I often marvel at people’s willingness to jump into a super strict diet rather than tweaking a few smaller more realistic aspects of their life. Many clients who have resisted increasing a single vegetable onto their plate or reducing dessert to once per week have also seemed super excited to jump into a super strict diet that changes everything at once. I have come to realize a few of the reasons for this as well as the good and bad aspects of this. Today I want to explore our habits and decision making as well as all the pieces needed to have a successful behavior change. Whether we want to exercise more often, eat better, or perfect whatever habit we have, we need to have a blueprint for success in front of us. We are going to define why habits matter, how they are developed, the factors of successful change (why we often fail), and finally how a beautiful harmony of intricate habits create the life we want to live and the benefits we enjoy from it (i.e. mindless success)
Less Decision, Less Problems
If someone asked you tonight, “What did you do today?” What would your response look like? It would probably look something like, “I went to work, worked out, went to the bank, picked up the kids, cooked dinner and now we are here.” While that is accurate, it sure isn’t the whole picture. You did many things not worth mentioning today. You washed your face, made breakfast, got dressed, made coffee, drove to work, did a million things at work, etc. etc. You could almost be infinitely detailed in your account of your day. If you where to truly list your whole day, the other person would probably regret ever asking. We don’t list all those other implied activities because they happen automatically without anything but the smallest thought. We can do so much because the decision to do them is permanently made. For many activities the hard part is the decision not the activity. This fact right here is one of the ways strict diets work well in the very short term. If we were looking for quick changes that were very temporary then strict diets would be the way to do it. These strict diets all have one thing in common— they abide by abstinence over moderation. For many people moderation is much much harder than abstinence. Abstinence is often easier because you are making one decision, to never under any circumstance do an activity rather than constantly having to make the decision whether to do something or not. The less decisions you have to make the more successful you will be with a behavior change. A good exercise today would be to count how many decisions you have to make everyday. The less decisions you have to make the easier it will be to make hard decisions.
If we want to change our habits so that we can control what we do automatically and live a life where our actions match our priorities we need to understand what a habit is and how we can change them. A habit begins to grow when you choose to perform an action in a situation. If the action has a positive result or you perceive it as good, the next time you are in that situation ( or think of that situation) you are more likely to do that action again expecting that same positive benefit. The positive benefit can be anything. You can like the taste of something, you can like the result such as something that pays you, or the feeling such as how your teeth feel after brushing. With every time you do this behavior you start to hardwire the action to your basal ganglia in your brain making it easier and easier to perform without using as much mental energy. What we define as a bad habit is something we habitually do that we partially enjoy, but later realize does more harm than good. A habit is easier or harder to change based on a few factors. The first factor is how enjoyable the activity is. Sugar is really enjoyable and therefore has a strong potential to be habitual. The second factor is how much of a negative response the habit causes. This negative response is why exercise can be so hard for people because early on they recognize how uncomfortable it is and we prefer to not do uncomfortable things, no matter how good they are for our lives. In any habit it is the relationship between these two factors that controls how easy or hard it is to develop or break a habit. When it comes to substances (food, drink, drugs) there is the third factor of potential physical and chemical changes in the body that can begin to supercede these two factors. For today we are just going to dive into the psychology of change and not touch dependency.
Mindless Success Start With Mindfulness
The starting point with any behavior change starts with mindfulness. Mindfulness is consciously choosing to make a change. The bigger the change the bigger the mindfulness needed and the harder the change will be. When it comes to health goals many people try to do many changes at once and as a result, fail at them all under the combined changes. Going back to our decision counting from before, if we are looking to cut sugar, dairy, and wheat from our diet, while choosing to workout 5 times a week and committing to get 8 hours of sleep at night we have now added countless difficult decisions as well as all the logistical decisions we need to make that happen. Treat your new habit as a major project in your life. Even small changes take a lot of mental energy on the front end. Bite off tiny pieces of your habit to be successful right from the get go. Many people should take their total life change and turn that into a slow year long project where you can conquer each piece one at a time.
Signs of Success
How do I stay motivated ? How do I know when I am ready to introduce another habit into my life? Motivation is super useful in the beginning stage. Motivation spurs you to change and keeps the reward of the change in your mind while you are making uncomfortable changes. The number one thing I encourage is to not fight to retain motivation. Motivation is a jump start but it is not what keeps you going. I do not get excited about brushing my teeth, but I definitely do it every day and notice when I don’t do it. The waning of motivation is an important part of a habit taking form. When motivation goes away you are at a critical point in the habit. Recognize this moment, take time to appreciate the habit and remind yourself the goal of the habit. As you begin to wire the habit more and more into your subconscious you will catch yourself automatically doing it by being triggered based on time of day, location, or whatever your cue is. It’s at this point you can add another tiny habit .
Leveraging Mindlessness for Success
Bite off less than you can chew and take many bites. Make your changes small and build on success. It’s a small investment to spend time on a habit if it pays off for the rest of your life. When you have leveraged your habits successfully you begin to have some “mindless success.” You realize that your default setting is to do the activities that align with your priorities. Happiness lives in people who are living according to what they value. If you struggle to make a change you can always find a way to bite off a smaller piece of it. If you think you are ready for a big shift, take the time with tiny changes to prove it to yourself. I beg everyone to take their pride away and find ways to enjoy their changes. Take moments to be proud of yourself, take moments to dream about how this habit will better your life. Allow yourself to downplay and minimize the hard parts of any habit and to truly celebrate the positives. The more you think this way the easier the habit will form or break. If you want to quit sugar, try to read as much as you can about the positives of cutting it out. If you want to exercise, really fight to find things you love that serve your purpose. In the end habit change is about making yourself happy by getting rid of anything that hurts your priorities.