Part 3: Techniques to Drop Old Habits and Create New Ones
There are plenty of things you can do to increase your chances of successfully creating new good habits that will last, and to leave old bad habits behind for good. Now that you understand why our brains work the way they do, you can create a plan to implement the habits you want and drop the ones you don’t. I want to remind you to be patient with yourself. Simply deciding that you want something different does not mean that the world is going to fall into place according to your wishes. There will be curveballs. You will slip back into old habits. The world and the people around you may not cooperate with your plans. It’s all OK. Just be patient and consistent. If you have a lapse, just get back on track and make your next best choice. Don’t inflict self-judgment and condemnation on top of it. Remember, when you’re stressed or uncomfortable, you will feel the pull of your soothing old bad habits even stronger, so don’t turn a slip into an avalanche.
Start small and change one thing at a time. Make the change so simple that you think it’s too easy and won’t make a difference. Because that way, you’re less likely to resist doing it. Trying to change too many things at once, or making a dramatic change too soon, is a recipe for overwhelm. When we feel overwhelmed, we feel frustrated and paralyzed and then we don’t do anything. Start small and add gradually. Always leave yourself wanting to do more, and you will build momentum and enthusiasm.
Let’s say your goal is to become a runner. You wouldn’t go from being totally sedentary to trying to run a nonstop 10K on the first day. Start with an easy walk around your neighborhood after dinner, maybe 5 nights a week. Use the quiet-time to listen to your favorite music or podcast. When you find yourself looking forward to your walk, then start adding 30-second jogging intervals every 5 minutes, and level up slowly from there. When you take it slow, you won’t injure yourself and you also won’t dread having to do it. The key is to make it just challenging enough that you’re a tiny bit out of your comfort zone, but not so hard that it’s a punishment and not so easy that it gets boring.
Use the “Minimum Acceptable Daily Effort” . What is the smallest thing that you can commit to doing every day, without fail?
Again, make it something so ridiculously easy that you won’t resist doing it. You have to establish the foundation of a new habit before you can work on improving it. Decide how many days per week you will meet your MADE and schedule it into your calendar. Once you start, you won’t want to stop. Getting started is the hardest part! Remember Newton’s First Law of Motion: “A body at rest tends to remain at rest unless acted upon by an outside force. A body in motion tends to remain in motion, unless acted upon by an outside force”. So just start. Tell yourself that you can stop after 5 minutes, if that’s what it takes to get yourself moving. And then, surprise yourself when you keep going.
Set specific and definable parameters. New habits are much more likely to stick if you’re not vague about what you want.
“I want to eat healthier” becomes “I will have a salad for lunch 3 days a week.”
“I want to get into better shape” becomes “I will do a 30 minute workout at the gym every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at 7PM.”
The more specific you are, the less room there will be for interpretation when you’re trying to talk yourself out of it later.
Give yourself an immediate reward that won’t sabotage your goal. You will repeat actions that get rewarded.
Choose something that you enjoy doing so much that you lose track of time (drawing/painting, dancing, playing video games, walking in nature, etc.)
A delayed reward, like a dream vacation or buying that pair of shoes you’ve had your eye on, is not enough of an incentive in the moment, to get you to change your habit. Choose something that you can indulge in every day, whenever you need it.
Celebrate every victory, no matter how small. Create small incremental milestones so you don’t get overwhelmed by how far off or unattainable your big goal seems. Your brain will repeat behaviors that get rewarded, so reward yourself! Habit-trackers are excellent for this, because your brain enjoys seeing all the successes and wants to rack up even more. I used a wine glass to hold a bunch of colorful glass beads. Each bead represented a pound of weight that I lost. I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment every time I dropped a new bead into the glass, and seeing it sitting on my counter every day helped keep me committed to my goal.
Make your new habit enjoyable. Don’t say “I have to”, say “I get to”. If you attach a negative meaning to something, you will always be looking for an excuse to avoid it. Find a way to actually look forward to doing the things that will get you closer to your goals. Choose exercise that you actually like doing. Choose foods that are healthier, that you also really enjoy and look forward to having. When doing something good for yourself is enjoyable and rewarding, you’ll want to do it as often as possible.
