To create sustained positive change, our desired actions need to be turned into habits, so that these actions become automatic, without much effort on our part. This isn’t a groundbreaking revelation, but many of us believe that we can’t form or it is too difficult to form new habits once we reach adulthood. The whole notion of “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Yet, it is possible - people can build new habits; we do it all the time.
Taking a step back for a moment, at a basic level, many of the actions we perform in our daily life are habitual or automatic. These tasks can be done without much brainpower. Take brushing our teeth in the morning as an example. We don’t put much thought into doing it, it is an automatic action we perform. It likely took practice and repetition before it became second nature to us, resulting in the creation of a healthy habit.
As humans, we are biologically prone to habit because if we had to make conscious choices about every little thing we did all day, it would take too much of our mental capacity and we would be constantly overwhelmed by life. “Analysis Paralysis” in a way.
Simply put, the key to forming a habit is practice. Easier said than done, right?
PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT
Back in the 19th century, American psychologist, William James, concluded that cultivating good habits requires “daily strokes of effort.” Essentially, the old dictum of “practice makes perfect.”
This sounds quaint, but it’s actually quite sophisticated. Habits form because our brains change in response to frequent practice. This is the basis of neuroplasticity. The concept of neuroplasticity is defined as the way the brain reorganizes itself by forming new connections throughout life. Emphasis on “throughout life”, not just in our youth.
So, we can recondition our brains through practice and training because the human brain is plastic and not static.
For instance, let’s say you want to become skilled at knitting. When you first try knitting, you have to concentrate on every single action you take and you do it all slowly. However, the more time you spend knitting, the more automatic, easier, and faster you’re able to perform these actions. As you become a proficient knitter, you can be watching TV, having a conversation with someone else, and chewing gum, all while knitting a scarf. Thus, knitting has become a habit.
THE PATH OF LEAST RESISTANCE
Willpower can be quickly depleted over the course of the day. Whether that’s sitting through a two-hour meeting, staying focused on writing a report for hours on end, or avoiding the box of donuts your co-worker brought in.
When we’re constantly tapping into our willpower reserves, it’s easy to see how we can reach a breaking point and give in to old habits; taking the path of least resistance as we move through the day.
This path creates a barrier to positive change and growth – unless we learn to use it to our advantage (more on that in a bit).
How many of us have “cheat days”? Where we “eat clean” during the week and then binge on junk food on the weekend? Denying ourselves and relying primarily on our willpower almost never works. We can’t use self-control to ingrain healthy eating habits. Hence why there are so many failed dieters out there.
It took us years of repeating unhealthy habits to get us to the point where we feel we need to make changes, so why do we think we can turn things around in an instant through the sheer force of will?
Since we can max out our willpower and we usually end up taking the path of least resistance, let’s use this for our benefit by reconfiguring the path and removing any barriers that are blocking us from our desired behaviours.
UNDERSTANDING THE BARRIERS TO REAL CHANGE
Eating is a learned behaviour that forms into ingrained habits. And there can be barriers on multiple fronts that stop you from significantly altering these habits.
On one front, there are the psychological barriers. For example, “I’ll never be able to change the way I eat.” Or “I’m too busy to make any big changes right now; I’ll start next month.”
Another type of block may be biological in nature, such as when you hit a blood sugar low and are compelled to eat something to level things out.
The influence of others (i.e. your family, friends, roommates, etc.) is another possible set of hurdles to overcome. It could appear as, “My family has been eating this way for years; they’ll make fun of me for eating differently.” Or, “My friends and I always have pizza, chips, and ice cream on Friday movie night; I can’t break that tradition.” You can be prevented from adjusting your eating habits when you worry about what others will think of it and if you feel like you’re alone in it.
Here in North America, an overarching need when it comes to eating is convenience. Two of our primary cultural values are efficiency and productivity. And this is reflected in our food and eating culture, which in turn, is reflected in our individual eating habits (e.g. eat your lunch quickly at your desk while checking emails on your computer). Thus, there may be certain cultural barriers standing in the way of you forming a healthy eating habit as well.
Lastly, economic barriers can get in your way too. For instance, if you don’t have easy access to healthy whole foods, or even if you did, you believe you couldn’t afford them because these foods tend to cost more than most processed foods and junk foods.
To effect real change in our food and eating habits, we first have to understand which of these barriers and limiting beliefs play a role in our life, secondly, recognize how to address them through the implementation of strategies that form the basis of new healthy habits. You have the ability to find ways to overcome these obstacles if you choose to do so.
To jump-start positive change, reduce the amount of activation energy it takes to begin making it.
Put the desired action on the path of least resistance. This way, it’ll take less energy and effort to do it than to avoid it.
This is based on author Shawn Achor’s 20-Second Rule from his book The Happiness Advantage. Lowering the barrier to change by just 20 seconds can be all it takes to help form a new habit.
It can take more than 20 seconds or less, but the idea is to decrease the activation energy that’s required for the habits you want to adopt, while increasing it for the habits you want to drop.
