THE HABIT BASED APPROACH TO LIFELONG HEALTH & FITNESS
Real, lasting change is tough. If you are like most people you are juggling a lot in your life and trying to overhaul everything at once is a real challenge. This is why most diet programs and exercise programs don’t work overtime (see part 1 of the core content series for more).
Have you ever tried to achieve something and kept an intense focus on the outcome? You wait for things to happen and focus only on the outcome; the number on the scales for instance. Things work for a while and you feel good before your progress comes to a stop. You feel overwhelmed and fed up and you pack it in until you feel uncomfortable enough again to try another diet or exercise program. This cycle can continue for years.
Focusing on the process (instead of the outcome) and building habits give you the power to achieve your goals, at a more sustainable pace and in a more manageable way. The long-term stress, worry and anxiety disappear as you sit in the driving seat once and for all.
What's so special about these habits? Why not just follow another 'off the shelf' diet program or exercise DVD?
A habit is a routine behaviour that is repeated regularly and usually occurs on a subconscious level. There is little energy or thought required to carry out habitual behaviours. Brushing your teeth or making your bed in the morning are both good examples. Things like exercise are more difficult to carry out without thinking about them, but the routines leading to exercise itself can become habitual.
The mantra behind the habit-based change is simple; "Less is More". Science has shown that the more things you try to do at once the lower your chance of success.
We as humans are really no good at multitasking. You may feel busier and therefore more productive when you are doing lots of things at once, but you may be slowing down your long term progress by doing this. The more things you try to do at once the higher your chance of failure. It’s a bit like watching a Netflix series whilst browsing the web on your phone - you can’t really absorb the content from both well. As a result, you may have to watch the program twice to understand and remember what is going on, thus requiring more time for the same outcome.
Following a diet program which asks you to overhaul many things at once will usually not lead to any lasting change - 95% of diets fail people (it’s the diet philosophy that fails people and not the people that fail diets). There are just too many things to focus on at once for any length of time. They may be more successful if you didn’t have to juggle a normal life too; work, financial, social, family and other life commitments, but not many people have that luxury.
HABITS LEAD TO GOALS
It is your behaviours that you in control of. You do not have a direct say in your outcomes; you cannot just tell your body to lose weight (unless you're willing to chop off a limb). It is your current habitual behaviours that have led you to your current state. What you do on a regular basis will manifest as a result or outcome i.e. regularly snacking when you are stressed, but not hungry will probably lead to weight gain.
HOW HABITS ARE BUILT
Single behaviours become habits when it is repeated under certain conditions, enough times.
There are four stages to the habit loop:
- Cue: there is a trigger that kicks a habit into gear. It could be a certain time of the day, a thought, a person, a feeling or the environment around you.
- Craving: there is a craving to be satisfied. That may be hunger, energy, stress, mood etc.
- Response: you carry out a behaviour to satisfy the craving i.e. watch a series of Netflix to entertain yourself with minimal energy after a day at work, or eat a chocolate bar to satisfy low energy/boredom/stress.
- Reward: the reward helps to solidify the habit loop. The craving has been satisfied and the brain is taught that this behaviour is worth carrying out again.
Here’s a common nutrition-related habit loop example; the snacking habit:
- The cue: you are stressed and tired at work.
- The craving: you want to reduce stress and boost your short term energy levels.
- The response: you reach for the cookie jar.
- The reward: the sugar and taste of the cookie give your blood sugar and quick boost, and the taste gives you a (temporary) release from the work-related stress.
HOW TO BUILD NEW HABITS
Now that you understand what habits are and the benefits of the habit approach, you are able to start building new habits that support your goals.
Bad habits normally fall into place. Building new habits requires a little more diligence. In the book Atomic Habits, the author James Clear gives the following steps to make the habit building process more effective:
- Make it easy; it’s easy to think that a lack of willpower is the reason you can’t stick to a diet. Think back to how your willpower can change over the course of a week, day or even hour to hour. The bigger the cost (time, energy etc.) you perceive to carrying out something, the more willpower you will require. Start by making it as easy as possible and then look to make your level of ‘easy’ scale upwards.
- Make it obvious; forgetting is one of the biggest obstacles to making changes to your current lifestyle. There’s work, family, social and other things to worry about.
- Make it satisfying; achieving the big goal is satisfying, but that is in the future. It is the here and now Sometimes the short term pain of, say starting a new workout program,
- Make it attractive; we are often driven by the ‘here and now’. That’s why diets are so alluring - they give short term satisfaction. A lot of worthy goals need long term commitment. Therefore, using short term tweaks to break the longer goal into shorter chunks and making those more satisfying can keep you on track.
Let’s look at how you can make exercise more of a habit based on the above:
- Make it easy: instead of aiming for an hour-long workout, start with committing to 5 minutes of exercise.
- Make it obvious: leave your gym clothes out the night before in a place that you will see them in the morning.
- Make it satisfying: use a habit tracker and tick off the workout each time you complete it (this is why I use a habit tracking app in my coaching program). Just that little tick can you a sense of achievement which is very satisfying in itself.
- Make it attractive: give yourself an immediate reward that doesn’t compete with your long term goal. For instance, you might treat yourself to a cup of your favourite, expensive coffee after a workout.
Remember, repetition is the key when it comes to building new habits. By following the four tips above, you are more likely to be able to carry out a behaviour every day, because they require less effort and give you a feeling of achievement. And carrying it out every day will form the habit quicker than once every other day. Once you have your core habits built, it will be easier to achieve your most important health and fitness goals.
I’ll be honest. Focusing on habits isn't as sexy, exciting or glamorous as the diet programs that are marketed to you on the regular. But the habit-based approach to change gives you the skills to put you in control and achieve bigger and better long-term results. And once you have the skills, you are able to use your physical and mental energy elsewhere for other more important things like family, work, socialising and hobbies.
- Diets often require a complete overhaul and often results in poor long term adherence. Habits allow you to achieve and maintain your goals with less physical and mental energy & stress.
- Choosing one habit at a time will increase your chances of success.
- Repetition of your behaviour is the key predictor in how well and how quickly that habit forms.
- Habits are reinforced through the habit loop; a cue, craving, response and reward.
- Effective habits are built by making the action easier, more satisfying, more attractive and more obvious.
- Breaking a bad habit is the opposite; make it harder, make it less obvious, make it less satisfying and make it less attractive.
In the third part of this core content series, I will introduce you to my habit-based Lean Living Coaching program and the habits I use with my clients to help them achieve their goals.