How to Change Habits in Practice
How to change habits in real life to make them stick like glue? Check out this article for tips that are tried and true!
While in theory, the main principles of habit change seem quite straightforward, after all how hard could it be taking a different route home or buy apples instead of cakes, in the real world, there are external influences that could frustrate our analysis and thwart the implementation of our plans.
On top of that, our subconscious mind is eerily good at sniffing out our plans and sneakily nagging us into different directions. Anyone who has ever worried about running out of cigarettes, booze, coffee or cookies -when there was a chance of not being available for some reason, like a soon closing shop- was doing so, because the subconscious was pulling the strings, trying to ensure that a steady supply is provided for the body to feed its addiction.
Most of the time, we aren’t consciously aware of how hooked we are on certain things and how differently we live our life, just to ensure we are constantly able to provide such substance to our body. Once we set out to get rid of such addictions, we can recognize the deep influence, they have on our life.
The bad news is that there isn’t one size fits for all solution because we’ve all been carrying our own baggage of life experiences and the responses to that.
The good news is that we can all have the ability to change our life if we are willing to learn about ourselves.
Although our brain could seem to be quite resistant to changes at first, it can adapt to new things quite easily, once we push it over the edge, and it has no other choice. Just plunge into a new diet like keto, vegan or go gluten free and once the new food library is built with nutrients and accompanying flavors, new favorites emerge too.
The cornerstones of changing habits
The right food with the right nutrition
If we alter the flavor of our food by adding sweetener to it or the other way around, dressing nutrition up in comfort food such as pureeing vegetables into pizza sauce, it debilitates the ability of our brain to clearly differentiate between different food, their accompanying nutrients and flavors which ultimately numbs our ability to listen to our body’s needs.
If every nutrition has the flavor of pizza sauce, how can we expect the body to distinguish between them?
Therefore, such tricks, however, seem useful as a way to feed kids some vitamins, only reinforce bad eating habits, cause long term damage.
Unfortunately, kids can only be taught by leading examples so telling them to eat the veggies won’t be enough if all they can see is us, stuffing ourselves with fries while poking the green stuff around the plate.
Luckily, we, able bodied adults, don’t need our parents to lead us through these changes because we can do them on our own.
The best news is that we can further reduce the possibilities of us throwing food tantrums, thanks to modern technologies. There are apps that only require a couple of minutes of our time daily to recondition our brain to like food that previously has been associated with goats or birds and maybe some health geeks.
Well, liking the food could be a bit of a stretch but we can recondition our brain without actually eating the food itself, using only images of food and reinforcement learning. If flashcards aren’t our thing, just download an app, play with it for couple minutes a day and we become salad monsters in no time, or at least able to eat it without putting too much effort in it.
Burn the bridges
A new lifestyle should be laid on solid foundations built up with sustainability in mind, organically integrating the new experiences into it. Using new building blocks to pave our core values, although not paramount but helps us keep distance from the old habits and manage the process of change for better.
If we think about it, it’s painfully obvious that when go on a new diet, with new ingredients, the meals will taste different.
Trying to make the same dishes as before, like the keto version of anything carb-olicious, without the same ingredients, won’t taste the same. If it does, it’s because it’s the same with the same or even worse outcomes for our health. A keto banana bread, however tasty, without banana, will never be like banana bread.
So, instead of keep trying to modify our old recipes to fit for our new lifestyle, let them go. Diving into new cuisines that may already have exactly what we need or if not, modifying them to our needs won’t feel like losing anything, since we have no previous experience with them and no expectations to fail.
Of course, once we are comfortable within our sturdy new world, surely, we can revisit the bits of the old life, similarly as we pour over old photos from time to time, but separating the two mentally and physically, especially at the beginning, is important for lasting change.
“What we did yesterday makes us who we are today. What we do now determines who we are when the presents of the days pass.”
Build in sustainability.
Integrating special days into our everyday is a key for long term sustainability of a healthy lifestyle. Calling these days cheat days, as it is popularly called nowadays, is one of the worst things we can do mentally to sabotage our long-term success.
Such terms associate cheating with tasty, exciting food while healthy meals with less pronounced characteristics are getting the opposite end.
Marking special days with unique treats helps break the monotony of our normal diet and allows diversity into our life in a controlled form without the necessity of overly restricting ourselves.
Pancake day, Pi Day or Donut day are a great way to inject some fun into our everyday life without worrying about creating harmful habits.
A popular method to integrate regular treats into our life is following predefined templates for the week like the 80/20 method where 80% of the week we follow a healthy balanced diet while in the remaining 20% we are more lenient with the restrictions.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that during the week all we eat is bird food then on the weekend we senselessly dive into the world of junk. It’s more like eating healthy, tasty, whole food during the week and on the weekend, we may bake a cake, fry some donuts, or just have one of those subpar fast-food burgers that we used to love but don’t really understand why anymore.
