Habit Change for Newbies

“I know what I’m supposed to do, I just can’t do it.”

You’re reading Nerd Fitness, which means you’re probably a smart person (and good looking, funny, and modest). You know what you’re supposed to do to get healthy:

And yet, we still find ourselves struggling to make any changes stick.  If you are really overweight and struggling, you might even feel like every decision made is a foregone conclusion and there’s no hope.

After running Nerd Fitness for over three and a half years, I can definitively say that you are 100% in control of every decision you can make.  You just need to train yourself to identify the habits you’re hoping to form.

That’s what we’re going to do today.  Change is a good thing.  

The Power of Habit

Stone archway looks on to forest

I recently finished reading The Power of Habit, one of the most powerful and thought provoking books I’ve ever read on habit change.

Here’s the story: you are made up of a collection of your habits.  In fact, “more than 40 percent of the actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions, but habits.”

If you aren’t thrilled with how you look in the mirror, examine the collection of habits that have resulted in your appearance – hundreds upon hundreds of actions have drilled these behaviors into your body and mind.  Every time you complete an action, a little bit less willpower and brainpower is required to make the same decision.

Eventually, these actions become automatic, and no brainpower is necessary.

It’s why you see the same type of people in line for Cinnabon.  To paraphrase Louis CK – WARNING: offensive language and hilarious self-deprecation – they’re not happy, but they feel like they don’t have any control to stay away.  They’ve trained their brains (without realizing it) to smell Cinnabon, and imagine themselves eating it, thinking of nothing else other than Cinnabon.  Their stores are purposefully positioned away from the rest of the food courts in malls so the smell of their products (and ONLY their products) take over people’s senses long before they actually see the store.

It’s why many people feel like they are addicted to food: “There is nothing programmed into our brains that makes us see a box of doughnuts and automatically want a sugary treat…But once our brain learns that a doughnut box contains yummy sugar and other carbohydrates, it will start anticipating the sugar high.  Our brains will push us toward the box.  Then, if we don’t eat the doughnut, we’ll feel disappointed.”

It’s why people eat when they’re unhappy, bored, or depressed:  Your brain and body have been trained over years of routine that food = happiness and activity.  Kind of depressing, yes, but just as you can train your brain and body to do one thing, you can then teach and train it to do the exact opposite!

The parts of a habit

Final piece of jigsaw puzzle, Parts of Habit

A habit is built with three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. It’s why you crave certain foods, it’s why you can’t help but check your email every time your phone vibrates, and why you can’t keep yourself from checking Twitter incessantly (until you learn to make productivity a habit).

You have trained your brain to take a cue (phone vibrates, you see a candy bar or doughnut), anticipate a reward (a sugar high, the satisfaction of no unread messages). When this happens repeatedly, they become habits.

The first step to making positive habit change is to understand how and why your habits are the way they are.  




Once you understand that this is how a habit is formed, you can start identifying new habits that you’d like to establish in place of your old ones.

For example, let’s assume you’d like to start making better food decisions and eating a healthy breakfast:

  • Cue – 7:30 alarm goes off – eat a healthy breakfast.
  • Routine – Repeatedly eat breakfast at 7:30AM over many weeks.
  • Reward – A new bathing suit when weight is lost.  A new pair of pants for a month of healthy habits.  A sense of satisfaction when stepping on the scale and seeing a lower number.
Over time, your body and brain will actually start to get hungry around 7:30AM, expecting and working towards that reward that you’ve laid out for yourself.  Eventually, it will become automatic and NOT eating breakfast at 7:30AM will require a strange amount of willpower.

Maybe you want to stop drinking soda, but feel like you need it every afternoon to get through work. Right now your cue is “I’m tired” and your reward is “sugar and caffeine high.”

Instead make the mental adjustment:

  • Cue – I’m tired, thirsty, and have no energy.
  • Routine – Go for 15 minute walk outside, do push ups, or drink black coffee/tea.
  • Reward – More energy, happier, healthier.

When you find yourself thirsty and tired, reach for a tall glass of water, a black coffee, or green tea. Go for a 10 minute walk outside and see how you feel when you come back. Write down your thoughts and results, test your changes to see how your body reacts.

It’s a habit that can be adjusted and learned once you’ve cracked the code.

How to change a habit

Changing Rubick's Cube

Pick ONE habit you want to change:

  • Identify the cue that spurs it on – Is it the time of day? Boredom? Hunger? After work? Stress?
  • Identify the potential rewards – Happiness? Energy? Satisfaction?
  • Identify a new routine you’d like to establish that results in the same ‘reward’ from the negative behavior…but in a more productive and healthy way.

Here’s an example:

HABIT YOU’D LIKE TO CHANGE: Eating in between meals all day long, which leads to overeating and weight gain.

IDENTIFY THE CUE AND REWARD: Make a note in a notebook every time you’re hungry, and identify a cue and reward. Test out different routines that lead you to a healthier (yet still desired) reward:

  • If you’re bored or lack energy, maybe it’s push ups.
  • If you’re burned out from work, maybe it’s 5 minutes spent looking at goats on YouTube.
  • If it’s lack of socialization, maybe it’s walking over to your friend’s desk WITHOUT eating.

BUILD THE NEW ROUTINE:  Try out different things, and then write down your results.  Which ones still gave you the happy feeling of eating without eating unhealthy foods.  Once you’ve identified the cue that’s causing your bad habit, add a new routine that still gives you the desired results. Do everything you can do to give yourself a chance at success with that new routine – become a robot and use technology to help you until that new habit becomes automatic.

It can be done

Statue in victory pose on horizon

The most important thing I took from the book:

“If you believe you can change – if you make it a habit – the change becomes real.  This is the real power of habit: the insight that your habits are what you chose them to be.  Once that choice occurs – and becomes automatic – it’s not only real, it starts to seem inevitable, the thing…that bears us irresistibly toward our destiny, whatever the latter may be.”

If you are struggling to lose weight or have lost weight and aren’t seeing the rewards and benefits yet, remember that you have years of habits to reverse…but they can be reversed.

You are not a victim or a slave to your choices of the past; you are NOT trapped in the matrix and your decisions are NOT made for you. Like Neo, you can break free of these bonds.

Pick ONE habit at a time if you are serious about making it stick.  Don’t change too much at once or you’ll fail at all of them.  Not because you’re weak or lack self-control, but because we have a limited amount of willpower.

I would love to hear from you today: What one habit are you going to change?

The cue that causes the bad habit, the reward you get from it, and at least one potential routine change that you’re going to test to see if you can start building that new habit.


PS –   Here’s the book again: The Power of Habit.  It’s required reading for any Nerd Fitness Rebel struggling with habit change.

PPS – Do we have other bookworms around here? Would you be interested in more suggestions on interesting and helpful books that I’ve come across?


photosource: mouse on wheel, archway, jigsaw, victory, rubik’s cube


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