How to NOT Suck at Building Healthy Habits…FINALLY!

At the beginning of every year, we create a list of things we’re going to start doing:

  • I’m going to exercise every day!
  • I’m going to start flossing!
  • I’m going to start eating better!
  • I’m going to quit smoking!
  • I’m going to stop wearing jorts!

We’re now into the sixth month of the 2012; how ya doing on those New Year’s Resolutions?

Do you even REMEMBER your resolutions?

If you’re anything like the typical Resolutioner, you started off 2012 with a bang – in your first week you managed to hit every workout, floss every day, and even eat well for a week…but then work got busy,  or your kid got sick…and one of those habits fell by the wayside.  After that, you ran out of time for that other habit…you know…because of that thing.  After that, it was that [catastrophic event] at [work] that caused you to [lame excuse] your [body part].

You might be no better off today than you were six months ago!

Meanwhile, that ONE guy in your office has managed to do everything on his list, and did it with more than half the year to spare!  He’s exercising regularly, eating right, dropping lots of weight, and even managed to start his own blog about rescuing orphaned cats from a burning building. 

And you start to wonder:

  • Does this guy have more awesome than me?
  • Is he more motivated to change?
  • Am I doomed?
  • Should I go see Battleship?

The answer to all of the above questions is NO.  I’ve learned a lot in my years of running Nerd Fitness when it comes to habit forming, and I can generally tell who’s going to succeed and who’s going to fail within a few sentences of their first email to me.  It’s easy for me to see why guys like Joe can flip a switch and drop 130 pounds in 10 months while other folks email me so excited and fired up and gung-ho and then after a week or two I never hear from them again.

If you’ve struggled with habit change in the past (and we all have), today’s article will give you that blueprint you need to finally start seeing some  positive changes and KEEP them.

It’s time to stop sucking and start dominating.

Why do we suck so much at this?

homer simpson twitter fail whale

We know how to get in shape, we know how to eat healthy, and we know how to exercise, and yet we’re no closer than we were six months ago towards our goals.

WTF?

We tend to bite off more than we can chew, go too hard too soon, and then get overwhelmed too quickly.  Does this sound familiar?

  • I’m going to eat 100% paleo AND
  • I’m going to run 5 miles a day AND
  • I’m going to workout in a gym three times a week.

If you’re somebody that eats a typically poor diet, never runs, and hasn’t set foot in a gym since the Clinton administration, doing all of these things at once is almost a surefire way to succeed at precisely NONE of them.

This is what happens: after an exciting week where things go perfectly, you realize you don’t have time to run five miles one day…and if you don’t have time to run five miles, then what’s the point?  And because you skipped one meal today due to a hectic work schedule, then why bother with the rest of them, right?  It’s already a failure and a lost cause!

Square one. Welcome back.

On top of that, we’re conditioned these days to expect and receive instant gratification.  If we want food we can get it from a drive-through, stick a frozen meal in a microwave, or sit down at a restaurant that’s open 24 hours.  If we want a game we can download it to our computers/phones/Xboxes within a matter of seconds.  If we want to watch a tv show, it’s a few clicks away.

We expect getting in shape to go the same way.  

We tell ourselves “Hey, I’ve been dedicated for a whole two weeks, why don’t I look like Leonidas yet?”, not remembering that it took 5, 10, 20, or 30+ years of unhealthy living to get where we are.  So after two weeks and no MIND-BLOWING results …we get discouraged, have one misstep, and quickly abandon all hope until “next year” when we can start over.

Here’s how to break that cycle if you’ve seem to be stuck.  

Start small

Lego Storm Trooper Ladder

Leo Babauta, the author of Zen Habits, is one of my heroes.

In a matter of years, this father of six (!!!) quit smoking, started exercising, ran marathons, started eating healthier, dropped sixty pounds, became debt free, and started a blog that would go on to become one of the world’s most popular.  I had a chance to meet Leo last year and absolutely loved his story and his methods for getting healthy.

Here’s the big secret:

Pick ONE habit, make it absolutely tiny, and focus on that habit for a period of 21 days to a month.

  • Want to start exercising?  Awesome.  For that first week, aim for just five minutes per day.  Just five minutes!
  • Want to start cooking your own meals?  Don’t try to cook ALL of your own meals yet.  Just aim for one meal per day or one meal per week. Whatever works for you and your schedule
  • Want to quit drinking soda?  Instead of going from a twelve pack of mountain dew per day, replace just one of the cans with water.  That’s it.
  • Want to get out of debt? Start by saving an extra twenty bucks each week, or finding a way to earn an extra twenty bucks.
  • Want to learn a new language?  Practice your new language for fifteen minutes per day.  That’s it!