Note that any of our current behavior, although not clearly recognized, was non-existent once, hence had to be developed at one point in time by us then reinforced over and over again to become our default response to certain cues.
Planning ahead is the single, most important thing that we must do to support any habit change. Without planning, we’ll always default on previously learnt behaviors.
Meticulously counting calories has more to it than simply indicating to us the amount of energy we’ve consumed. It provides us with the unique opportunity to learn about proper nutrition and a possibility to accustom our body to the correct portion sizes it needs.
Of course, once we’ve created healthy habits (15 – 254 days) and we can use those actions comfortably, we no longer feel the need to write everything down and that’s the ultimate goal here.
We use planning as a guide to help us sail through the rough part and what we learn will stay with us as second nature.
Visualize the right amount of food
When it comes to changing eating habits, the size of meals will be the most dramatic change to adjust to. Once we start properly tracking our meals, we’ll be goblesmacked how little food the human body needs to function properly, compared to what we believed we needed.
So, say goodbye to eating from the cooking pot, licking the batter out of the bowl, saving the leftovers from the kids’ plate, or sacrificing ourselves on the altar of not wanted greasy bits. Yes, that sometimes means wasting food.
It doesn’t mean, we can’t have a second helping if we like the food, but that must be accounted for, and the portion should be adjusted so next time we have the same meal, we can get the right balance between volume, calories, and nutrition.
Such practices allow us to clearly visualize the necessary portions, conditioning our brain for the right amount of food. If we can’t refrain from nibbling on other portions in the same box, just place portions in different containers. Most likely, we don’t need to do this for ever but only until our body and more importantly, our brain gets used to the correct portion sizes.
Saddle tricks, like using a smaller plate where the right amount of food looks much larger may help get us through the first shock of proper food portions.
More and less are not goals
What isn’t measurable, can’t be set as a goal. We can’t be healthier, move more, eat less, or lose some weight if we don’t know exactly where we stand now and where we are going.
In our Universe, matter doesn’t just magically appear or disappear, but transforms from one state to another, hence can be controlled as long as it’s measured correctly.
There are popular myths about people magically gaining weight while barely eating, illnesses or special treatments causing sudden weight gain but if gaining weight without consuming the necessary energy would be possible, the world wouldn’t have to cope with famine.
While it is true that our body can retain water to cope with certain conditions or the change of hormonal composition will alter the body’s fat distribution, neither of these events are actual fat gains.
Accurate measurement of our energy intake and output with clear goals will help us understand our progress and provide the best possible results. Although tracking our calorie intake is still a bit of a pain, even with the myriad of apps out there, getting good enough data about our daily calorie expenditure is pretty easy nowadays, thanks to those cheap fitness trackers on the market.
Habit change doesn’t require motivation, it only requires doing.
“Do or do not, there is no try!”
Although Yoda’s most famous lines don’t need much introduction, a bit of explanation may be due about the psychological implications about what those lines actually mean when it comes to putting them into practice.
Even though, the actual actions of doing vs trying can be the same, like trying to lose weight vs losing weight, our goals, hence state of mind are different when we are set to do something or trying to do something.
When do something means that our goal is to get the thing done no matter what it takes or how many tries it is necessary. The goal is to get it done.
While when we try something, the goal is just simply trying it without implying to succeed in it. While trying works with things that provide pleasure and fun hence simply get an initial taste of them gives us enough incentives to keep doing it, processes that postpone gratifications and require stamina, such as losing weight, won’t entice us keep doing them without a different mindset.
The small difference in meaning wires our mind differently thus creates different attitudes towards reaching our goals.
The key for habit change is consistency which grinds down any motivation, no matter how enthusiastic we are about its goals. As we’ve seen, some habits need 254 days so starting small and keep on going with it is more important than making a perfect start.
For example, when it comes to exercises, many of us start off by getting the right gear, equipment, health trackers or gym membership while in practice none of these really matter at the beginning. It may feel like part of the process but hours of research or shopping for the best gear is just procrastination that will provide no real-world benefits until we do it professionally.
When starting out, our main concerns should be, as Nike puts it, just do it. However puny it may look, 5 minutes or even less exercise daily is sufficient to create a platform where we can build our future success.
Once we’ve got something, it’s much easier to expand on it than just jump right into something, we are not ready for at all. Create a slot in the schedule for exercise and start with as much time as it is necessary. If running is a challenge then just walk 5 minutes daily then slowly work upwards to fill the slot then get into higher gear when it feels right. Same with any other habits. It’s more important to start something that creates the habit than trying to do it perfectly at the first time.
Make meal plans at least in a week advance.
Write shopping lists and stick to them. Avoid impulse shopping.
Build in diversity with treat days and normal days.
Visualize the right amount of food.
Set clear goals, measure progress regularly then adjust if necessary.
Start small, go big later. Prioritize habit building to reach long term goals.