If you’re struggling to make your new habits stick, welcome to the club!
Not a long time ago, I struggled with overeating nut butters. All nut butters from simple peanut butter to trendy almond, cashew, or pecan butter seemed to have this spell over me. I could never eat just the recommended serving size of two tablespoons. Something about diving into that jar of nut butter spoonful after spoonful was so satisfying, so delicious, and so dang hard to stop! Worse yet, I didn’t even feel guilty after polishing half a jar in one sitting. After all, I didn’t overeat junk food or sweets. It was nut butters and those are healthy, you know. I would tell myself that nuts are good for me, that I am still breastfeeding and need the extra fat, that I work hard and need the extra fuel.
The problem was that I wasn’t in control. Nut butters were in control over me. I simply couldn’t stop at just one or two tablespoons no matter how hard I tried. My “common sense” thinking that nuts are healthy led me straight to yet another relapse. I would promise myself that the next day would be different. The next day I would have more willpower to resist polishing the entire jar. But the next day arrived and I would slip back to my old pattern regardless of the rule I set for myself.
It wasn’t until my husband called me on it. “You are a nutritionist, for crying out loud! You should be able to figure this out.” So I did. I read a couple of books, watched a few videos and implemented what I learned. It took me months before I finally broke the habit. And even now, I would lie if I said that nut butters don’t tempt me anymore. Often times, I choose to abstain from nut butters completely because eating even the smallest amount creates a craving for more than just one serving size. But it’s not a hardship anymore. It’s a freedom from obsession as well as all the negative consequences of overeating.
My hope is that this article will inspire you to start making changes today. If you’re wondering where to start, a simple framework you’ll find below will help you do just that: start.
The Power of Habits
According to researchers, habits account for about 40% of your behavior on any given day. (1) Your life is essentially a sum of your habits. Everything about you – success, defeat, achievements, failures, goals – is all because of patterns of habitual thinking and acting.
How healthy you are? A result of your habits. How successful you are? A result of your habits. How calm or defensive you are when you get into an argument? A result of your habits.
But habits can be changed. The brain can be physically re-wired to adopt new habits and new ways of thinking. (2) Whether you want to lose weight, eat healthier, start exercising, or take up meditation, you can do it as long as you understand the power of habit.
The Habit Loop
In his best-selling book, The Power of Habit, author Charles Duhigg explains a simple three-step framework that all habits follow. (3) This process, known as the Habit Loop, consists of:
- Cue (the trigger that starts the habit)
- Routine (the actual habit)
- Reward (the benefit you get from doing that habit)
Over time, this loop becomes more and more automatic. The cue and reward become so intertwined that a powerful sense of anticipation and craving emerges. Eventually, a habit is born.
This framework has been proven time and time again by behavioral psychology researchers and scientists. BJ Fogg, a psychologist at Stanford University, suggests that for a person to perform a target behavior, he or she must be sufficiently motivated (= reward), have the ability to perform the behavior (= routine), and be triggered to perform the behavior (= cue). (4)
James Clear, a behavioral psychology writer, then builds upon Duhigg and Fogg. He refers to the habit loop as the “The 3 R’s of Habit Change” with reminder, routine, and reward being the main three components. (5)
Regardless of the terminology, the process of habit formation is well-researched. So you can be confident that your habits follow the same cycle. The difficult part is to recognize the three components of your habit loop. Only then will you be able to break bad habits and make new habits stick.
As simple as it may sound, recognizing triggers is not always easy. There are so many aspects in play as your habits unfold. Ask yourself right now, do you eat lunch at a certain time each day because you’re hungry? Or because the clock says 12:00 pm? Or because everyone else around you eats their lunch? All of them together?
To identify a trigger amid the noise, you can use a system that Charles Duhigg and other psychologists use in order to see patterns. Studies have shown that almost all habitual triggers fall into one of five categories (3):
- Emotional state
- Other people
- Immediately preceding action
To identify your triggers, track them for a couple of days to see patterns. Below is a summary of my notes when I was trying to break my overeating habit.
Trigger 1: Time
My nut butter cravings weren’t tied to a specific time. 11:00 am or 2:00 pm – it didn’t matter. Rather, there was a particular event that always preceded the craving, but more on that later.
