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Breaking Bad…Habits

At the risk of sounding cliché, we are creatures of habit. Physically, our bodies strive for homeostasis. Mentally, we like routines and processes that are done without much thought. In habits we find comfort, normalcy and familiarity. The problem is when our normal and familiar habits aren’t always healthy.

The 21 Day Myth

The adage is that it takes 21 days to create a habit. However, newer research has proven that theory wrong and it takes about three times that amount of time create a new habit. Research published in the European Journal of Social Psychology found that it takes a person 66 days to create a new habit. In fact, it can take up to eight months for some people. So, throw out that notion that in three weeks you’ll be able to create new habits.

That’s a lot of time when the habit you are trying to break is something to which you’ve become physically, emotionally and/or mentally attached (smoking, drinking, over eating, stress, etc.).

As a health coach, I work with clients on behavior modification strategies with nutrition and fitness to support their new healthy goals. Every day I speak to people who are so entrenched in their habits that they can’t envision a way out.

If you are nodding your head in agreement, let’s dig into why it’s so difficult to get out of unhealthy habits and create new, sustainable behaviors.

What’s in a Habit?

First, we need to define a habit. It’s not the occasional indulgent dinner or afternoon latte and cookie. A habit is a regular tendency or practice that is difficult to stop. An obvious example of a habit is smoking a cigarette after each meal. It’s something your brain is wired to do, and your body expects, and to stop it would result in negative physical symptoms.

Now that we know what a habit is, it’s important to be aware of when, where and how we exhibit habits and what the triggers are that set them into motion. For example, if you head to the vending machine at work every day at 2 p.m. for a candy bar because you need a little “pick me up,” what are the triggers? Are you tired? Is it stress that leaves you feeling depleted by mid-afternoon? Take note of what prompts you to buy that candy bar. When you know what sets that habit into action, you’ll be able to start changing it.  

Next, identify the “reward” in your current behavior? What do you feel when you eat that candy bar? Do you feel comfort, energy, relaxation? Make note of how you feel after you’ve indulged in your habit. That will be important information when you are working reprogram your brain to get that same feeling from a different habit.

The Road to New, Healthy Habits

Now that you know what triggers your unhealthy habit and how you feel when you give into that behavior, you can create a plan to create new healthy routines. Here are a few tips to get you started.

  • Identify a good habit that will satisfy that craving/need. If you truly feel depleted around 2 p.m. every day, your body may need a little jumpstart. You can do that without eating a candy bar every afternoon. Energy comes from lots of sources. Replace the candy bar with a walk, a healthier sweet snack or a cup of green tea with a few drops of honey. Start looking for a replacement that can be done as easily as buying a candy bar at the same time, so you aren’t forcing yourself to just ignore the urge and keep working.
  • Start with a gradual change. Forget what the research says…21 days, 66 days, whatever. If you make one small change every day or every week, you’ll start to see the results in bigger ways. Maybe that means having a candy bar three days instead of five for the first week. Or, having half of it each day. Step down gradually to increase the chance of long-term success.
  • If it ain’t broke…don’t change it. When it comes to starting new, healthy habits, rely on what’s worked before. Think about a time when you’ve been successful at starting a good habit or routine (maybe it’s exercising or getting up earlier). What steps did you take to build that habit? How did you hold yourself accountable? What reminders and rewards did you use? Recall what’s worked and repeat that process!
  • Be comfortable with failure. Expect to stumble and be ready with restart strategies. We all fail when we are trying to start or stop something our bodies and minds are resistant to. Be prepared for the missteps and recover quickly. When end up at the vending machine with the candy bar, it doesn’t mean you should give up.  Acknowledge what went wrong (lack of preparedness, increased stress, etc.), enjoy the indulgence and start fresh as soon as possible.

Habits are difficult to break when our minds and bodies rely on them for relief of stress, fatigue or other problem. But it is possible to break poor habits and start new, healthy ones with a plan, some patience and accountability. Need some help getting started with creating new health, wellness or lifestyle changes, set up a free wellness chat and let’s discuss.

Have a healthy, happy week!

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Putting the Power Back into Willpower

Willpower is a Limited but Renewable Resource

 

Someone in my Facebook group asked a great question the other day…how do I gain more willpower to make the right food choices?

There were some great answers from other members about the importance of accountability, taking small steps to improve versus trying to “fix” everything you’ve done wrong in the past, and giving yourself a break sometimes because, none of us is perfect.

