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(Editor' note: this post was originally published in Feb. 2016)
Chances are good that you already understand the basics of “eating right”. It’s pretty simple: eat fewer refined carbs (especially flour and sugar by any of it’s names), replace those carbs with veggies and some fruit, eat more protein, and have a moderate amount of healthy fat. We can argue about details (dairy? legumes?) and meal frequency, but nutrition basics are simple and well known.
If we basically know what to do, and it’s not onerous, then why is it still so hard eat right consistently? Because changing habits is hard to do. And, trying to eliminate bad habits with willpower or self-discipline alone is impossible on a long enough timeline. This article is about how to take the good information that you already have and turn it into something that you can apply and build on for a lifetime.
1. Understand that you can’t break a bad habit:
This is according to Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit. Willpower only allows you to delay the running of a habit pattern, but willpower can’t break a habit. This delay is very taxing for your brain, so as soon as you your stress threshold the old habit comes back with interest.
On a positive note you can modify your existing habits to get the results you want. Habits are a 3 part pattern: trigger, routine, and reward. The trigger and the reward are both fixed, however we can go to work on the routine, and that is where our power for long-term success lives.
An example of a waist expanding habit that I see very often is: Trigger – very hungry at 3pm, routine – find the closest food (usually vending machine, or office doughnut box), reward – relief from hunger and/or a temporary energy boost.
There are actually 2 ways to deal with the above habit:
(a) If you are often ravenous at 3pm, then you can avoid the trigger – ravenous hunger – by simply stopping to eat lunch. Avoiding the trigger (if realistic), is also a solid strategy. We also see this when people eat something like cereal for breakfast – it throws off your blood sugar, and tends to make people ravenous later in the day. Changing breakfast so that you eliminate the refined carbs and add some protein will usually eliminate the trigger, and keep you from running the bad habit at 3pm.
(b) You can also improve the routine like this: Trigger – be very hungry at 3pm, new routine – grab your healthy pre-packed snack, reward – relief from hunger and lasting energy boost.
2. Respect the law of 3:
When people feel motivated to change, they usually (unintentionally) set themselves up for long-term failure. What I mean is that humans seem to only be able to effectively work on 3 habits at any given time. 3 is a maxed out brain. When people are motivated they want the excitement of massive change because this will bring really fast change for as long as life is relatively smooth.
However, you and I both know that this is how the diet rollercoaster always starts – make a lot of change, see great results, and then unravel when the inevitable crisis appears in your life. The problem is not will power. The problem is in wishing life were different than it was, or that it is our lack of willpower that gets us off track.
Bottom line: only pick 2 or 3 habits to change over the next month or so, and wait until the new pattern is really a part of your normal until moving to something else.
3. The 20 Second Rule:
Shawn Achor’s “20 second rule” is a brilliant concept about reducing the activation energy required to do the right thing, and increasing it for the wrong thing. For example, I love ice cream – especially cookie dough, mint chocolate chip, chocolate peanut butter… If I buy ice cream on Sunday thinking I’ll eat it Friday night, I know that it’ll be gone by Monday (Tuesday at the latest). This is because keeping ice cream in my freezer eliminates the activation energy necessary to eat ice cream – I don’t even need to wear pants to enjoy.
However, if I leave the ice cream at the store, then ice cream becomes hard work. I would have to put on pants, walk or drive to the store, pick out the ice cream (and hope no clients see me in the store!), wait in line, and then get back home. At the same time, I also make sure that I always have plain Greek yogurt and frozen berries on hand. Now the yogurt and berries is the easy choice because I don’t have to leave my house or put on pants to enjoy it. How can you apply this to your life?
4. Have a “back up meal” in the freezer:
We all know that going to the grocery store weekly is a critical part of eating right, but we’ve all been in a situation where life stole our weekend. Then Monday arrives and we get home from work, hungry and beat from the tough weekend. We have two choices:
(a) We can be pissed at ourselves because we were too lazy to go to the store at midnight on Sunday, and then order pizza (or similar comfort food) to sooth our guilt, or,
(b) We can accept that we’re human, and prepare accordingly. The prep is (and must be) very, very simple – add the ingredients for your “back up meal” to your grocery list.
My favorite “back up meal” is the frozen salmon filets from Whole Foods, and frozen green beans. As long as I have this, then everything else I need is in my spice cabinet. All I need to do to be ready is add “frozen salmon” and “frozen green beans” to my grocery list the week after I deplete them.
Here’s my preferred way: defrost the salmon under running hot water, and get a pan with a little bit of butter hot. Put skin side down, and season with Trader Joes garlic salt (it’s way different than regular garlic salt), pepper and dill. Turn down heat to low and put top on the pan. Cook the green beans however you like – steam or microwave. Add a pat of butter, then salt & pepper to taste on the beans. Now I have salmon with crispy skin and dill, and green beans. Almost as good as pizza, and I can prep and cook in under 20min.
Other ideas have been pre-cooked chicken sausage, and some kind of frozen veggie. Frozen Italian sausages, sliced carrots, frozen Brussels’ sprouts and onions can all be put on the same baking sheet with some salt and pepper, and can be cooked while you relax. There are lots of good ideas, you just need to keep one that works for you.
5. Consistent exercise:
Yes, this is relevant to your diet. Consistently exercising at least 3 days per week is actually one of the most powerful strategies for cleaning up your diet. This is because exercise is what behavioral researchers call a keystone habit. Keystone habits create a positive chain reaction in the rest of your life because they generate positive momentum, increase self-discipline (as a mental resource), energy and confidence.
When you work at establishing a regular exercise habit you will find that you eat better, spend your money more wisely, and are nicer to the people in your life. Regular exercise gives you the internal resources to do everything else.