You know what you should eat, and what you should avoid.
You've read the Beyond Diet manual and you know how to monitor your proportions and read the combinations of protein, fat, and carbs.
You've got meal plans, shopping lists, tools, and recipes galore.
You've got everything you're supposed to need to lose weight... so why does it still seem so hard?
Why do we fall "off the wagon" and enjoy a few too many "cheats"? Why do we throw in the towel, just cave in, and eat something we know isn't good for our weight loss?
It happens to the best of us from time to time, and in reality the occasional "cheat" probably isn’t going to wreck your weight loss or your health... but if you consistently find yourself unable to stick to a healthy eating plan, then you may need some help with habit-making (and you’re definitely not alone).
The problem isn’t just motivation – if you lacked motivation, then you never would’ve done the work to find and learn about an eating plan that is healthy and effective. If you lacked motivation you wouldn’t even be trying. You know where you want to be – skinny and healthy and full of energy – and you’re motivated to get there.
So what, exactly, is going on when you eat something you’re not supposed to, fall off your eating plan, or stop doing those workouts you swore to yourself you’d stick with?
What’s happening is you’re falling back into the BAD habits and not developing the GOOD habits you need to lose weight and stay thin, happy and healthy for life.
And you are definitely not the only one.
Everybody struggles with creating new habits and breaking old ones. That’s why so few New Year’s resolutions make it past March, and why everyone in the world isn’t fit, healthy, well-read, well-off, and all the other things most of us desire to be.
But it isn’t impossible, or even really all that hard, to break old habits and form new ones... we just think it is.
Get It On Autopilot
Breaking old bad habits seems so hard because when we carry out habitual habits – like having a bowl of cereal every morning, eating sugary treats in the middle of the afternoon, or having a doughnut from the office break room – we’re actually just running on “autopilot,” doing what comes automatically. And stopping that autopilot – taking over the controls and flying the plane ourselves – is mentally stressful.
In this busy world of ours, we avoid stress however we can – we’re programmed to put as much stuff as we can on autopilot so that we have plenty of energy left to handle the stuff that isn’t automatic (like a meeting with the boss, an upset kid, an angry neighbor... you know, everything else in life!).
But the problem is that your brain is overcompensating. Sometimes when it’s helping you avoid stressful decision making and non-automatic thinking, it’s actually preventing you from breaking bad habits (which only cause more stress in the long term). Sure, it may be a little more stressful to get off of autopilot, stop, and think before you grab that doughnut – but its it really MORE difficult than being sick and fat and tired all the time? Of course not.
One of the easiest ways to break bad habits is to start new ones that are healthy and productive, and over recent years psychologists and other researchers have looked in to all the different ways we can break old habits and form new ones. Thanks to them, there is now a lot of good science showing us the best strategies we can use to build new habits.
One of the most important lessons all this research has taught us is that it doesn’t just take 21 days to build any new habit, as is commonly believed. In reality, changing your habits is really a process you have to devote yourself to one day at a time. Eventually, any new action that you wish to turn in to a habit will truly become automatic... but how long that takes depends on a lot of different factors and can be anywhere from a few weeks to many months.
With my own experience and the science behind habit-making in mind, here are five steps you can take to help ensure that you create lasting, automatic habits that contribute to your long-term success at losing weight, becoming healthy, or any other goal you want to set your mind to.
#1 - Know Your "Why" and Visualize It
A variety of studies on motivation and self-determination indicate that we have the most success at meeting our goals when we think about the big picture of why we want to meet our goals (rather than being purely motivated by external rewards or punishments). So when we keep our eyes on the big picture – the reason why we want to do something – we are far more likely to actually follow through on the steps it takes to get there.
So I urge you to take a couple minutes and write down the reasons you want to build healthy habits. Is it so you can look great in a favorite dress? Go on more dates with your spouse? Maybe you want the energy and health to play with your kids in the park, or you want to pick up a new sport or hobby. Whatever it is – write it down.
Once you’ve written down your reasons for getting thin and healthy, put that piece of paper somewhere where you’ll see it often (I like my bathroom mirror for this). You can even create a vision board full of inspirational images and words that will help your mind center and focus on your goal.
If you’re having trouble thinking about your "why," just picture what will happen in your life when you’re thinner and healthier. Maybe you’ll go out more, or get more done. Maybe you’ll feel differently about yourself or your future. Those benefits that you’re picturing are probably your "why!"
