posted on February 11, 2019
Read Time: 5 minutes, 15 seconds
“The process of building habits is actually the process of becoming yourself.”
As I’m editing this, we are entering the fourth week of UF’s 2019 Strength Project. All of our participants were encouraged to take us up on some one-on-one coaching sessions, and I think the vast majority did!
In these sessions, we of course talk about gym goals, like getting from one pull-up to ten, squatting X amount of weight, achieving a respectable handstand hold, etc. But I’d argue that the more important thing we discuss are our goals for OUTSIDE the gym.
Often, people who start fitness challenges are already pretty fond of being in the gym. For our Strength Project members, completing 28 classes in 8 weeks is only a little bit of a stretch. The bigger challenge comes outside the gym: what’s happening in the other 23 hours of the day. That means sleep, hydration, nutrition, stress management, time management. This is where we get tripped up, so for that reason I asked every Strength Project participant that did their coaching session with me to come up with one small lifestyle change to focus on for the first half of this challenge.
We came up with some challenges that spanned all of the above categories.
The most common: shutting all technology (mostly cell phones) down at least 30 minutes before bed. So many of us struggle with getting enough sleep and can’t figure out why. Working on nighttime routines that support healthy sleep is the first step!
The most entertaining: Diane hates vegetables, but she wants to eat better. So her challenge – try (or re-try) one new vegetable each week. So far, we’ve done tomatoes (she tolerated these), snap peas (not so bad!), green beans (this was a hard no, “I felt like I ate a handful of grass. Like I was grazing in a pasture…”), and bell peppers (raw was ok, cooked was out). She’s been a trooper though this whole thing. I’m now crowd-sourcing ideas for her final vegetable tastings, so if you have any ideas please send them my way!
The most widely relevant: a few members are struggling to break nutrition-related habits that they know are holding them back- like a few too many tortilla chips or letting that one glass of wine turning into two or three after a long day.
We all have habits like these that we’d love to break, but often it feels like despite wanting to let that habit go, we just don’t have the willpower to override those cravings. Full disclosure: I’m a total nerd when it comes to building and breaking habits. If you ever see me on the elliptical with a book, it’s probably a book about habits. Last week, it was James Clear’s Atomic Habits, and I cannot recommend it enough.
Like in Charles Duhigg’s quintessential book The Power of Habit, he breaks down the habit cycle into distinct parts: Cue -> Craving -> Response -> Reward. Understanding and controlling each part of this process is the key to building new, positive habits, and the key to breaking old, negative ones.
Let’s look at the habit of drinking some wine each night. I tasked a member with examining the cues that led her to pour that first glass of wine when she got home (her ultimate goal is to cease all weeknight drinking). The biggest one was fairly straightforward – her wine was always displayed in a way that could be seen from the spaces in her home where she liked to relax. So she’d sit down to watch TV after a stressful workday and there, right in front of her, sat the trusty bottle of wine. The wine-drinking habit has already been built, so denying that craving (drink wine and relax) that comes right after the cue (seeing the bottle of wine) would take a monumental amount of willpower that is probably already pretty low at the end of the day.
So what’s a girl to do?
The backbone of the book are the Four Laws of Behavior Change, each law corresponding to a part of the habit cycle:
In this particular case, we’re trying to break an unwanted habit, and we’re starting with the cue right from the get go. So we’re going to follow the steps above and try to make that cue invisible by moving the bottle of wine to a less convenient and less accessible spot. Creating a little extra friction between sitting down to relax and pouring that glass of wine may not seem like enough, but you might be surprised by the effectiveness.
I’ve of course tested this on myself. In January I chose to give up all caffeine in an effort to fix some health problems. If you know me at all, you know I love coffee. More than love. I depend on coffee to keep me going, and I also happen to think it’s the most delicious beverage known to man. In short, my coffee consumption was incredibly high.
I wanted to completely quit caffeine and replace those drinks with herbal teas, so the first thing I did after my last coffee on New Years Eve was hide the coffee maker and all the coffee (make it invisible/make it difficult). I turned my little coffee prep station into a tea and smoothie prep station instead (make it visible). I bought a nice tea kettle to make the whole process a little easier (make it easy). I bought a bunch of delicious, healthy sounding teas that I was actually excited to drink each day (make it attractive/make it satisfying). And with all that, I actually stuck to it! I went the entire 3 weeks without a sip of coffee. Am I back to it now? Hell yes, the doctor said it was fine! But I’m confident that I could give it up again if I need to because I know how to adjust that habit.
We’re now getting ready to do our midway check-ins for the Strength Project, so we’ll see how everyone fared with habit change. I’m excited to have some more tools to share with them and all of you reading this. Hopefully the simple breakdown above gives you a path to make some of the changes you’ve been thinking about this year.
By Lindsey Pogson