In case you missed it last week, you might wanna check out How to Create Healthy Habits That Actually Last: Part One here.
In that post I laid out why healthy habits can be so tough to stick to, and how to shift our mindset around them into a positive one. Today, let’s get to how to actually establish new habits that help us feel rad, eh?
Okay so remember all my cringe-worthy talk of self love? Well, we know that intrinsic motivation is important for creating healthy habits, but as much as I wish I could point to a book or an affirmation or a crystal and say that’s all you need, it’s a little more complicated than that.
While that’s all great, that’s just the foundation. And when it comes to healthy habits and specifically losing weight, frankly I’ve just about heard enough of “simply eat better and exercise”. Like, while we’re solving problems, how about we tell addicts to just avoid the drugs, or people in debt to just stop buying stuff?
But I digress.
Since I’m a total weirdo who enjoys spending my Saturday geeking out on this shit (and cough don’t need to understand this stuff myself at all, no way not me cough), I’ve read piles of books, articles and studies on habits and have learned there are three important mechanics:
There are many different forms of momentum. You can be moving toward better outcomes in positive momentum, be in stillness (either contented or stagnant), or be moving toward worse outcomes in negative momentum.
When you’re in either negative momentum or stagnant stillness, it’s pretty likely that you’re not super thrilled with your life at the moment. When you feel shitty about yourself, physically feel terrible or just plain unfulfilled, you’re not exactly bathing in self love when you wake up everyday.
When you start working on this by taking action toward creating more self love, whatever that looks like for you, you start to build positive momentum. It could be taking a walk everyday with a friend or a podcast, working with a coach, picking up a few interesting books, whatever gets you into alignment. With this momentum comes a shift toward self love and intrinsic motivation.
The key is starting, no getting around that, and ideally you choose things you want to do. If a fitness challenge at the gym or a juice cleanse sounds awful to you, please for the love of god don’t do one. Because when you inevitably fail (because you don’t want to be doing it in the first place), you’re creating negative momentum.
We hear a lot about incentives right? That’s because they drive all motivation, whether intrinsic or extrinsic. We’re not about to drag our asses to an office unless there’s cash and a 401k involved. We humans do what we are incentivized to do. And you know what we really like? Immediate payoffs.
That means when we get home ravenously hungry and are faced with a bag of chips or cooking something healthy from scratch involving carrots or whatever’s in our sad fridge, our brains tell us to go for the processed food because the dopamine hit is way more appealing and we’re going to get food instantly. These are competing incentives, and the efficiency/dopamine combo is the stronger contender thanks to the way we’re wired.
There are some sweet incentives for eating well and exercising: a clearer mind, increased energy, better mood, etc. A few days of resetting your system will prove that. But most people only associate eating well with weight loss. And if that’s the only incentive you see for eating well, then it’s a shitty incentive because it’s long term. And it simply cannot compete with short term incentives that come with unhealthy habits like dopamine hits and the temporary sugar high we get from eating a chocolate chip cookie that’s perfectly soft on the inside with crispy edges. I know, bummer right?
So we have to recognize the positive incentives of living healthier, while setting ourselves up for positive incentive matching. Keeping a healthy fridge stocked and making habits easier to integrate, just like finding exercise we love helps.
Most people I talk to who want to lose weight have a go-to list of excuses they rattle off for why nothing has worked. The biggest contenders are being short on time (to cook nutritious food), money (for a gym membership) or willpower (to say no to late night ice cream binges). These factors can all be labeled “resources”. Sometimes a lack of resources is a legitimate issue, especially when it comes to physical conditions and financial institutions that are fighting against us. We’ll table the social and economic effects of the U.S. food system for another time, to avoid ending up with a War and Peace length blog post.
Our environment can also play a big role here. All you have to do is walk into a regular grocery store to see how our modern food landscape sets us up for failure. Grabbing a cheap frozen meal or fast food is much easier than grabbing fresh vegetables to cook. If you’re living with someone who doesn’t eat healthy, or stresses you out, that’s going to be a factor too.
What we have to do is identify our personal stressors and the barriers that are stopping us from creating healthy habits. Once you become aware of what’s draining you and what resources are lacking in your life, you can work on better solutions. The changes that have made an impact for me are moving into my own place (so I control how the kitchen is stocked), sticking to better work hours when possible (and consequently sleeping better) and finding (and yep, paying for) a yoga studio that I love.
Putting it all together
So to summarize, in order to create healthy habits that actually last, we have to work on a few things. Remember, a habit is something that’s hard to give up (not just something we do consistently). To do so:
- Build intrinsic motivation for self love with positive momentum, that’s what drives results. Positive momentum could include anything you enjoy doing that makes you feel good (and shouldn’t be overly forced). For example: going for a walk, reading a good book, watching your favorite tv show, taking a bath with candles. Whatever that looks like for you.
- Reinforce the positive incentives of eating well and exercising. We now know why we’re programmed to stuff our faces with sugar and refined carbs when we’re starving, instead of taking time to cook a nutritious meal.
- Identify where you’re lacking in resources and adjust as necessary. Is your environment setting you up to fail? How can you change it?
If you’re hearing some of this for the first time, I know it can be a little overwhelming. At least that’s how I felt! But once you break down some of the mechanics and understand how our bodies and brains work, it becomes a little easier to get a handle on. Leave a comment or shoot me an email if you want to hash any of this out.
Did I miss any tips that have helped you create lasting healthy habits? Tell me below!