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10 Truths of Healthy Habit Change

10_truths_of_healthy_habit_change_05.17.15What do you think it takes to really overhaul your habits?

From a rational perspective, we’d assume it just requires the realization that different choices are in our best interest.

We’d assume it just takes intention – and maybe an updated grocery list. Throw in a gym membership, and you have the basics, yes?

Not exactly. Actual change has much more to do with our internal settings than our external environment.

Read on for more about the psychological process of behavior change, the investment that becomes habit and the unexpected elements that make or break our goals.

You must be ready – truly ready – or changes won’t stick.

The process of behavior change is rooted deep within our psychology rather than our logical, rational, and intentional thought. It’s called the Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change. The TTM model is widely-accepted to follow a several step sequence of thought and deliberation. It’s used as a framework for guiding basic and complex behavior patterns throughout the lifespan, including diabetes management.

The first step, “pre-contemplation” is more emotional-introspective than action-oriented and involves almost no conscious thoughts of changing one’s current situation (at least for the foreseeable future).

“Contemplation,” on the other hand, involves some intentional dreaming and scheming of how one day things might be different (just not in the next few weeks). It’s perfectly okay – even necessary – to hang out in pre-contemplation and contemplation for a while. In general, when you recognize the benefit of taking your time to reflect in your contemplation stage, you are most likely not regressing.

The middle stage, “planning” or “preparation,” is described as the first intentional step of making measurable changes. It’s marked by the fact that a start date (within the next few weeks) has been chosen and action is imminent.

Many new health club members could be classified in this stage. They’ve already thought about what it may take for them to become more serious action (contemplated), and they are now removing a barrier that will allow more measurable action. (They got access to a gym)

They’re still in “preparation” mode, however, because their actions are more random than structured; they haven’t yet settled on their intended action plan. Plans have been made to begin some changes (e.g. They’ve scheduled time to visit the club.), but the changes are relatively recent and not yet permanent.

Following the thought and preparation stages are the “action” and “maintenance” stages. “Action means there are defined, new behaviors being practiced related to a specific outcome goal. In other words, there are measurable process behaviors being tracked, trended, and measured to objectively assess progress towards a larger outcome (e.g. reduce body fat by 15%).

Most long-time health club members are probably somewhere between “preparation” and “action” stages because “maintenance” is defined as following a specific set of measurable behaviors for six months or more (which means the behaviors are no longer “new” and are more like habits). Seeing as how adults who want(contemplate) to lose weight make an average of four distinct attempts per year, it’s clear not many people truly reach “maintenance” mode.

In my experience, this process cannot (but often does) get rushed. Successful change-makers recognize and appreciate their place on this spectrum and approach their process as just that – a process.

The change has to be mostly your idea.

Let’s pretend you’ve graduated to the action stage of your process. You have an outcome goal, you’ve thought through everything you need to adjust (planned), and you’re taking specific actions.

Are you more likely to do something new if you’re just told you have to do it, or are you more likely to successfully practice a new, foreign behavior that you personally come up with (and possibly have that intention validated by a respected expert or resource)?

Right. If you came up with the idea for the new behavior and it’s validated by someone or something with a history of producing results, you’re more likely to practice said behavior. It’s human nature: we internalize and take responsibility for that which is our own idea. On the other hand, when we’re told what to do, our instinct is to become a bit defensive or at least justify the reasons why we couldn’t meet the external expectation.

True habit change sprouts from your own ideas of how ready, willing, and able you are to practice the necessary behaviors.

You’ll need to start with “no-pressure” practice.

When I tell clients they’re only responsible for “practicing” their (self-generated, validated) behaviors, the action steps become more like a game than a chore. It’s quite funny.

As a coach or mentor, I’m fully transparent in that I don’t expect perfection. Perfection is pressure, and pressure isn’t good for permanent habit change. So we practice.

Practice means you aim for great behavior execution, mostly achieve good execution, and are plenty satisfied with pretty good behavior compliance. No harm, no foul. You did great when the chips fell in your favor, made the best of some tricky situations, and still advanced towards your outcome goals even though things weren’t perfect (because life isn’t perfect). It’s a trial and error process, and the process only fails when you stoptrying, not when you keep trying.

Repetition, repetition, repetition is just as important as practice. 

We’ve all heard that a habit can only be formed after 21 days of practice, right? Bull.

Most evidence points to about three times that length of time. Yeah, more than 60 repetitions of a new behavior is what it takes before a true “habit” can be formed (in all types of conditions – easy, challenging, and in between). In keeping with this truth, it’s important to have patience with the process.

