Changing Habits

What if:

  • your healthcare provider just told you to lose weight;
  •  you’ve been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and you have to change your diet.

Reaction?  First you are stunned.  Then you think: this could be a good thing.  Then again you think: I can do this.  But after your first run or walk or your first trip to the grocery to stock up on vegetables, you push the idea for change aside.  There are other things in your life that come first.  You admit to yourself: this is hard. 

Yes, it is.  It means changing your habits.  But it can be done with understanding and planning.

First, let’s step back and look at the nature of habits.  We are all entrenched in the habits of our lives.  Could this be you?

  • your route to work is blocked by street repair and you have to find another way that lengthens your trip time;
  • the show you watch on Tuesday nights to relax is cancelled;
  • your bank changes the online bill-paying format you’re used to;
  • your regular doctor retires.

All these things require that you change and adjust.  All were part of your habitual living that you easily slipped into like a comfortable pair of slippers.  You’ll find an interim route, learn the banking format, do something else on Tuesday nights and adjust to another doctor.  These are just bumps in your road.  Losing weight, changing your diet, quitting smoking, and doing regular exercise can be mountains.

So how to start.   Buy a journal or create a computer file in which you keep track of everything you are going to do to succeed.  Then:

  • Determine an attainable goal and write it down.

Which goal is attainable: I will lose 20 pounds in one month.  I will lose five pounds in one month.

The second goal is more attainable.  If you attempt a difficult goal right at the start, you set yourself up for failure.  Once you fail, it’s harder to start again.  It’s true that people change when they are ready to change.  If your goal is too difficult you are practicing self-sabotage.  You really want an excuse to say I just can’t do this.  But you can if you set realistic and attainable goals.

  • Create a plan that will help you reach your goal and keep you motivated.  Write it down in as much detail as you need.

Which plan is realistic: I will run a mile every day and cut out all sweets.  I will walk for 20 minutes 3 times a week and only eat sweets at dessert on the weekends.  The first plan is not specific enough and much too taxing.  The second plan is more specific and allows for a day off now and again.   Creating a plan that is doable increases your motivation and helps you visualize success.

  • Write down your major motivation for wanting to succeed with your goal and plan. 

Which of the following are good motivations for true and lasting habit change?

I want to look good for my high school reunion.

I have diabetes and if I don’t lose weight and watch my carbohydrate intake, I could get sicker and develop complications.

I can’t afford cigarettes because I didn’t get a raise, so I guess I’ll quit.

I need to stop smoking because of the lung cancer stats, there’s cancer in my family, and I want to be able to keep hiking when I’m sixty and older.

Having solid, research-oriented information to back up a habit change increases your motivation and helps you stay on track.

  • Find mentors who will support you and help you achieve your goal.  Make sure you have their email addresses handy and their numbers in your cell phone.

Right off you have to talk about the habit changes you are going to make to achieve your goal.  Mentors cannot act as guards and help you stay on track if they don’t know you are wearing a stop-smoking patch, limiting your beers or watching your carbohydrate intake.  If those close to you just aren’t there for you, you might need a support group, people who are working on the same habit changes.  It’s your health.  Find people who will help you make it happen.

  • Write down the obstacles and roadblocks to your success.  Be aware of them.  Deal with them before you begin your habit change plan.

Want to lose weight, stop smoking?  Remove the obstacles to your success: junk food in your kitchen, cigarettes hidden in your car and house.  Replace the obstacles with things in your life that will insure your success: fruits and vegetable snacks in your home and at work; gum to chew, water to drink when you want a smoke.  Eliminate excuse obstacles by purchasing ahead of time good running or walking shoes to get you out the door; know where there is an indoor facility you can use when the weather is inclement.  Plan for these obstacles and eliminate as many of them as you can before you even start.   There is no room for excuses if you are going to succeed.

  • Watch out for triggers.

A trigger is something that causes an event to happen, an event that your new weight loss habit needs to avoid.  Here are some examples: if you have diabetes and your goal is to lose weight it’s best to avoid fast-food restaurants in the beginning.  Why? Because there is little on the menus in these places that you can eat and the smell of the Big Mac might be too much for you.

Watching TV is another trigger for many people—they can’t do it without junk food.  So keep the junk food out of the house or if you are on your way to the kitchen to hunt for some, go out the door and walk off the craving.

For smokers the following can be triggers: waking up, drinking coffee, having a drink with a friend.  Plan ahead.  Find substitutes for these triggers: a shower upon awakening, a piece of candy, a bottle of water for oral gratification.

Keep track of your successes when you defeat your triggers: the exercise you did to avoid wanting a cigarette; the no-butter popcorn you ate in front of the TV, and the fruit yogurt you had while everyone else ate birthday cake.  Give yourself a gold star.  You got rid of a trigger, avoided an obstacle and stuck to your commitment.  That’s huge.  You are truly motivated. 

  • A few other things to consider: difficulty. 

It will be hard at first.  Statistics show that people drop out before 20-30 days of a plan.  It’s like anything, the longer you stay in the game, the easier it will become, but you have to have staying power.  Your goals and planning ahead of time, your awareness of obstacles and triggers will keep you on the path to success.

  • It’s the weight of the habit change that matters.

You might hear someone say—I’m a disciplined person.  Habits are easy for me: every day I make my coffee, read the paper and walk the dog. But those are light-weight, second-nature kind of habits that take about twenty minutes. Changing your life-long diet to lose weight, quitting smoking, doing things for your health overall requires months and staying power into years.  What smoker hasn’t considered the 20 years of the habit that is pushing against a major change in days and weeks?  And the change has to be permanent.  The weight of the change is heavy.  It’s not a bump in the road—it’s that mountain.

Finally: educate yourself as you proceed.  Losing weight?  There are menus and recipes in the thousands to help you along.  There are numerous exercises, sports and activities to help you burn calories.  Trying to stop smoking or drinking?  Get online and you’ll find articles and research to help you set your goals.   And talk to your healthcare provider.  They can help you too.  You’ll succeed—with your goal, plan and commitment one day at a time. 

Thanks to the American Diabetes Association and Leo Babauta at zenhabits.net

2 thoughts on “Changing Habits

  1. Ah, habits, good or bad, we all have them.

    Knowing one’s triggers is such an important step in the process of building new habits. The amygdala is responsible for remembering strong emotional events that are pain or fear-filled and is constantly scanning for situations that are “close enough” to the original painful event. I’ve written about it a few times on my blog, also my June 2010 newsletter was about habits.

    I think it’s so important that you made the distinction between light and heavy-weight habits. Some are easy enough to quit “cold-turkey”, others require much more work.

    Stress transformation is powerful in the business of habit-change. You become more adept at accomplishing your goals in a creative and productive manner. You begin to be more fully aware of each moment; thus able to recognize when you’ve started in on that habit you wanted to break.

    Now, it’s time for me to go practise one of my new habits. 🙂

  2. Fascinating information about the amygdala that is constantly scanning for situations that are close enough to another painful event. We all do that. It’s like we are unable to control a bad habit. I will definitely check out more on your post.

    Yes, the light and heavy-weight habits need to be acknowledge and I also think there are certain pathways that some people find easy to change and some more difficult. Hard to say why that it. Could go way to back to things that brought comfort.
    Thanks for your comment, Beth

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