Once you understand your big-picture motivation for creating healthy habits, it’s time to reinforce them in your subconscious. Visualization is a great technique for this, as anyone who’s tried meditation can tell you.
I love to do a visualization twice a day, every day to keep me on track towards my goals, and I recommend that you do too. Take two minutes every morning, right when you get up, and two more minutes every night before bed to clearly picture, in your mind, what it will be like when you achieve your goal. Imagine playing with your kids in the park, wearing clothes you’ve dreamed of, going on an active adventure, or whatever it is that really motivates you to lose weight and get healthy.
This visualization technique is a really powerful motivator, and it only takes a couple minutes – so don’t skip this step!
#2 - Make a plan with very small goals
Research also shows that while we need big-picture goals to motivate us, it’s actually the small, teeny tiny goals that will make sure we achieve long-term success. It’s only by taking baby steps that we’ll actually get to where we’re going.
And that makes a lot of sense, when you think about it. Even though you may want to lose 40 pounds and exercise for an hour every day, this will be hard to achieve if you only focus on those big goals. You’ll feel overwhelmed and may never even start in the first place. But, on the other hand, if you focus on the little, small changes that will get you there and then tackle them one baby step at a time, then you’ll quickly approach your goal. And with every little goal you achieve you’ll get a feeling of accomplishment – and that feeling will keep you going.
So start by setting a small goal that serves just one purpose: to get you closer to your big "why" and the YOU you’ve been visualizing. Then, once you’ve achieved that little step, you can focus on the next one and the next one and so on, until the life you’ve been visualizing becomes a reality.
Here are some examples of the sort of small goals you might start with:
- "I will eat a healthy breakfast every morning."
- "Every day I will replace my afternoon sugary treat with a piece of fruit."
- "I will drink 8 glasses of water every day."
- "I will go for a 20 minute walk every day."
- "Every morning I will start a healthy meal in the crockpot or prep what I need to make a healthy dinner."
- "Every Sunday evening I will prepare 5 healthy lunches to pack for work."
- "I will do a 10-minute workout every day."
Any one of these steps can be very easy if you follow the other steps in this article – and each one could make a big impact on your health and weight. Once it starts to feel like it’s becoming automatic to get up every day and eat a healthy breakfast, or go for a 20-minute walk, or whatever small habit you decided to create, then you can start on the next one that will get you even closer to your big goal.
#3 - Take Advantage of "Triggers"
A variety of research, including a study published in June 2013 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, has shown that one of the most effective strategies for making an action "automatic" (turning it in to a habit) is to make it a part of another chain of actions that is already automatic.
To picture this, think about your morning routine. As an example, you might get up, hop in the shower, brush your hair, brush your teeth, and then make breakfast. Whatever your routine is, you very likely do it pretty much the same way pretty much ever day without having to even think about it – you’re truly running on "autopilot." A good way to take advantage of this would be to add your new habit right to the end of this chain of automatic actions. Then your morning routine will act like a trigger that "fires off" your new habit with little to no willpower needed.
But you don’t even need to use a full-blown routine with lots of actions in it to find an effective trigger. If you goal is to hard-boil a dozen eggs every single Sunday so that you have a quick, healthy breakfast protein available all week long, then just find an activity you do every Sunday. Do you always watch a certain TV show on Sunday evenings? Make that show your "egg boiling time," and as soon as that show starts go put water on the stove.
Maybe your goal is to walk for 15 minutes every day. Well, you also eat dinner every day – so just set the goal that you will walk every day after dinner. After a few weeks, it will feel so automatic to get up from the dinner table and head out the door that it’ll actually be harder not to do it. You’ve made it so that eating dinner (already a habit) triggers the new desired habit (walking).
This step may, in some cases, require some creative thinking. Our members came up with 25 secrets to make weight loss easy. For example, if your desired new habit is to eat a healthy lunch each day, you might be wondering how this step applies. You might already eat lunch every day at the same time – that’s already automatic for you. But what you eat now isn’t always healthy, so the habit you actually need to develop is packing or preparing a healthy lunch to eat when lunchtime rolls around. So think about when this is going to be easiest, and what trigger you can take advantage of.
Maybe it’ll be easiest to pack up your lunch the night before, right after dinner, when you’re already in the kitchen and you can pack up leftovers or make a salad right then and there. And what will trigger you to grab it? A particularly creative solution might be to put your keys in the fridge, on top of your lunch, right when you prepare it after dinner... that way you can’t even leave the house in the morning without grabbing your keys and your lunch!