But it got me thinking even more about the question. What is willpower? And can we really create more of it? So my writer instincts said…go research it. First, I went back to my health coaching textbook and looked up how my field describes willpower.

“Willpower is the ability to ignore temporary pleasure or discomfort to pursue a bigger goal.”

Busting the Willpower Myths

More digging into the subject busted some long-standing myths that I had about willpower. Such as:

  • You just need more information. Knowledge is not power when it comes to willpower. Apparently, even if we know a sleeve of Girl Scout Cookies are high in calories and generally not a good choice for breakfast (oh no!), that does not increase our willpower to resist them.
  • Using the willpower “muscle” makes it/you stronger. Ugh. You know how people say practice makes perfect. Not always with willpower. The cognitive function that controls your ability to have willpower can become fatigued, like an overworked bicep.
  • Willpower is a long-term strategy. Willpower is an “in the moment” response to the cookies, a second glass of wine, or whatever you’re trying to consume less of. To truly change your behavior long-term, willpower is only one part of the equation.

So, knowing all these fun facts, what can we do to not only increase our ability to make snap decisions that are healthy but also increase our overall ability to reach our long-term goals.

Let’s Get GRITty

According to the experts it comes down to GRIT. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania coined the acronym and it is defined as “the ability to “work strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity and plateaus in progress.”

Wow. That’s motivating.

Dr. Angela Duckworth distinguishes self-control (willpower) as a shorter-term behavior—not eating the cookie right in front of you. While GRIT is about pushing toward goals over a longer period.

Here’s an overview of GRIT and how I use these techniques to help my clients gain better long-term control over their lifestyle habits and behaviors.

  • Goals Get You There. If you’ve read my blog for the last year or two or if you’ve worked with me, I am a big proponent of setting SMART goals (specific, measurable, actionable, relevant and time-bound). When you lay out your goals in a way that has all those elements it helps to focus your efforts on ONE thing and strengthen that willpower muscle for endurance, not just spurts of heavy lifting.
  • Relax and Reward. Again, something I teach my clients. First – I help them find ways to reduce stress and increase energy. Yoga, long walks, silent meditation for 15 minutes a day – whatever it takes to quiet your brain and refocus on your goals. When you’re tired or stressed out you don’t make good choices. Your guard is down, and you reach for comfort, and convenience. Also – I’m a big fan of rewarding yourself and celebrating the little accomplishments. If you never allow yourself to eat that cookie or order the second glass of wine, you’ll eventually overindulge and end up on a path back to old behaviors.
  • Intention and Implementation.  Ahhhh…it all comes down to planning and preparing. When you plan what you’ll eat and drink at a cocktail party or map out when you’ll workout on a business trip, you are in CONTROL and when you’re in control you are ready for the temptations and roadblocks. One way researchers suggest to prepare for something that will be tempting is using the “if-then” strategy. Let’s say you’re going to a client dinner where there will be lots of alcohol flowing. “IF someone tries to pour me a drink, THEN I’ll thank them and carry a glass of club soda with a few olives in it.”
  • Thinking Truthfully.  Kelly McGonigal the author of The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It says there are three different aspects of willpower:

-“I won’t” power—the ability to resist temptations
-“I will” power—the ability to do what needs to be done
-“I want” power—the awareness of one’s long-term goals and desires

Using these mantras to deal when temptation pops up will give you the ability to respond to whatever the world puts in front of you (cookies, wine, the couch and remote).

Let Your Willpower Renew

Finally, even with all the good intentions and planning and goals, it’s important to remember that we are human. We are flawed. We will give in to temptation sometimes. The most important thing I teach my clients is self-forgiveness and self-compassion.

Remember what I said about willpower ‘muscle fatigue’? Some days that muscle will have had all it can lift and will give out. When it does, acknowledge the slip, remind yourself of the long-term goal, and refocus on you and what you need to do next time to avoid the pitfall. Give the muscle a break; let it renew a bit. It’s when we never use the muscle that poor “in the moment” choices then become habits and then deeply-ingrained behaviors. That’s when we need to bulk up that willpower muscle and use a little GRIT to overcome the challenges and make the positive changes needed to be healthy.

Want more help finding your GRIT and strengthening your plans to be healthy? Let’s chat. Fill out my FREE Wellness Assessment and you’ll get a 30-minute call with me. We’ll discuss your goals and what I’d recommend to strengthen your willpower and GRIT.

Have a happy and healthy day and watch out for those willpower-busting, yet adorable, Girl Scouts and their addictive cookies!

Xoxo

Niki