these three steps:
- Finish dinner
- Eat dessert
- Feel satisfied
She had already tried just not eating dessert, but wasn’t successful for more than a day or two. And, then when she broke down and had dessert, she tended to overeat. Simply trying to stop having dessert wasn’t working.
Since the brain is searching for something to make her feel satisfied after dinner, I suggested she look for something else to satisfy that craving. “Some people think they need something sweet on their taste buds and end dinner with a cup of hot tea, a mint, or freshly brushed teeth. But maybe what you’re really looking for is something sweet in your life…something that makes you feel good. And that’s going to be different for all of us. It could be a hobby or a passion that you enjoy, but don’t always make time for.”
Cheryl felt that she needed a stress-relieving activity so she decided to invite her family for a walk. And it didn’t take long before, she was successful in changing the original habit (dessert) into something that made her feel satisfied – and helped her achieve her healthful goals (walking).
What’s Your Habit Loop?
What bad lifestyle habits do you have that you’d like to avoid? Sleeping less than you need? Oversleeping? Eating in excess? Skipping meals? Drinking too much? Not exercising?
Next, pay attention when you practice the routine you’ve just identified. What happened before you reached for that food or drink? Or decided to not workout. Or choosing not to go to bed at a reasonable time? What were you saying to yourself or others? Were you tired? Concerned or worried? Does it happen at a certain time?
Ok, now figure out what reward you get by practicing the habit – beyond the very obvious one of perhaps tasting good. Maybe it makes you feel relaxed? Reduce your stress level? Give you a bit more energy? Does it helps you to avoid a situation? Give you something to do because you were bored?
To change your habit, you’ll want to replace your usual routine for something healthier. Something that will also give you a similar reward. If you head to the vending machine every time you get tired at your desk (1. tired, 2. hit the vending machine, 3. brief energy) try this loop instead (1. tired, 2. brisk walk around the floor or up a few stairs, 3. more lasting energy).
Change Your Habit Loop
It helps to get creative so you can come up with an easy, simple new routine. Here are some ideas of some creative solutions that my clients have done:
- Julie planned to exercise after work, but when she got home she inevitably got stuck in the kitchen (those snacks on the counter stopped her). Instead, she changed into her workout clothes just before leaving work so she could stop at the park for a run before getting home.
- Hector often went out to a restaurant for lunch – and ate it all. He told himself that he needed that big meal to keep his energy up during the long afternoon. But, he still found himself raiding the snack machine every day around 3 or 4PM. To change his habit loop, he opted to only eat half of his restaurant lunch. He found he was still satisfied, and feeling less sluggish afterwards. He then had the rest of the lunch to eat mid-afternoon when he got hungry.
- Ali told me she got so stressed with taking customer service calls (leading to the munchies). Then, one day, while watching cartoons with her kids, she decided to “cartoonize” at work. While listening to the calls she imagined the scenarios as cartoons – instead of a person yelling at her. Her creativity resulted in her being able to remember all the details without feeling the stress of the other party’s frustrations. Less stress and fewer food cravings.
It also helps to consider ways to make these changes easy to do. Here are some more ideas on how to easily change your habit loop:
- Jan was always in search of motivation to exercise. When a colleague shared how she dressed her infant for sleep in her next day’s clothes (to reduce the time it took to get her to daycare the next day) it gave her an idea for herself. Jan decided to sleep in her workout clothes so she was already dressed for a morning workout when she woke. And, it worked. In the morning, she just had to put on her sneakers and take a walk.
- Terry told me that after decades of practice, he couldn’t quit the “clean plate club”. Not matter how big the portion size, he just couldn’t stop eating until he finished everything on his plate. So, together we found restaurants with a smaller portions – but still satisfying. And, he bought new (smaller) plates and cups for the home. It might sound silly, but research actually supports that people eat less when they use smaller plates and cups. And, it seemed to work for him because his weight began to drop.
- Jay knew he needed to get to bed earlier so he could get more sleep, but he always got carried away with work or TV. So he started setting alarms to remind him to turn down the lights, shut down the computer, and wind down.
Now I invite you to get creative and find a solution that will help you change one of your unhealthier habits. Give it some time to become natural. On average it takes about 66 days to create a new habit. And, then please, send me an email and share your story with me.
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