#4 - Be Prepared and Make It Easy, Fun, and Convenient
Okay, at this point you’ve visualized and written down your "why," you’ve broken it down into small goals and habits you can achieve one at a time, and you’ve decided what triggers you can leverage to help you make the habit become automatic. Now it’s time to make sure you’re fully prepared by checking that you have everything you need to ensure your success.
Want to eat a salad every day? Make sure you have a salad spinner to make it easy to wash lettuce. Grab extra containers if you need them for packing salads to go. Know exactly what your grocery list needs on it to stock your kitchen with fresh salad supplies. Want to walk 5,000 steps every day? Make sure you have comfortable shoes and a good pedometer that will track your steps.
Once you have everything you need, it’s time to think of all the ways you can make your new habit as easy, fun, and convenient as possible. Ask yourself: "What will make it less time consuming? What will make it more appealing?"
A great way to make it fun is to do it with someone else. Want to walk every day? Get your husband to come with you, or take the dog. I have a girlfriend who I love to go walking with regularly, and knowing that she’s waiting for me and that we’ll have a good chance to chat and catch up is all the motivation I need to make sure I never miss one of our walking dates.
Think, too, about how you can make it convenient... and then think about how you can make it even more convenient. Anecdotal evidence shows that we’ll take any little excuse we can not to do something that doesn’t feel automatic. Want to use your stationary bike every day, but have to walk all the way down to the basement to use it? That might be just the little excuse you need to avoid doing it. You have to make it SO EASY that you can’t – even deep down in your subconscious – think of any reason not to do it.
Take this example. After I had my second child my schedule got turned upside down and I had to re-establish entirely new routines. To keep up with my workout routine, I decided I’d have to start doing it in the morning before everyone else was up. But for the first couple of weeks after I made the decision to do my workouts in the morning, I just couldn’t get myself to do it.
After thinking hard about it I realized something odd... to go to my usual workout space I had to get out of my warm bed and walk across a cold floor, down the hall past the kids’ bedrooms and in to my office. I didn’t enjoy having cold feet and I didn’t like worrying I might wake the kids, so I was making it harder on myself to create my new habit and convincing my brain that there were good reasons not to go do what I knew I needed to do!
So I knew I had to get rid of the excuses. I got myself a nice pair of soft, warm slippers and I put them right next to my bed. This way my feet were warm and my steps were quiet going down the hall – no fear of discomfort, no fear of waking the kids. This is what I mean when I say you have to make it absolutely as convenient as possible – you have to eliminate as many excuses as you can!
#5 - Track your progress and reward yourself
By now you should be really, fully ready to create amazing new habits for your healthy new lifestyle. I highly recommend grabbing a calendar just to use for tracking your progress with new habits. Every day you successfully carry out your new habit, you can put an X (or a check, or a smiley face!) on that day. If you miss a day, there’s no need to feel bad – but the act of visually tracking your progress might be just the thing to keep you on track.
There’s a story out there that says that the comedian Jerry Seinfeld, when he was still an unknown, committed himself to writing new material every day and used his progress. Every day he successfully wrote, he would put a big red X through that day. After a while he realized that he would rather write every day just to avoid "breaking the chain" of red Xs on his calendar. So go get yourself a way to visually track your progress, and do your best to keep the chain going!
And then comes the best part...rewarding yourself! For every week or month that you effectively carry out your new habit, give yourself a small reward. You could go out for dinner with your spouse, do something fun with a friend, or whip up an indulgent treat using one of the safe-for-weight-loss recipes on Beyond Diet. Whatever it is, make sure it’s something that makes you feel good about your accomplishments – because you will have earned it!
You’re now armed with all of the steps you need to start developing some healthy habits, and I’m confident that you can do it. And when you’re trying to break bad habits, I want you to keep in mind that it really isn’t as hard as it seems. Think about how all of your normal habits and routines go out the door when you travel or go on vacation – it doesn’t cause you any physical pain or present any significant mental challenges, right? That’s because habits aren’t actually all that hard to break... especially if you replace the bad ones with good ones.
The best news of all is that just by reading this you’re already on your way to a "new you," so start thinking about your "why" and about the small easy habits you can create for a healthier, happier and more vibrant life.