One of the toughest things about developing good habits for health has got to be maintaining them. Or perhaps it’s breaking the bad ones that’s tougher, I’m not sure. Either way, one of the things I see time and time again in people (including myself) who are trying to lose weight, is that we fall off the wagon on a regular basis. Little by little, day by day, it’s so easy to slip back into the bad habits and behaviour that made us fat/unhappy/unhealthy in the first place.
I’ve been thinking about this recently, as I’ve had a month of following a low carb diet fairly strictly, with regular & consistent exercise. In between, I’ve been walking as much as possible and trying not to spend too long at a stretch sitting down. As a result, I am losing weight steadily, so feeling relatively motivated to keep this going. If I do keep going as I am, I will achieve a slow but realistic weight loss that I hope I will maintain for the rest of my life.
However, there’s a bit of me that is just waiting for disaster. A part of my own brain is working against me. It expects me to fail, or at least stall a bit, fuck up a bit, reproach myself and climb reluctantly back on that flipping wagon. It’s the usual pattern of success/failure that this time I really want to break.
An expert I heard on the radio some time ago stated that it takes about three weeks of constant effort and reminders to break a bad habit e.g. the cravings for cigarettes while giving up smoking. Three weeks is nothing in the scheme of things but when you’re trying to give something up, it can feel like forever. Still, most of us who have tried to give up something we love can attest to the truth of this. After a month, I now find it fairly easy to avoid that regular wine habit.
But how long does it take to instill the good habits, the ones we want to keep? A google search along the lines of developing good habits will take you to endless sites that advise on the type of things one should be doing every day e.g. drinking a glass of warm water every morning, or setting your alarm half an hour early for exercise, or getting to bed at 9pm every night, without looking at your smart phone after 7pm. As if.
No doubt the people who do these things are happier, healthier and more successful. But for many of us, the problem is not so much about identifying a goal, it’s sticking to it. So you might feel motivated enough to set your alarm for an early gym session, but what’s to stop you rolling over and clicking snooze until a more pleasant rising time? Especially on those dark, rainy mornings, when bed has never seemed so appealing. Yes, you can get all your workout gear ready and next to the bed, but what actually motivates you to get out of bed and put it on? Some people go as far as sleeping in their gym clothes, which sounds pretty unpleasant to me, but if it works then why not?
I did find one useful article on this subject during my trawls: 18 Tricks to make new Habits Stick. The first one recommends making a plan for 30 days, which does seem to be the sweet spot for ridding ourselves of old habits or developing new ones. Within that time, everything is an experiment, which by its nature means you can’t fail, as you are just trying something out. If it doesn’t work, then you try something else that might work better, without beating yourself up about it. Because from one failure, we often spiral into an ever descending void of crapulence, based on the ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ theory of whatthefuckery. So instead of experiencing a minor setback on the road, we end up back where we started.
There are other useful techniques that help people e.g. visualisation, seeing yourself avoiding the bad and doing the good thing, which is something I rarely do, but I know works for many people. Everyone is different though and I often find that number 17 on the list – think of what you fear – whilst not exactly touchy feely, works pretty well for me. In other words, I scare myself shitless with the image of a future where I am a fat, dying bastard with heart disease/cancer/strokes etc. Okay, these things might happen anyway, but they are less likely if I look after my body a bit better and stop filling it with junk. Sometimes a bit of negativity is just as useful as the positive stuff. Or maybe that’s just a Scottish thing…
And when all else fails on the motivational front, I need to remind myself that I am just a regular human, whose body works in the same way everyone else’s does. Change takes time, and results don’t happen overnight. For some of us, it takes longer than four weeks. After a lifetime of yo-yo dieting and failure to exercise much, four weeks probably is overnight. A helpful reminder of this comes from a learning theory I came across back in my university days and have never forgotten. Good old Abraham Maslow. This theory of the four stages applies to learning anything, but I also believe it applies to habits too.
Someone in the secret weightwatching Facebook group commented on one of my posts the other day, saying that I was ‘in the zone’. In some respects, I doubt that I will ever be in the zone, whatever that means. My interpretation of the mythical ‘zone’, means you are stage 4 of this cycle. When you’re in the Zone, you just get on with your healthy thing, day in day out, without thinking about it. Sadly, I am very much at stage 3. I have to be mindful of every bite that goes in my mouth and I still have to drag myself to the gym most mornings when I would rather lie in bed. In fact yesterday, the workout was so tough, I wanted to give up half way through it, lie down on the dirty floor and sob until I cleaned myself with my own tears. I didn’t though; I just gritted my teeth and got on with it.
What stopped me from bailing out? Nothing special about me. It was equal parts of determination not to look like a quitter, rage at the Coach for devising such a horrible workout (anger can be a useful motivator at times) and that damn fear again. The knowledge that I need to keep doing this to get where I want to be. Which is why the quote at the top of this post is so useful. Instant gratification (i.e. the release you get from quitting) is a false friend.
So you might say to yourself, as suggested in the article, I really want this…BUT…it won’t help me get where I want to go. Taking a moment to argue yourself out of your own bad habits will. Maybe that is the magic bullet. And perhaps I will never get to the stage four zone. Perhaps I will spend the rest of my life watching myself, trying to be careful, trying not to fall down the rabbit hole. If that’s the case, so be it. It’s better than the alternative.
But I don’t really believe that. As said, I’m a normal human, so human rules apply. Eventually, all of these good habits will sink in and become normal practice. I just might take my own sweet time doing it.
Until next time,