Make it easier to do the right thing than it is to do the wrong thing. Set up your environment for success. Put healthy foods at eye level in the pantry and fridge. Put unhealthy foods in places where they are inconvenient to get to. Put your gym bag in the trunk of your car so you can go do your workout without having to go home first. Get creative. Remove as many barriers as possible between where you are and where you want to be.
Surround yourself with positive role models if you can. Join groups where the desired behavior is the normal behavior. If you want to lose weight and get in better shape, look for groups of walkers or cyclists or healthy meal preppers. Join classes on yoga or tai chi or meditation. Whatever it is that you want to adopt into your lifestyle, find a group of people who are already doing that. You’ll make new friends and you’ll add an element of accountability into your life that will help keep you on track, especially on those days when your motivation might be dragging.
Don’t put the responsibility for your success on other people. Your husband and your kids don’t need to give up their favorite foods so that YOU can lose weight. They don’t need to go to the gym with you so that you won’t have to go alone. Whatever lifestyle choices you make are YOUR choice. They are free to do as they want, and so are you. A temptation food can be in your house, but you don’t have to eat it. Blaming other people for why you can’t control yourself around food is never going to get you anywhere. If you do lose weight, it will only be because of them, and the first time they want to have pizza on a Friday night, you’ll blame them for why you “fell off the wagon.” Other people cannot have, and do not want, the responsibility for your success or failure. Unless you’re tied to a chair being force-fed, you are the only one who is responsible for what goes into your mouth. Stop giving your power away to other people. It is important for you to learn the skill of being able to be around your “Kryptonite” foods without face-planting into them.
Make your plans when your mind is at it’s best, then stick to what you promised yourself. This is usually in the mornings, before we have a chance to get tired and stressed out from the day. As you get more distracted and drained of energy, you’ll be less likely to spontaneously make good decisions if you leave things to chance. Your rested brain is able to see clearly what’s in your best interests, but your tired brain just wants relief and will grab for anything that looks easy. That might mean dinner at the drive-thru, instead of the healthy meal you’d planned. This is why it’s important to make the right thing the easy thing, and to set yourself up with accountability to make sure you’ll do what you said you’d do. When you find yourself having the argument in your head about why it’s OK to slack off “just this once”, remember that the habits that get rewarded get repeated. You’ll do whatever it is that you practice doing. If you reward the habit of skipping your workout and bingeing on Netflix instead, that’s what you’re going to do again next time. It may be helpful to ask yourself “How do I want to feel about myself tomorrow morning?” Do you want to be proud of yourself for doing what you said you’d do, or exhausted from regretting your choices?
My weight loss coach always says, “You’re going to be tired at the end of the day anyway. Would you rather be tired from working your ass off to become the person you’ve always wanted to be, or tired from repeating the same bullshit excuses to start tomorrow?”
Don’t punish yourself. If you do have a slip, it is vitally important that you not insult and abuse yourself for it. The more you beat yourself down for a mistake, the more likely it is that you’ll turn back to your old habit of soothing yourself with food, alcohol, or whatever your favorite distraction happens to be. Remember, when you inflict pain on yourself (and I’m talking emotional/psychological pain here), your caveman brain will instantly jump in to try and save you by generating urges to indulge in the old habits that have always calmed you down in the moment before. You’re learning better ways to handle it now, but it’s going to take lots of repetition before it feels as comfortable to do a stress-relieving workout as it does to dive into the Cheetos. Remember that one mistake won’t hurt you, but a spiral of mistakes will. If you slipped, just assess the reasons why and come up with a better way to deal with it next time, and then move on with your next best choice. If you get a flat tire, don’t slash the other 3.
If you are consistently not doing what you said you’d do, or sabotaging your own progress, there is a reason why. You won’t make progress until you figure it out. Ask yourself what need is being satisfied by staying rooted in the problem? What is it about success that you are resisting? Our brains don’t do anything unless there is a payoff. What reward are you getting by not acting on your plan? It could be something like stress relief, avoiding something that you think of as unpleasant, or even hanging onto people in your life who you’re afraid might leave if you change too much. Self-sabotage happens when we are afraid of what might happen if we succeed, or when we don’t truly believe that we can succeed. Spend some time thinking about your deeper reasons for wanting change, and what you expect will change in your life when you achieve it.