Positive changes are born from a dynamic, aspirational mindset.

Being okay with “practicing” is an important mindset change for many people. Dwelling on past failures (rather than learning from them) can be a downright drag on the creation of new, more positive habits.

Many of my clients – those who shrug off the tough moments and immediately apply the lessons learned from such challenges to the next obstacle – use language like, “I learned I need to plan for this situation in the future, and here’s how I’m going to overcome the challenge I encountered” rather than, “This is so hard; you’ll never believe what happened to me… I don’t know if I can do this.”

I’ve found that mindset – whether a victim mindset or a durable, empowered mindset – predicts results, purely because the mindset controls how people will respond in the face of a challenge.

Mindset is a great indicator of resilience because the most negative impacts of stress and challenge are hidden in our perception and response to such events. Think about what you see and feel when you face a challenge related to your own health goals.

Challenges and headaches are expected and dealt with thoroughly.

Expecting imperfection in the weight loss process is good, but only in the context of the right mindset because you have to be willing to deal with your specific challenges comprehensively.

Sure, you do your best to manage your internal thoughts, perceptions, and actions, but you’ll often have to overcome challenges in your environment, relationships, and social situations.

These challenges come with their own demanding, external stressors – how to respond to questions asked by acquaintances, strangers, and family, how to deal with unhealthy food environments, etc. How do you perceive the stress and challenge of your health goals?

Permanent progress will come from small changes, not drastic changes.

With this softer, “progress-not-perfection” approach, there’s often a tendency for behavior goals to be too numerous or lofty for their own good. You see, when we focus on one behavior change (like going to bed at 10 p.m.), compliance or consistency is often greater than 80%. If my client and I determine he/she should go to bed at 10 p.m. and eat 4 cups of vegetables (before he/she is ready, willing, and able) that client may only achieve 30-40% consistency.

Too much to focus on? According to behavior change experts, yes. Add a third new behavior, and consistency plummets even further!

Whether you apply lessons from “The Power of Less” or “The One Thing” doesn’t matter. What matters is that you focus on the least amount of impactful change for your readiness, willingness, and ability to change.

In the example above, being well-rested will probably improve appetite control, enhance your outlook about your diet and health, and help you be poised and motivated to make healthier eating choices.

In other words, as a side-effect of focusing only on quality sleep, you may achieve other positive behavior changes (without the added pressure).

You’ll have to assess results to be “hooked.”

Remember, a new behavior is just a new behavior for a long time before it becomes a habit? Here’s what’s so tough about habits.

I don’t know anyone who has the patience to blindly practice a new behavior in good faith for longer than a week or two without needing to see some measurable impact of the new behavior.

In other words, any change worth making better show its benefit – and rather quickly.

Measuring behavior adherence is nice, but assessing the outcomes of the chosen behaviors is where the work is proven. The best coaches in the health and fitness industry call this “outcome-based” or “results-based” decision making.

Your support system will help solidify your changes.

No one has endless internal motivation. So, when you think about making permanent habit changes, your social support network will need to be considered thoroughly. A flexible-yet-like-minded network for friends, family, and co-workers will often make or break your long-term success, even if they aren’t at the same stage of change as you are.

However, you may have to clue them in on your intentions, desires, and struggles. You may need to venture outside of your comfort zone before they can fully support you.

Ponder this: How do you rate your support system as a resource (or hindrance) to your ultimate health or weight loss success? A score of 1 means “no one is aware of or knows how to support me in this process” and a score of 10 means “my support system knows how important this goal is to me and is ready and willing to help me succeed when I need them, and they know how to help me.”

In my experience, clients’ support systems are only as helpful if the client clearly states his/her intentions and recruits the necessary help (or establishes necessary separation) from certain members of his/her current support system.

You need to celebrate wins (even little ones).

Humans are impatient for sure. We opt for instant gratification over delayed results eight days a week.

We also like recognition and reward, which is why it’s so important to observe and celebrate our “bright spots.”

We’re all fighting our own health wars in some respects, and the continuous process will wear us down unless we reflect on and celebrate the smaller battles that make up the war.

Most often, some positive introspection or recognition needs to be a daily part of the process. So, whether you use a gold star chart for good behaviors or your friends give you a heart or thumbs up on social media for behaviors practiced, or you get a high five from your trainer – it matters. A lot.

You should feel great about your progress every day – probably several times a day. Success breeds success, but only when you recognize it!

Thanks for reading, everyone. Are you interested in getting more support around healthy behavior change? Talk with a dietitian or fitness professional today!

In health, Paul Kriegler – Corporate Registered Dietitian

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.