Keep your goals SMALL and simple.  The smaller and simpler they are, the more likely you are to keep them, and I’ll explain why next.

On top of that, select just ONE habit at a time.  Personally, I like to pick one small habit per area of growth.  For me, one habit goal might be exercise, one might be diet-based, and one might be “leveled-up life” based.

If you’re brand new to this whole “actually succeeding at something I set my mind to” stuff, I recommend just picking one habit, and keeping the goal simple for the first week.  Here’s why:

Momentum matters

Joe 12 months apart, before and after

Remember Joe, the guy who lost 130 pounds in ten months?

Here are side-by-side comparison of him at C2E2 in Chicago, taken exactly one year (and 130+ pounds) apart!  How did Joe, who spent his life being out of shape and unhealthy, suddenly start kicking serious ass, drop all that weight and become healthy?

No, that sweet Nerd Fitness hoodie didn’t give Joe super powers.  Joe’s an ordinary dude with a normal job and a normal life.  Joe did have one ace up his sleeve though:

He had laser focus on building habits.

Joe didn’t step on a scale for the first SIX months of his transformation, because he knew the fluctuations in weight would drive him nuts.  Instead, he put his focus on building a habit of healthy eating and exercise daily.  Although the first few weeks were tough, Joe dumped all of his efforts into following through on his goal habit of “just exercise in some way every day.”

And guess what? After a few weeks, Joe suddenly started looking forward to his workouts and couldn’t wait to see how much stronger he got.  These days, Joe still emails me every month with a new photo and new update on his fitness journey (just got another one today, he’s now cranking out sets of pull ups!) – I can honestly say that I look forward to the the 4th of each month because I LOVE getting his emails.

Why did Joe succeed?  Because he followed Newton’s law of motion:

An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion.”

What works for science and physics also holds true to building habits.   When you’re new to making positive changes that last and stick, our bodies will fight us for a number of weeks because we’re forcing it to do new things.

HOWEVER…

If you can rack up a few small victories along the way, especially in the beginning, it becomes infinitely easier to CONTINUE having small victories.

For example:

  • Hey, I’ve been exercising for five minutes every day this week! Next week I can do 10!  And the week after fifteen!
  • Hey, I’ve been eating one healthy meal every day this week!  Next week I’m going to add in a healthy lunch option too!
  • Hey, I started writing just 100 words a day for this fan fiction novel I’ve been working on.  Next week, I feel good enough to write 200 words a day!
As my friend Kappy will tell you, “Never underestimate the power of momentum.”

Automate as much as possible

“Steve, I get it, but I still struggle with that first step each day…for some reason I just can’t bring myself to do it.”

Remove emotion from the equation – automate your habit as much as possible so you don’t even have  to think about it.  Here are some examples:

  • If your goal is to get up and run every morning, then go to sleep with your running shoes at the foot of your bed, with your running uniform laid out already.  Hell, sleep in your running/workout clothes.  As soon as you wake up, before you have time to think about sleeping in, push yourself out of bed, put on your shoes, and step outside your door.  Struggle getting out of bed?  Put your alarm clock on the other side of the room so you HAVE to get out of bed to turn it off.  I’ve done this for years.
  • If your goal is to exercise every day after work, pack your gym bag BEFORE going to sleep the night before.  That way, every morning you already have a bag to throw in your car or bring with you.  As soon as 5pm hits, you are in your car or on your way to the gym.  No questions asked.
  • If your goal is to eat healthy every day, don’t give yourself an option of not eating healthy – throw out the junk food in your house and start preparing meals the night before.  Put a lock on your web browser from ordering pizza online (yes you can do that now), and don’t drive down the street full of fast food places.
If you tend to let emotion get in the way, automate your habit-changing process as much as possible.  That way,you won’t have to ask, “should I skip this or should I not” or “should I eat this or should I not?” you just DO things because that’s what you’re doing.

Hold yourself accountable

a storm trooper stares at his reflection in the mirror

We all have excuses that we use to make ourselves feel better about doing something or not doing something.

As I’ve said here on the site numerous times before: “Nobody believes your excuses except for you.”

What if excuses were no longer an option?   What if you decided right now that you are no longer allowed to use excuses to shirk your duties.

Suddenly, your decision to do or not do something just got a WHOLE lot easier.   No isn’t an option…so you might as well do it.  Maybe you don’t have that kind of iron will, and you need assistance: ask one of your friends to email you every day with a reminder to do something or not do something.  Let them know that they get to slap you if you start complaining or using excuses as to why you’re going to skip or do something.

