“Change your habits, and you’ll change your life.”
You’ve likely heard this saying before and wondered “That’s great, but how do I actually do that?”
After all, some habits are harder to change than others. Quitting cigarettes is hard. Making your bed every morning is not.
Likewise, establishing new habits in regard to your fitness and health is not as clear-cut as experts make it out to be. Habit change is not a one-size fits all.
If we accepted this as fact, we’d stop shoving ideas like “eat 6 small meals per day to get lean” or “workout 5x a week” down each other’s throats. Yes, IF works for some folks but not everyone. Bulletproof coffee does wonders for one and not the other.
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The Three Truths of Habit Formation
While habit change looks different for each individual, I’ve found that there are three underlying truths about habit formation that will enable us to break free from bad behaviors and make real change in our health once and for all.
1.) Personality determines the how of habit change
Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before lays out four personality types, or tendencies as she calls it, that I recently mentioned in my Facebook/Instagram Live chat “Small Tweaks, Big Rewards” (You can watch it HERE).
The Cliff Notes version of these personality types are:
Questioner: You are willing to do things as long as you understand the “why” behind it. For example, you ask your trainer a lot of questions, like why she programmed a push-up after a heavy deadlift, or why she has you throwing a med ball around.
In other words, you’re down to follow the rules, stick to the program, or do the diet, as long as the logic behind it makes sense.
If this is you, you pepper your trainer with a lot of questions and like to hear the science behind an idea before deciding to stick with it.
Rebel: You resist rules and dread doing something just because someone has told you to. You might struggle to follow a diet or program with too many restrictions. The moment your trainer says “no more fries” you head to In-N-Out and order yourself some.
If this is you, you might do better with general guidelines, need more autonomy, or have to pay to visit your trainer 3x per week because you know you won’t follow a program otherwise.
Upholder: You like rules, deadlines, goal setting and New Year’s Resolutions. You rarely cancel appointments and you’re really good about following a diet plan to a T. You can workout with someone else or on your own just as easily.
If this is you, you need a lot of rules and do’s and don’ts when starting a new program. You want a start and end date (12 weeks? Perfect!), and may want a strict set of rules so you know exactly what to do and when. Online programs are great options for you because you’ll follow it exactly.
Obliger: You don’t mind following rules as long as they’re not self-imposed ones. You will show up for every single session with your trainer but you won’t hit the gym on your own.
If this is you, investing in personal training or group class where there is plenty of accountability or support from a community makes the most sense for you. You are unlikely to train for a marathon if you’re running by yourself so you need a running buddy or charity group to hold you to your runs.
To read more about this, check out Gretchen’s work.
Do you recognize yourself in one of these four personality types?
Knowing yourself in this manner will inform your decisions around fitness and nutrition. Know thyself before you wreck yourself.
2.) Every habit needs a cue and reward
As Charles Duhigg lays out in his book, The Power of Habit, there is no single framework or formula for habit change. However, there is a feedback loop that we feed into our habits, which includes a cue and a reward.
If you can successfully replace cue and reward, you can change your habit with consistent effort.
When I worked my 9-to-5, I found myself wandering to the snack bar in our kitchen every afternoon.
Most people call this the “afternoon slump” and yes, a heavy dose of sugar did wonders to spike my blood sugar levels and wake me up. Only problem was, there were zero healthy snacks in our office and I knew that all the sugar would lead me into a downward spiral of more sugar, more cravings and finally, a sugar crash and burn an hour later.
Following Charles’ feedback loop outlined in his book, I got curious about the cue that led me into the kitchen: Low energy, exhaustion, wanting a break from work…
The energy boost and mental break from my heavy work pile were the rewards of hitting the snack bar. With this information, I implemented a new cue/reward system to keep me from overeating in the afternoon and thereby, gaining weight and feeling crappy.
I began to take afternoon walks when I hit my slump. The combination of movement and the San Diego sunshine gave me the same reward as before (mental break and more energy) without all the negatives afterward (weight gain, sugar crash, cravings, etc.)
You too can apply this into your own habit change process by getting curious about the cue/reward system leading you down one path, and replacing them with another cue/reward.
3.) Belief is essentialYour belief system is the most powerful element of habit formation and one that took me the longest to grasp.
Dr. Carol Dweck put it best in her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, when she outlines what a fixed and growth mindset looks like.
When it comes to habit change regarding fitness and health, those with a growth mindset find joy in the process of learning and improving. Setbacks are motivation and they own the belief that they can achieve their goals if they show up and do the work again and again.
On the flip side, someone with a fixed mindset finds obstacles and setbacks unmotivating, and are completely derailed if they are injured or aren’t losing the weight fast enough. Fixed mindset people believe that genetics dictates the best bodies or the best athletes, with little to no regard in the journey and effort it takes to create those bodies or athletes.
You must adopt a growth mindset if you plan to successfully change a habit.
I’ve found that individuals who like fast-fix cleanses, diets, or intense workout programs that deliver fast, incredible transformations in a short period of time are the ones with a fixed mindset and who struggle to make any change in their health.
Because they’re not investing in the process. Their belief is that they can achieve a goal (i.e. lose weight) by taking shortcuts (detoxes, 6-week transformation bootcamps, etc.) instead of relying on what they will learn and achieve in the process of losing weight. They are invested in short-term gains versus long-term improvement.
Your belief system is at the core of habit change. If you fear failure or resist how much effort and time is needed to get you to a certain level of performance, weight loss, or athleticism then you’re unlikely to change your habits for the better and achieve the things you want.
Want to learn more about habit change and how you can improve your fitness?
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