As the summer winds down, the seasonal shift may inspire you to try something new.
The beginning of fall schedules can feel like the right time to get back to business, not only with family and work but with your diet, lifestyle, and health.
Which changes are top priorities for you? Is it less caffeine, alcohol, sugar or takeout? Maybe you would like to add something like vegetables, local foods, exercise or daily water? Whatever the desired change is, the ultimate goal is a reset – the point where this new behavior is no longer a new behavior but the daily norm.
Changing behavior is not easy. If we could just wake up one morning suddenly desiring the activities that improve our health and well being and despising those that detract from it, optimal health would be a breeze to achieve. Unfortunately, sudden changes of that type are usually short-lived. But it’s not your fault! The process of true behavior change – permanently altering your habits and actions – is a complex psychological process with many variables and factors.
Unlike a light switch with only two settings – on or off – individuals going through a behavior change pass through several stages: Precontemplation, Contemplation, Preparation, Action, and Maintenance (Deans, 2012).
Have you ever had someone joke, “The first step is denial”? Well, actually it’s true. The first step in making a life change is having no interest in said change. That may seem like an insignificant part of the process, but being unwilling to make a change is a whole lot farther along the spectrum than being unaware that change is an option. I see people in this stage often when I am out promoting the sugar detox program I coach. When they find out what I am offering, precontemplators usually respond with a shocked gasp and state that they either don’t have a problem with sugar (yes, we all do to some extent) or that they could never do the detox (yes, we all can). This person, however, is now a step closer to change than the person who doesn’t even know that a sugar detox exists. After all, knowing is half the battle.
Moving to this next step usually requires a personal connection between the behavior and the outcome. This could be a stern warning from a doctor, an interesting tidbit from the morning news, or a close friend or family member’s surprise diagnosis. People in the contemplation stage begin to consider the possibilities. They are open to gaining more information, but not ready to act yet. When I speak to these potential sugar detoxers, their response usually takes the form of, “I need to do this, but…”
At this point, things are beginning to happen. Inspiration abounds, and some excitement is building. Though the actual target behavior is not yet changing, plans are being made for the shift. A person at this stage is probably spending a lot of time Googling. It’s information time! How do I do this? Who has done this before? What was it like? I often don’t see this stage happening with the sugar detoxers. This happens behind the scenes – the contemplator who took my card or clipped my ad out of the paper and thought about it for a while.
It’s go time! The new cookbook was used. The first workout was completed. The sugar detoxer came to the first session. Feeling great about taking action provides momentum for more action. After spending some time in this stage, the results create additional momentum. In the action phase, life is good.
Here is where the work really starts, because this is truly the most important part. The initial burst of motivation from the Preparation and Action phases does not last forever. Relying on the rush will eventually let you down. Revisiting your goals, reviewing your progress, connecting with others who are supportive or tweaking your plan to make it feel fresh again are possible ways to maintain the healthy pathway you’ve begun.
The needs of individuals throughout the stages all differ. Successfully moving through the process, keeping the goals in mind and sticking it out for the long-term requires commitment, support, and a bit of knowing yourself. There are many exercises that can be done to help you better understand your own habits and decision-making processes. These new understandings can be instrumental in supporting your own health journey the right way.
A big problem for many people is a simple matter of “falling off the wagon.”
Despite the best intentions, support and desire for change, people make bad decisions. The only problem with this kind of derailment is chalking it up to poor willpower or a moral failing. Usually, these stumbling blocks are far from conscious decisions and have much more to do with conditioning and habits.
Habits are what our brain falls back on to avoid reaching decision fatigue. We make decisions all day and it is a taxing mental process. The ability to just not decide saves us a lot of energy. When you are trying to implement all new routines into your life, the number and weight of the decisions required through the day increases greatly. Now, instead of only making the choice between the scone or blueberry muffin, you have to decide to avoid going to the bakery, choose to make breakfast at home and then determine which of these new, unfamiliar foods you are going to make. That is a lot of work for your brain!
It is much simpler for your brain to slip into autopilot and do what it is used to doing. Melissa Hartwig of Whole30 fame summarizes this phenomenon by citing Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit. For every habit, there is a predictable sequence of events – the cue, the routine, and the reward. In the above example, the cue would be breakfast-time hunger with nothing immediately ready to eat, the routine is driving to the bakery, and the reward is a sweet and easy meal for breakfast.
Hartwig also describes a process for overcoming these habits.
Which habit is most greatly undercutting your goals? Once you have singled out the habit, the next step is identifying the cue. Perhaps you want to drink less alcohol or stop completely. What is your cue to have a drink? Consider the five main cue categories: location, time, emotional state, other people, or preceding action.
Once you have found your pattern, set up your life to avoid the cue. For the habit of hitting the bakery for breakfast, you might prepare breakfast the night before, like having hard-boiled eggs ready or making some overnight chia pudding. With that plan, you eliminate the trip to the bakery because you have already eaten at home.
Some cues cannot be avoided, such as end of the day fatigue and stress. If that is your cue to mix a cocktail, replacing that habit with a new one may be the best solution. For this example, you have many options. You might stop buying alcohol to have at home, meet up with friends and colleagues at places that do not serve alcohol, find a tasty non-alcoholic drink to sip on, work out at the gym at the end of the day, or take the dog for a walk when you get home.
Overall, do not rely on willpower to be the driving force behind the long-term changes you wish to make for your health.
The motivation that initially comes with an inspired new endeavor is a fantastic engine for the first steps but will do nothing to keep you going months down the road. While a bit of grit and self-discipline are essential, ultimately examining your habits and supporting your habit change with a few tweaks to your routine will have a great impact on your ability shift new choices into daily habits.
Deans, E. (2012). Context and the stages of change. Evolutionary Psychiatry. http://evolutionarypsychiatry.blogspot.com/2012/03/context-and-stages-of-change.html
Hartwig, M. (2012). Change your habits, part 1: The cue. Whole30. https://whole30.com/2012/03/change-your-habits-part-1-the-cue/