Anticipate and prepare for the most common problems that might get in your way. If you know you get hungry every day at 4 o’clock, be ready with a snack that won’t destroy your day. If you know your girlfriends are going to call you to go out and drink with them on Friday night, decide ahead of time how many drinks you’ll have instead of trusting your judgment in the moment.
Use visualization exercises to help you overcome common problems. Research has shown that your brain can’t tell the difference between an imagined experience and an actual experience. So if you find yourself struggling with the same problems all the time, practice visualizing yourself doing something different next time. The best time to do this is when you’re lying in bed at night waiting to fall asleep. Whatever you’re thinking about when you fall asleep is what your brain will go to work on solving. Make it as realistic and detailed as you can. Next time the same problem comes up, you’ll already have some practice creating a different solution.
Use deep-breathing exercise to build associations with positive thoughts & feelings, so you can call them up on demand. For example: I practiced calming my mind and saying something positive about myself with every breath. I try not to repeat the same thing twice, and I keep going as long as I can. After a few weeks, I noticed that all I had to do was take a few deep breaths when I started getting stressed out at work, and the flow of positive thoughts started up all by itself. I had created an association with the deep breathing and the empowering thoughts, and I was able to call it up at will when I needed it.
Envision yourself in the future, having achieved the goal that you’re working toward. What can you do to become more like the person who’s already achieved your goal? What are they doing that you’re not? And what are they not doing that you still are? Make a list, and start incorporating some of those things into your daily life right now. Because in order to become a person who achieves what you want, you have to start thinking and behaving like a person who’s already achieved what you want.
Consistency beats intensity. Every. Damn. Time. If you can’t do a 1-hour workout, do 10 minutes. If you don’t have time to make dinner, pick up a Rotisserie chicken and some pre-cut vegetables instead of hitting the Wendy’s drive-thru. Your results are the product of all the little decisions you make on a daily basis. Any time you have the opportunity, do something that’s 1% better than what you would normally do.
Don’t wait to get started until you feel like you’re ready, or you’ve gathered all the information you need. Making progress is the result of action, not research. Start now, and figure it out along the way. There is no perfect moment. Life will never go according to your plans. You can have results or you can have excuses, but you cannot have both. Commit to one small action that you will take every day to move you closer to what you want, and make it happen no matter what.
Ask yourself what it is that you really want. Do you think you need to lose weight or get in better shape so that you can be happy and proud of yourself? Because that’s not how it works. However you’re thinking about yourself and your life right now is how you’re still going to be thinking when you reach your goal. The contestants on The Biggest Loser regained an average of 70% of their original weight after they left the show. That’s because you can’t have long-term success changing what you DO without also changing the way you think and what you believe about yourself. You can keep up the effort for a while, but you’ll always be longing to go back to the way things were before. Success is about taking on the identity of the person who has what you want. Being happy and proud of yourself is not something that will magically appear when you’ve lost your weight or hit your fitness goal. You need to start creating those feelings in your life TODAY. In the body you have right now. Because if you can change the way you think and feel right now, the results will not only take care of themselves... they will be sustainable for the rest of your life. THAT is the way that you create lasting change, without having to struggle to hold onto it.
Pay more attention to trends than to a single data point. I've gained as much as 3 pounds in a single day, just from soreness and water retention. I gained 17 pounds after hysterectomy surgery, when I wasn't even eating enough to keep a hamster alive! Think about tracking your good habits, as much as you think about tracking the number on the scale. Take as much pride in meeting your water goal or your exercise goal or the number of times you waited until your stomach was really growling before you ate, as you do in your actual weight loss. Because your result is the product of all the good habits that you perform consistently over time. Don’t let a temporary setback discourage you. Most people quit just when they are on the cusp of a breakthrough. There will be good days and bad days, but not quitting is the thing that will make sure you get there.
Finally: Be patient with yourself. You aren’t going to change a life-long engrained habit in one day. It takes time to get comfortable with new ways of doing things. Creating sustainable change in your life requires permanently changing your thoughts and your self-talk. This is going to be something you’ll be refining and improving for the rest of your life, so don’t be in a hurry. As long as every week and every month is just 1% better than the one before, you will create the life you’ve always wanted. Enjoy the journey as much as you enjoy the destination.