When it comes to losing weight and eating healthier diets don’t work for long. This, in large part, is because sweeping changes in eating habits and other lifestyle behaviors require a huge amount of conscious effort, or willpower. The problem with willpower is it is impossible to keep up for very long. It’s mentally exhausting to fight ourselves on a daily basis to overcome so much of our programming at one time. We need our mental and emotional energy to live our daily lives. We just plain tire out of the mental battle and give in to old patterns and habits.
The fact that we humans are so adept at forming habits is a good thing. The ability to learn and incorporate new behaviors makes us efficient. Once a behavior is learned and programmed we can perform it without thinking much about it. Take driving to work for example. Imagine if you had to think through every step of how to operate your car and how to get to work every day. You would be toast by the time you got there!
Habits allow us to operate on “automatic pilot” which frees us up to use our conscious mind for more pressing and interesting tasks. We can be creative and responsive in the moment. We can get things done and stay tuned into our environment todeal with potential threats to survival.
The flip side is that bad habits make losing weight and other positive changes draining and difficult. We want to lose weight but much of our eating patterns and lifestyle behaviorsdon’tsupport this goal. Bad unhealthy habits are just as ingrained as good ones. What are we to do?
We can reprogram our brains one habit at a time. We can exchange unhealthy habits for healthy ones. Most of us already know what we need to do. We know what food is healthy and what isn’t. We understand the importance of movement. What we don’t know is how to break out of old patterns. We need a roadmap.
There are hundreds of psychology books out there on the topic of behavioral change. But, I believe the simple approach is best. In his book, The Power of Habit. reporter Charles Duhigg elegantly explains the “habit loop.”
The “habit loop” has 3 components:
1. Cue: The stimulus (event, person, place, emotion, etc) that triggers the habit.
2. Routine: The automatic process you go through in response to the cue to get the reward you seek.
3. Reward: The reward you get once you have completed the habit routine. This reinforcement keeps the habit going.
One last important point about the habit loop is that it is what sets up cravings. In this model, cravings are the pull a person experiences to do the habit once it’s been established in their brain. Once the cycle has been repeated enough times the brain will crave the routine and reward once the cue has happened.
An example is in order. You are a busy mom who works all day. When the kids are finally in bed you feel exhausted andjust want to relax. Your habit is to fire up your favorite Netflix series and grab a snack to munch on (chips, ice cream, wine). The reward is feeling less stressed and comforted. You think “I deserve this” because you work so hard.
In this example the cue is the time of day (weekday nights after work) along with feeling tired. The habit is watching Netflix and snacking. The reward is stress relief and comfort. This is a habit loop.
Makes sense, right? I bet you can think of a few of your own habit loops right now.
Now let’s say you decide you are going to get healthier. Maybe at your last check-up you realized you had gained quite a bit of weight. You also discovered your blood pressure has creeped up. You don’t feel good in your clothes anymore. Perhaps you have also been feeling down on yourself lately and lack the energy you once had. It really is time to make a change. How can you use the habit loop to lose weight and make other positive lifestyle changes?
You can employ the “golden rule of habit change”. Find an alternative routine that provides the same reward to the same cue. In other words, substitute the routine that does not serve your weight loss and health goals for one that is healthier but still provides the reward you seek.
There are 5 basic steps to do this:
STEP ONE - IDENTIFY THE ROUTINE THAT NEEDS TO CHANGE
Ask yourself what behaviors need to change? Late-night snacking? Unhealthy lunches out with colleagues at work? Always having sugary desserts after dinner? Pick one that would make a significant impact.
STEP TWO - ENTIFY YOUR CUE or TRIGGER
This is going to take some self-awareness and detective work. You need to figure out what it is that causes you to start the routine or do the habit. It is the time of day (after kid’s in bed)? An emotion (fear of being left out of the group)? An upsetting event (argument with spouse)? Play detective and figure out what is setting you off.
STEP THREE - IDENTIFY THE REWARD
What is the pay-off for completing the routine or habit? Do you feel relieved and less stressed? Has some fear or anger been temporarily assuaged? Do you feel different physically ? Did you get some needed distraction? What is it that changed from doing the habit?
STEP FOUR - SELECT A NEW (AND BETTER) ROUTINE
What can you do to get the reward you seek that is healthier and in alignment with your goals? What can you do at night to relax that doesn’t involve unhealthy food? How else can you feel less angry or stressed?
STEP FIVE - SET YOURSELF UP FOR SUCCESS
Once you have figured out the cue, routine, and reward you just need to implement. Plan out what you are going to do and when. If you need to have some items on hand (and others not on hand!) then arrange that. It also helps to do some mental rehearsal before you implement. For example, you can imagine yourself soaking in a bubbly hot bath with a good book after putting the kid’s in bed.
Be prepared to feel a bit like a fraud at first when you do your new routine. It can take a couple weeks or more for it to feelnormal and right. Old habits are hard to break. But with patience and persistence you can do it! Hey, I gave up smoking (the hardest thing ever) by substituting walks and exercise. It worked for me. It will work for you.
As you change a habit it will help to enlist support from family and friends. You can also use journaling, visualization, and self-talk to support and encourage yourself. Ifyou do the detective work and use these strategies you will be rewarded not only with better health but also with a renewed sense of personal power and self-confidence.
If you are unable to make important habit changes on your own then reach out for professional help. I am a personal trainer and certified health coach with college degrees in psychology and social work. More importantly, I’m a human who has been on this earth awhile andhave had my own struggles with unhealthy habits, weight, food, and serious physical injury. Please send me a message through my website and I will be more than happy to do a free consult with you.