It is amazing to me how quickly Gracie has firmly established her habits. She has already claimed her favorite places to sit or lie down, where she likes to play and where she likes to nap (directly on top of my feet!) She has her routine for her day down pat and she has established the floor by Marc’s recliner as her launching pad for any new activity.
It makes me realize how intricately our habits are interwoven into every aspect of our daily existence. Just like 80 percent of the groceries I buy every two weeks are the same items, it is likely that at least 80 percent of what we do every day is an ingrained habit. Even if our work takes us different places or gives us different tasks, our approach to that work, wherever we are, is likely the same.
So how do you go about breaking bad habits? For me, that was a very complex question because I really wasn’t aware of all the habits I had that supported my overeating and my absence of physical exercise. I constantly tasted foods as I cooked; I ate quickly; I had even turned off my internal cues telling me I was full. Not only that, mealtime was my most pleasurable time of the day. We always sit down together at dinner, we light candles, we play music—we make the experience a sensual one. Food was my social medium as well. If I was going to get together with someone, it was always—always—over food.
Recognizing those habits is the first step to start changing behavior. It is interesting to me, however, how many people decide they will lose weight by focusing on what they won’t do anymore. They follow a set of rules, whether it’s a specific diet plan or just a list of things they now need to avoid. No more ice cream! No eating in between meals! Avoid carbs!
Our bad habits likely became habits because doing them was pleasurable, or, in the case of exercise, not doing them avoided discomfort. Forcing ourselves into new habits that are not pleasant, that are in effect an exercise in self-denial, seems pretty futile to me.
One of the things I stress with people wanting to lose weight is that they should be looking at forming new habits that are actually pleasurable. For example, it’s a lot easier to eat more vegetables when you aren’t trying to consume them unseasoned. Give me some plain, boiled brussel sprouts and I am awash in misery. But, if you season those same brussel sprouts with olive oil, salt and pepper, cut them in half, and roast them on a sheet pain, in a 375-degree oven for thirty minutes? Absolutely delicious. The calories I get from that oil are more than made up by how much less I eat of other things on my plate.
I have actually increased the time I take to prepare our meals since I started my healthy lifestyle. Yes, some of that is because I am essentially retired now, but a lot of it is because I want to make sure that what I cook is flavorful and satisfying. We still create a sensual dinner experience and it remains high on my list of daily pleasures, but it is joined by a host of nonfood-related experiences—taking a walk with a friend, for instance. At my church, we are taking turns visiting different people in the congregation to find a way to bring them a smile. Today, I went to someone’s home in Brookville, Indiana and—physically distanced and wearing a mask—I sang some of her favorite hymns. It brightened her day and mine as well, despite the fact that we weren’t breaking bread together.
The easiest way to unlearn bad habits is to find new habits to replace them that still bring joy. Even something as simple as not eating between meals is made easier by the realization of how much nicer it is to come to the table feeling hungry.
Of course, replacing my sedentary lifestyle with an active one was a lot more difficult, because I had to force myself to exercise. I wasn’t replacing sitting around doing nothing with something pleasurable, I was replacing it with torture! That is where willpower has to kick in, along with your intellectual understanding that getting stronger will, in the long term, help you feel better. I actually do find exercise pleasurable now (with the unabashed exception of Cardio Mondays) because I know how much better I feel as a result of doing it.
Street wisdom says it takes 21 days to form a new habit, but that varies widely, based on a host of factors. In a 2009 study from University College London, researchers found the average time to form a new habit was 66 days, not 21.* Furthermore, the time it took for individuals in the study to form those habits ranged from 18 days to 254! I needed those two-plus years it took me to get to my goal weight so that I could firmly ingrain my new way of thinking and being.
If you’re considering making a big change in your lifestyle, think about the “why’s” that support your current behavior. Then think about what you can do that helps you meet your goals without making you feel deprived or unhappy. It’s a really good starting point.