When we want to lose weight, we start talking about habits, even if we don’t call them out by name. We say things like, “I’m going to start riding my bike more!” or “I should really start eating breakfast.” What we really mean is that we want to start new habits or break old ones. Our weight and our habits are tied together. Or, to put it another way, our current weight is the result of our current habits.
We all have habits we know we should change. I mean, every time I open my phone, my thumb moves on its own and takes me straight to Instagram, no matter why I picked up my phone in the first place. I swear my brain isn’t even connected to my hand when that happens. What kind of wizardry is that? Habits. They run our world.
Normally, when we decide we want to start doing something new, we get this rush of motivation and adrenaline and try to ride it for as loooong as we can. Maybe we aim for that magical 21 days we’ve heard about. If we stick it out for that long, it’ll become a habit!
Except that it might take longer than 21 days to form a habit, depending on how hard the new habit is. And one day, your motivation will go MIA. Well, skipping just one day won’t hurt, we reason with ourselves. But then one day becomes two, two becomes three, and before we know it, it’s January, and we’re making it our new year’s resolution. Again.
Ideally, we wouldn’t need motivation to do something. We’d just do it. Which is what a habit is. It’s our brain’s way of saving resources. Our brains don’t want to make decisions every single moment of every single day. Habits let our brains take a break so it can focus on new, unusual problems.
That’s both good and bad. When we make a habit we want to keep, then we don’t need to think about it anymore! Huzzah! But bad habits can throw us into an endless loop, keeping us stuck, if not in a downward spiral.
What A Habit Looks Like
Charles Duhigg has a great breakdown of a habit in his book, The Power of Habit, that we’re going to use here.
A habit looks like this:
Cue —> Action —> Reward
For example, eating lunch. The cue is what triggers the habit, like your stomach growling. The action is eating lunch. The reward is the happy feeling you get from eating delicious food.
So how do you make a new habit? Find a cue, action, and reward.
Let’s say that you want to start logging your lunch calories before you eat it.
The cue could be a lot of things. It could be a time of day, an emotion, or even another habit, like brushing your teeth after eating breakfast.
And, by the by, the easiest way to include a new habit in your routine is to link it with a pre-existing habit. When I want to add a new habit, I always check to see if I can daisy-chain it to something I’m already doing.
If you need a cue to log your lunch before you eat it, you could:
- Use a habit app to send a push notification on your phone. This works especially well if your cue to eat lunch is a specific time, like 1:00 pm.
- Place a sticky note reminding you to log on your fridge, table, or lunch box. Somewhere where you’ll see it before you eat.
- Have a physical chart or calendar that you fill out every time you log.
This step of the process is, arguably, the most difficult one to manufacture, and where most people go wrong. Doing the task is not its own reward. Not at first.
You know how Instagram becomes a habit? Dopamine. Your brain gives you a hit of feel-good dopamine every time you get a notification. Leverage that to your advantage. Did you log your food? Give yourself a gold star. No, literally, on a chart, like you’re a kindergartener. Check it off in your habit app. And bask in that sweet, sweet dopamine. Link logging your food with the satisfaction of making progress toward your goal, and it’s much more likely to stick.
Oh, and the reward needs to happen immediately after the routine. No delayed, end-of-day rewards. You want your brain to associate the reward directly with the routine.
What Could Go Wrong?
It may take a few tries to see what cues and rewards work best for you. Maybe you hate apps and prefer a physical calendar, à la the Seinfeld method.
And don’t forget to plan for what you’ll do when things go wrong. Because they will go wrong. What will you do if you go out to eat? What if you forget to log? Planning what to do in non-ideal scenarios makes it much less likely that an unusual schedule will throw off your rhythm.
If you go out to eat, schedule a push notification to remind you at the restaurant. Or write in on your hand. (I like to draw a star in between my thumb and index finger.) If you forget, plan to do it as soon as you remember. Maybe start a habit of checking your log at the end of every day before bed.
A Habit Is Born
Keep doing it until you don’t have to think about it anymore. You’ll know you’ve succeeded when you realize that you didn’t even notice when it happened.