To illustrate this in action, there was a study done by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign demonstrating how placing psychological barriers can deter consumption of food. For the study, researchers placed containers of thirty chocolates in various arrangements on and around office workers’ desks. They told the office workers that they were doing an experiment involving candy and that they would later be asked about the candies, but no other details were given. Each evening, when all the office workers were gone, the researchers would go into the office and count the number of chocolates that were eaten during the day, then they replaced the containers with 30 fresh chocolates for the following day. At the end of the three-week study, the participants ate, on average, nine pieces of chocolate per day when the containers were left on the desk. For the containers placed in the desk drawer, the average number dropped down to six pieces per day. And when the containers were positioned on a shelf six feet away from the desk (where the participant would have to stand up and walk over to the container), the number fell to three chocolates.
We can use this strategy in our own lives to cut consumption of unhealthy trigger foods and to guide healthier choices. We’re not restricted in any way – we still have freedom to choose whatever foods we want – the only thing that’s changing is the default, which is set to healthy food options instead of unhealthy foods.
A real-world example could be if you have a habit of snacking on potato chips after dinner. The tactic could be to have raw nuts ready to go on the pantry shelf that’s at eye level, while clearing it out of chips or placing them on a high shelf that requires a step stool. So, you made it easier to reach for healthy snacks when the urge strikes and added an extra step of grabbing a step stool (or having to go out to the store) to stall your bad habit (deterring mindless eating). Reconfiguring the path to do the trick. As the days pass, your urge to eat chips after dinner will likely wane, and the new habit of snacking on a handful of raw nuts becomes more habitual.
This strategy will be your key to cultivating healthier eating habits. Finding ways to add extra effort to obtaining sugary foods and other unhealthy foods – making it harder for you to succumb to them. At the same time, figuring out how you can make obtaining healthy food as the easier option.
If a big trigger for you is sweets brought to the office, aside from creating physical barriers, you can form an obstacle for yourself by sharing your health objectives with your co-workers – telling them that you’re cutting down on sugar. Then the next time you’re in a meeting sitting next to the box of donuts, it may be easier to abstain than to have to explain to others why you’re going against your pledge. Or your efforts may even encourage them to start bringing healthy treats (like fruit) to meetings, office parties, and other work events (or at the very least, they’ll know not to offer you any sugary foods). Another approach might be committing to only eat homemade treats your colleagues bring in and not store-bought. Chances are the homemade treats won’t have as much sugar and other stuff, you’ll show your appreciation for their efforts, and you’re not completely depriving yourself.
Too Many Choices Isn’t Necessarily a Good Thing
Too many choices take more decision-making power, and like willpower, this can be depleted. So, another way to lower the barriers to positive change is by limiting the choices we have to make.
Basically, it is going back to the idea of setting healthy food as the default. This is where some planning ahead comes in handy. Instead of playing a game of a million “should I do this?”, you decrease the number of choices you have to make when it comes to eating.
Let’s use breakfast as an example. Each night before you go to sleep, you can prepare a bowl of overnight oats; add some nuts, seeds, and fresh fruit to it; then pop it in the fridge (takes less than 15 minutes). Finally, you can get a spoon and napkin out and place it on the breakfast bar counter or dining table. Therefore, you’ve limited the number of decisions you have to make about breakfast when you wake up the next morning. This turns into actually having a healthy homemade breakfast as the default mode versus going to the drive-thru or skipping it all together. As a result, you’re ingraining this as a lifetime healthy habit.
Or it could be something as simple as limiting the amount of choices of snack foods in the house. Keeping in mind that you don’t necessarily have to overhaul your entire household’s food stock at once because baby steps count too.
Even setting a rule of only having sugary foods at the office on specific occasions like at an office party, you’re less likely to succumb to temptation if someone brings in sweets at random. Eventually this rule becomes a habit you stick to by default.
Be Gentle With Yourself
In an instant-gratification society, many of us are impatient when it comes to change. We expect to see instant results and are quick to turn on ourselves if we don’t see them. As if we’re not doing enough or not doing it the “right” way.
Be gentle with yourself because you’re doing your very best. As you steadily move forward one little step at a time, you’ll do better and better, and faster than before, bringing the change you’re seeking into fruition. This will happen even faster when you show yourself kindness.
And the whole idea of “it takes 21 days to form a new habit” is a myth anyways. Many times, it may take longer than that (with many hits and misses along the way) before an action becomes rooted in you. Check out this informative article from the Huffington Post about how long it actually takes to form new habits: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/james-clear/forming-new-habits_b_5104807.html
This is a little preview of what’s to come in an online course I’m in the process of creating. The course is for busy professionals looking to achieve sustained energy throughout the day and overcoming cravings for sweets. Do you know anyone who might be interested? I still need to refine my idea and I’d love to run it by them in order to get their perspective on things. Email me at email@example.com.
References (and my many thanks to):
Achor, Shawn. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. New York: The Crown Publishing Group, 2010. Print.(http://www.shawnachor.com/the-books/the-happiness-advantage/)