Create some sort of accountability or tally system that keeps you on target.  Remember, those first few weeks are the toughest, which means they’ll require the most effort to get started.  Here are some suggestions:

  • Every time I skip ______________ this month, I will pay $50 to my wife/husband/spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend/friend who can use that money however he/she likes.
  • Every time I decide not to _______________ this month, I will run around my house naked.
  • Every time I do ____________ when I shouldn’t, I will let my three-year old do my makeup before work.

Do any of these results sound like fun?  I bet you probably couldn’t afford to pay your friend $50, running naked around your house might get you arrested, and you’ll get fired looking like a drunk clown hooker thanks to your kid’s makeup skills.  AWESOME.  The more painful it is to skip something, the more likely you’ll be to actually suck it up and do it.  Suddenly five minutes of exercise or a healthy meal doesn’t seem so bad, mr/mrs drunk clown hooker?

Yeah. I just called you that.  Sorry.

Find a way to make yourself stay accountable - have friends help out (trust me, they’ll be more than willing to help you humiliate yourself) – to start you’ll be picking the lesser of two evils (actually following through with the good habit), but after a few weeks you’ll actually start to enjoy the benefits and look forward to it.

Start today.

stop sign with OP covered up with ART so it spells START

I love this (slightly modified) suggestion from my buddy Matt over at NoMeatAthlete who wrote a similar article on this topic a few weeks back:

Create a list of five good habits you want to start, and five bad habits you want to break.  

And then start picking them off one by one.  Don’t try to do too much at once…it’s far better to succeed at one habit, and then pick another and work on that one, and then another… than it is to try to succeed at three habits simultaneously and fail at all of them.

To recap:

  • Start small - pick ONE habit that’s easily completed.  Do it every day.
  • Build momentum - as you get good at completing that small task, slowly expand and build momentum with your victories
  • Automate - remove emotion from the equation!  The less steps between you and [desired habit] the more likely you’ll be to finish.
  • Remain accountable – do what you need to to keep yourself accountable through the first few weeks.  Make the pain of skipping your habit more painful than actually spending the 5-15 minutes doing the damn thing!

I’d love to hear YOUR list of habit goals – five good ones you want to start, and five bad ones you want to break.  

After you pick your habits, select one and start on it TODAY.

-Steve

PS - If today’s article resonated with you, check out the  Level Up Club, the first premium product I’ve offered on Nerd Fitness in over six months.

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photo source: to do list, homer fail whale, storm trooper ladder, level up club, lego R2D2, storm trooper mirror, start

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  • India Brooke Hedgecock

    I’m just starting with this and reading through a few articles as well as the starter stuff. I have my good and bad habits written down, but I don’t want to share them here. =) Just know that right now at this very moment I’m going against one of them lol since it’s… 2:37 am? Ahem. But I have been doing one of the good habits for the past week so i’m going to go one more week to make sure i stick with it before moving on to another habit. =D Thanks again!

  • Carel Hauptfleisch

    wow man. You are an excellent writer. I am as of this day, a fan..

  • Amanda

    Great post! It’s just like what Dr Marvin told Bob all those years ago “Baby steps!” 5 habits I want to start: EXERCISE regularly, not just in spurts. DRINK more water everyday (6-8 glasses). EAT at least 2 veggies a day. GET UP before my kids do every morning, and in order to do that, I will have to start GOING TO BED EARLIER than midnight, preferably 10pm. 5 Habits I want to BREAK: EMOTIONAL/BORED eating. PROCRASTINATING on things like chores and meal cooking, exercising, starting up a new, healthy habit… STOP buying my York Peppermint Patty at the Target checkout line (but they’re so much cheaper there than at the grocery store! lol) STOP baking chocolate chip cookies EVERY Sunday. STOP comparing my failures to others successes. Ready, and…GO! I’ve already succeeded in one thing because I didn’t need to go to Target today, hazzah!

  • The Orchid Boutique

    Great post. I think it’s super important to start small and set goals. Don’t always think end result. Creating habits is also a huge plus: http://bit.ly/top5healthhabits

  • http://fuzzy76.net/ Håvard Pedersen

    Been there done that. First 6 months my goal was only 2 threadmill sessions a week. Next 6 months, I did a calorie diary and replaced my biggest baddies. Next 6 months after that I added strength training and a calorie deficit. Now I train 3-4 times a week and is losing 2 pounds a week. And it’s who I have become. It’s not something I have to use willpower to do, it’s something I would’ve had to use willpower NOT to do.