Changing habits - One step at a time
Updated: Mar 9
If you're reading this then chances are eating healthily and managing your weight feels like a constant battle.
How many times have you promised yourself that this is the last time you'll ever need to diet?
You set off all guns blazing, full of motivation and willpower to succeed.
Only to find yourself slipping back into old routines and habits after a few weeks or months, and regaining the weight that you so enthusiastically lost.
You may blame your willpower, your environment, your social circles, events, the weather, the dog... who knows, but chances are the blame will be apportioned somewhere.
Yet, many studies are now starting to discover that weight regain doesn't happen to a few, it's actually the norm.
And, believe it or not, your lack of willpower isn't responsible.
For a diet to become successful and by successful, I mean that your weight management becomes a stress-free, enjoyable automatic process
- Your new behaviours must become habitual.
Read that again ^^
- The new behaviours you put in place must start automatically and subconsciously for them to be effective in helping you to lose weight.
Understanding the power that your habits have over your results is key to creating lasting change.
The power of habits
Up to 95% of the things we think, say and do fall into the habit category.
Take a minute to imagine what your world would be like with habits.
Just deciding whether to get out of bed in the morning, if you should wear clothes, brush your teeth, have breakfast and which route to take to work would leave you mentally drained.
And that's before you even step outside the house.
The truth is, much of what you do is on autopilot.
Behaviours learnt over years of doing, watching, learning and repeating bury themselves deep into your subconscious so when you find yourself in a familiar situation, a familiar action is needed.
The fact is, habits make life easier.
Now that might be a good thing or not.
Chances are that when you're dieting and you habitually eat cake in front of Netflix every evening, probably not a great thing.
A habit allows us to focus our very limited mental energy and willpower on where it is most needed throughout the day.
A habit means that you have already decided that something is beneficial to you and it no longer requires a decision.
Those we admire for having such strong willpower simply have good habits.
Jane at your weightloss group isn't eyeing up that second piece of cake whilst having her own internal version of decision-making World War 3.
Jane has gotten into the habit of stopping when she has eaten enough & now it has become her automatic behaviour.
What's the reward?
Habitual behaviour has three components:
The cue or trigger, the behaviour itself and the reward.
The basic principle to remember is that if a behaviour is rewarding, you will repeat it.
Whereas if we do something without a reward or that has a negative outcome, we are unlikely to repeat it.
Foods that are high in fat and sugar are incredibly easy to form new habits with because they are easily available and instantly rewarding.
Whereas, forming healthy eating habits and behaviours need more attention and effort because the reward of better health and weight loss, is not immediate or even guaranteed.
All is not lost, habits can be changed by identifying the ones causing problems and swapping them for an alternative that you find equally rewarding.
Think and start small
Raise your hand if you go in all guns blazing when you start a diet.
You read the latest books and Instagram posts, clear your cupboards of every scrap of food except lettuce and houmous, order the latest juicer and then begin to eat and behave in a way that is dramatically different to 10 minutes ago.
Long-term habit-changing requires a very different approach.
You do the opposite.
You need to be brave enough to make micro changes
This is because when your brain perceives any positive or negative change, you get nervous, sweaty & unsure.
You shut off creative problem-solving or rational thinking.
You need to trick your brain to believe that the change is so small & imperceptible that those warning alarms never sound.
Gradually, a lot of small changes that you can maintain will eventually lead to a big change in your diet and lifestyle.
So, those grand, dramatic gestures of change are so different from what you're used to, they become impossible to maintain for most people, and you end up back where you started.
How to change habits
1. Make a list of the habits you'd like to change.
2. Rate each habits difficulty to change from 0 - 100%. Pick the easiest habit to focus on first. This is likely to be a habit that you rate over 70%
3. For that habit you need to identify a range of alternative, healthier habits that will move you towards your goal.
4. Take each alternative habit and rate it based on how confident you are that you can adopt it. Pick the one that you are at least 90% sure you can maintain for the coming week. This means that it won't be the most dramatic change but it will likely be the one that has the most chance of success, and that's why it's so important. Dramatic change can come later when you have some momentum behind you.
5. After a week, sit down and review your progress in a non-judgemental way. Don't skip this step. If you haven't stuck with the habit, consider the reasons why and then set the bar a little lower and go again.
6. At this point, you'll want to quit. DO. NOT. QUIT.
7. Once the new habit becomes automatic and you are successful in doing it the majority of the time, continue working through your list in the same manner.
Changing your lifestyle takes work.
No-one is going to do it for you.
Undoing years of habits aren't easy, let's be honest.
Yet, it is possible if you start by focussing on small changes and taking baby steps to get you moving.
Take action, learn from your mistakes and never, ever quit.
Ben Yates is a personal trainer based at Places Gym Hinckley and Hinckley Leisure Centre in Leicestershire.
To book your free personal training consultation click here