Trigger 2: Location
Location didn’t play a role either. I could be sitting behind a computer desk responding to emails, watching YouTube videos in bed, or writing articles sitting on a couch in the living. However, I did notice a common thread – I always had my laptop in front of me. I would mindlessly consume spoonful after spoonful of nut butter with my computer open right in front of me.
Trigger 3: Emotional State
Tired, bored, stressed, happy, or excited – my emotional state had no impact on (over)eating. I would reach for a jar of nut butter any time.
Trigger 4: Other People
The people around me, or rather the lack of, was probably the most important habit trigger. When I was surrounded by other people – be it my family or friends – I didn’t even think about nut butters. I could be sitting behind an open laptop, but instead of mindlessly consuming large amounts of nut butter, I would be chatting with whoever was around. I think this happened for two reasons: one – I had somebody to distract me and two – other people served as my accountability.
Accountability has always been a huge motivator for me. Let other people see that I, a holistic nutritionist, can’t control my cravings? Never! The less I engaged in my destructive behavior, the easier it was to change my habit.
Trigger 5: Immediately Preceding Action
Immediately preceding action was likely the second most important habit trigger. Not only are nut butters like a heaven in jar, but they are also incredibly high in calories and fat. During the time of me consuming jar after jar of nut butters, my diet was pretty low in calories. I noticed that if I only had a smoothie for lunch (which was quite often, especially in the summer), I would crave high-calorie foods afterwards. However, if I chose a high-protein, veggie-filled lunch with healthy fats, I was much less likely to binge on nut butters later.
The routine is the obvious component of the habit loop. It’s the actual behavior you want to start or change. Keep in mind that acquiring complex or challenging habits will take longer than a smaller habit.
If you’re trying to stick with a new habit, chunk or sequence your habit formation. Rather than starting with 1-hour long run, start with 10 minutes. Pick something easy enough that you can’t come up with an excuse for not doing it.
On the other hand, if you’re trying to break a habit, don’t take more than you can bite. Almost every habit is the result of many small decisions over time. In the same way, breaking a habit should be done one step at a time.
The takeaway message:
Success is a few simple disciplines, practiced every day; while failure is simply a few errors in judgment, repeated every day.
Rewards are so powerful because they satisfy cravings. The problem is that many times we aren’t even aware of the craving that drives our behaviors.
The good news is that once you figure out your triggers, discovering your rewards isn’t that difficult. Looking at my triggers, the two things I was truly craving were interaction with other people and more calorie-dense food. Eating a more calorie-dense lunch wasn’t a problem (who wouldn’t want to eat more food, right?). On the other hand, surrounding myself with other people at lunch time required much more planning. Since I work from home, I’m usually not around other people at lunch time. So I experimented with a few different things until I finally settled on simple phone calls. Not only did they fulfill my desire for social interaction, but they were also relatively easy to plan and stick to.
The key to redesigning habits is to have a plan. Going to just “wing it” won’t work, especially if you’re trying to change a long-term, deeply encoded habit. So iron out the practicalities far in advance.
The Golden Rule of Habit Change
To change a habit, you must keep the same cue and the same reward, but insert a new routine. This is known as the Golden Rule of Habit Change. (3) The truth is, you can’t completely eliminate a bad habit. Once created, the neural patterns stay in your brain forever. However, what you can do is to replace an old routine with a new one.
Say you want to stop drinking coffee at work in the afternoon. The first thing you need to find out is what sets off the trigger. When you dig deep, you realize that you drink coffee because you get tired (= cue) and coffee gives you a quick pick-me up (= reward). Now, the key is to do something different that will provide the same reward. Maybe you could go for a quick walk, get outside for some fresh air, or drink green tea instead. Remember, the cue and the reward stay the same. So now when you get tired at work in the afternoon (= the same cue) and need a quick pick-me up (= the same reward), you go for a quick walk outside (= new routine).
Finally, start today! There’s never gonna be a better time to break bad habits and make new habits stick. Define your cue-routine-reward loop and believe in yourself and the process. Eventually, you will gain power even over the most complex and obstinate habits.