Routine, Reframe, Repetition
One of the hardest parts of creating new habits after the first hurdle of actually getting started, is staying on track! In other words, minor setbacks and frustrating moments can kill our chances to anchor our badly needed and longed for new behavior patterns
Slip-ups give us perfect reasons (excuses) to back slide or even give up totally.
What we need is a back up safety net. So rather than crash and burn, we can bounce right back up.
Research into rigid dieting has uncovered a scientific phenomenon known as the “What the Hell Effect” which identifies what is going on in our heads, when one tiny slip becomes a catalyst for stopping the process of trying to reach the goals we have set for ourselves. People who fell off a strictly controlled diet plan, actually ended up eating more pie than those who weren’t even on a diet!
So what makes us do that? How do we stop back sliding?
We need to take a close look at our routine, and identify the triggers for the thought processes that go through our minds when we go off track.
Jeanette identified that she gained weight every winter (7 pounds) which she struggled to lose totally in the summer. Her incremental weight gain over 10 years has been 26 pounds. She had gone up two dress sizes. This has made her feel dissatisfied with her appearance and feel generally out of shape. Working with her nutritionist, she decided she needed to eat a healthy breakfast before going to work, rather than picking up a Danish pastry or a muffin on the run. She would then getting a body sugar low mid morning, when she would eat even more junk snacks from the office vending machine.
When she analysed the reasons for her reluctance to make breakfast, preferring to stay a little longer in bed, she realized that what put her off were two things: her kitchen was cold in the morning and preparing a hot breakfast was too fiddly. An extra ten minutes in bed was so much cosier!
But these were problems which could could easily be taken care of. Jeanette dealt with them by buying small fan heater to heat up the kitchen quickly, which she put on automated timer to come on fifteen minutes before her alarm went off. She also laid out the ingredients for an egg white omelette the night before. A late night routine affirmed her commitment to her new habits. There is value in making a positive statement as a last action of the day..
The result was 100 per cent improvement on healthy breakfasts. The small spike in her electricity bill was far outweighed by her huge sense of achievement and the fact she could go through to lunch without snacking. For the first winter in 10 years Jeanette did not gain that seven pounds and lost another eight.
She focused on the triggers and found solutions!
We also need to focus on the achievements to date, not just on that one slip. One day Jeanette overslept. She was late and grabbed a pastry at the deli. Rather than allowing her inner critic to bring her down, she patted herself on the back, for three weeks of healthy breakfasts, and didn’t focus on any back sliding over one muffin. Self-blame is part of a damaging cycle, with negative pressure from historical patterns that can over take us.
Here the real healthy breakfast score was 21:1 rather than an overall fail.
When we set out to change a habit the best progress is made by anchoring it early in our decision-making process, with a new routine followed by repetition. Lots of it. This is not very exciting but it works.
Howard Rachel in the Willpower Effect says:
Willpower is a mind-body response, not a virtue. It is a biological function that can be improved through mindfulness, exercise, nutrition, and sleep. People who have better control of their attention, emotions, and actions are healthier, happier, have more satisfying relationships, and make more money. Willpower is not an unlimited resource. Too much self-control can actually be bad for your health. Temptation and stress hijack the brain’s systems of self-control, and that the brain can be trained for greater willpower.
He cautions against an excess of self-control and the value of limiting our options to make our decision-making processes easier to release “mental energy” for other things. Routine helps us change those habits. Jeanette chose a range of healthy breakfasts which she rotated throughout the week, rather than being confronted by an abundance of choice in the deli.
This helps to conserve that mental energy required to stick with any new habits. Setting up routines reduces the options which can cause us to go off track.
Change your environment
It’s hard to eat healthily in a cookie store, or give up smoking by mixing with smokers or getting up early when your partner is still in bed. So until the habit is totally engrained and secure, it might be necessary to change your environment, your schedule and even the people you mix with. Jeanette’s husband can eat what he likes without gaining an ounce. But changing him wasn’t an option. What she did, was ask for support. This winter he joined her for a daily healthy breakfast, with the added benefit that they spent some additional time together.
Don’t let your habit control you
These patterns of behavior are what we need to do to change a bad habit which stops us reaching a desired goal. They become part of our new routine. What we don’t want to happen is to become so obsessed and controlling about this new pattern, that we become anxious if we can’t follow it. If Jeanette is staying with friends and all they offer is a high carb breakfast, then one deviation will not make a difference to an authentically anchored pattern. Find alternatives and make adjustments. If you can’t go for a regular morning run, take the stairs. Read about orthorexia nervosa here:
A habit is formed to help us reach a wider goal – and should not become the goal itself.
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