Mindful Bytes: Power of Habits

Getting healthy isn't easy. The number of people in our society that are overweight or obese continues to climb, and for years I faced the reality that I was getting heavier every year.

Sure I’d mix in a few weeks, sometimes a few months, of “doing good” and my weight would be down temporarily, but if I was tracking it consistently (I didn’t) I would have seen the steady climb over the years to 361 lbs (or more).

And I always separated myself from who I referred to as “healthy people”. People that appeared to have their weight under control. Those people were different than me. I think that’s how I made myself feel better about my obesity. They weren’t foodies like me. They had better metabolism. They had way more willpower. They didn’t love chips and ice cream like I did. They were more athletic. They had better genetics. They were just built differently. That’s why I was 155 lbs heavier. I was different.

Oh the lies we tell ourselves.....or maybe not lies. Just innocent ignorance.

As part of this recent journey I found really healthy people in my life. Not just thin people, but people that made their health a daily concern. And I talked to them about their food choices, what motivated them, what eating healthy means, when they indulge, when they don’t. Those conversations were eye opening. Now I think I know the truth.

These healthy people don’t have natural skills that gives them an advantage. I don’t have biological “issues” that put me at a disadvantage.

In a nutshell: They have developed habits that are different than mine.

And I think I can prove that to almost all of you. But I’m going to have to use an analogy. In fact if you don’t like analogies you’re going to dislike this blog more and more.

Almost all of you have built a habit that, for this analogy, will let you role-reverse with healthy people and hear how there is immense power in habits. Hopefully this will motivate you to set goals to build habits a lot more than lose weight. It will expose the failed patterns we’ve all demonstrated, the excuses we all use, and how our focus on the scale more than our habits holds us back.

Brushing your teeth.

Almost all of you (I’m hoping) have built a very solid habit of brushing your teeth every day.

Picture talking to someone who almost never brushes their teeth. They’ve found it really hard to form that habit. They struggle with it. For most of their life they’ve tried every week to brush their teeth, and they keep failing.

As someone who has that habit, your advice would probably sound kind of basic. It would be about ways of forming the habit while explaining that once you form that habit it becomes pretty automatic, and doesn’t require the huge output of effort to achieve.

The responses you’d get would probably be a little weird and confusing, but I bet they’d be very very familiar. For goals, I’m sure we’d hear someone say they wanted to brush their teeth 100 times a month (like setting a timed weight loss goal, 20 lbs by September kind of thing) and you’d probably respond by explaining it’s an ok goal, but it really doesn’t help with what you’re trying to achieve. Not brushing your teeth for two weeks and then brushing them 6 or 7 times a day would get you to your 100 but wouldn’t much help. Just doing it every day is more important than getting to 100 in a month:

“I just don’t have your willpower to brush my teeth every single day”

Well, it’s not really about willpower. Willpower plays a role sometimes, but if you keep trying you’ll eventually develop some consistency and you won’t really need much willpower.

“If I don’t brush on Monday or Tuesday, by Wednesday I figure my week is ruined so I just give up and decide I’ll try again next Monday”

You’re trying to develop a habit, you haven’t “ruined” anything. You could just try and brush your teeth on Wednesday. Figure out why it was so hard on Monday and Tuesday, use a couple corrections and just try again the next day. The only thing that ruins your week is giving up.

“How do you keep your motivation to brush your teeth? I just lose my motivation quickly”.

Well if you can just build a little consistency, you’ll notice your mouth feels cleaner when you brush. It feels good. So when you skip a day you won’t need motivation. Your mouth will feel gross, so you actually look for the first opportunity to brush your teeth just so you feel better.

“Building consistency is hard. Sometimes I just need a break. My plan is to enjoy myself on vacation and not brush my teeth. I’ll get right back to brushing after.”

You have to follow your own path but that would make me feel gross. Also, for someone who really struggles with forming a habit, that kind of plan is like planning failure. It’s not the end of the world if you come home one night on vacation and forget to brush or fall asleep before you brush, but planning to fail makes this harder. Just try. Every day.

So I know the analogy is a bit of an oversimplification. There’s more emotion tied up in our use of food than there is in brushing our teeth. But hopefully you can still see what the power of a habit means to this fight. My goal was always moderation and weight loss when I tried to improve my health, which meant I never really formed habits, just momentum. When I discovered the power of a habit vs trying to lose weight, I was just naturally motivated to set more goals to build habits. Habits aren’t easy to build, because you usually have to break an old habit to start a new one and change is very uncomfortable. But the reason habits are so powerful and worth the effort and investment is because once they’re established they take so much of the “hard” out of this journey. The way a former 361 lbs guy keeps 155 lbs of weight off isn’t because of becoming “hardcore” or “disciplined”, it’s because he found a way to put in less effort and still get this to work.

The difference for me has been building new habits.

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