This is a guest post by Barrie Davenport of Live Bold & Bloom.
I have a coaching client who weighed over 400 lbs.
She never exercised and ate a poor diet consisting of a lot of junk food and sweets. She didn’t socialize much because she was embarrassed about her appearance. At age 33, she’d never had a date.
Although she longed to go to Europe, she wouldn’t travel by plane because she couldn’t fit in the seat. She was in a job she hated, and even though she had more talent and ability than most people have in their little finger, her self-confidence was below zero.
But over the course of the last two years, she has . . .
- lost over 200 lbs. (yes, you read that correctly);
- started exercising and weight training every day;
- began eating healthy and totally gave up processed and junk food;
- left the job she hated and started her own business (a life-long dream);
- started her own blog about living healthy lifestyle and losing weight;
- has written and published a book;
- has started dating and is involved in her first serious relationship;
- socializes, networks, and is planning a plane trip;
- has almost paid off all of her debt.
So what does this woman know that the rest of us don’t?
How was she able to essentially turn her entire life around to become fit, healthy, attractive, organized, and wildly successful?
I’ll get to that in a moment.
But first, let me mention that my client has given me permission to write about her. And I must admit that I had nothing to do with her remarkable transformation, except to throw out a few challenges and offer her accountability and support along the way (that’s what coaches do).
My client’s name is Stephanie, and she did these remarkable things all by herself. If you want a super dose of inspiration, motivation, and some great recipes, check out her beautiful blog called Trading Pounds. Look at her series of photos as she’s lost the weight. I’ve really never known anyone quite like Stephanie.
Most of us have trouble incorporating one new habit into our lives, let alone the hundreds of large and small habits that Stephanie has had to create in order to make the kinds of changes she has made.
Think about it — just changing your diet alone involves a series of mini-habits. You have to change your shopping habits, your food choices, your cooking habits, your eating schedule, your habits for dining out. Any of those habits are meaty enough (no pun intended) to occupy your time and energy for several months.
The Secret of Habit Success
So what does Stephanie know?
It’s not that she has more willpower or self-discipline than the rest of us. It’s not that the doctor forced her to change or that she signed up for The Biggest Loser.
Yes, she did dream of being a healthy weight, having a boyfriend, being self-employed, traveling, and writing a book. She did want all of those things. But wanting and getting are two different things.
You can want to create a new habit with all of your heart, but most of the time we don’t get very far before we slack off and quit.
So here’s Stephanie’s secret: she learned the skills for creating habits that stick.
Creating sustainable habits actually requires a skill set.
And it’s not a very difficult skill set.
Another more famous habit creator, Leo Babauta of Zen Habits, calls this skill set The Simple Method. Leo knows a thing or two about creating sticky habits, because like Stephanie, he’s overhauled his entire life in the last few years.
This simple method for creating habits isn’t something Leo or anyone else has made up. There has been a lot of research conducted around habit formation, and there are specific and critical steps that must occur to ensure that a new habit becomes automatic.
Your Brain and Habits
Most people attack habit creation with little forethought and an abundance of gusto. On December 31, we cram down the last of the fattening holiday food, kick back on the sofa to watch a game, and squeeze in the last bit of naughty before the New Year.
Then on January 1, we launch into a full-fledged lettuce and bean sprout diet and commit to running five miles before work every day. Our New Year’s enthusiasm might carry us through the first week, but by the end of the second, we are back to our old routines.
Before you beat yourself up about any previous failure to launch a habit, realize that it has nothing to do with your willpower, character, or self-discipline.
It has to do with a lack of knowledge about how to create habits and how they are formed in your brain.
There are neural activity patterns in a specific region of the brain that change when habits are formed. Habits build neural connections in your brain, and reinforced habits strengthen these neural connections. Of course, habits not practiced lead to the breakdown of neural connections.
If you quit too soon, your brain never has a chance to strengthen the connections adequately.
If you want to create habits that stick, you have to know the 7 simple but effective rules that provide the framework for strengthening your brain.
Rule 1: Preparation
You can’t launch in to a new habit without planning and preparing yourself. Without this crucial first step, you are setting yourself up for failure before you even begin.
You must become mentally, physically, and emotionally ready and in the right frame of mind. This includes creating a vision for yourself of the outcome, and planning a system of triggers, accountability, support, and rewards.
Rule 2: Start Small with Just One
Every habit we created is made up of many smaller habits. As I mentioned above with Stephanie’s diet change, she had to incorporate many new habits to build the habit of better eating.
Break down each new habit you wish to create into the smallest possible parts. Then start with just one of those small parts as your first change. Don’t be tempted to bite off more — especially if you are new to this method. Work on only one habit at a time.
Rule 3: 5 Minutes Only
When you begin a new habit, start with 5 minutes only during the first 2 weeks. This may feel ridiculously easy (especially for some small habits), but it begins the process of rewiring your brain to accept this new behavior.
This 5 minute rule is critical to your success, so don’t break it! With only 5 minutes, the habit work feels easy, and you won’t mind doing it.
You want to establish the practice of doing the habit daily before you increase the time.
Rule 4: Use a Trigger
A trigger is habit or action that is already established and automatic which you can use to “trigger” you to perform your new habit. You want to act on your new habit immediately after this trigger.
For example, you might practice your new habit of clearing clutter immediately after the trigger of brushing your teeth (an established habit). The trigger must be something that is firmly established for you — like brushing teeth, using the bathroom, getting coffee, putting kids to bed, etc.
Rule 5: Create Accountability
If you want to get out of succeeding on your habit, don’t tell anyone about it! We often keep quiet about beginning a habit because we don’t want to be embarrassed if we fail.
However, announcing it to people will help you succeed. When someone is paying attention, you are going to work harder and stay committed.
Find a place to report your habit work, whether it’s through social media, on a forum, or by email to a group of friends.
Rule 6: Have a Reward System
Immediately following your habit, reward yourself. During your pre-planning, create a reward system to keep your motivation and positivity at a high level. Gold stars, a piece of chocolate, a nap, anything that feels good to you will work to reinforce your habit.
Sometimes you might need to switch up your reward if it stops feeling rewarding. But it is important to have something to look forward to right after your habit work.
Rule 7: Find Supporters
Let those close to you know about your plans to create a new habit. Ask for their blessing and support. If you don’t, you may be setting yourself up for trouble. If your new habit disrupts the lives of those around you, and you haven’t communicated with them or gotten their support, they might sabotage your efforts (either overtly or covertly).
Plus, habit creation takes time, energy, and can be emotionally draining at times. You need someone on your side to lift you up and offer an “atta boy or girl.”
If you follow these seven rules and stick to them until your habit feels automatic, you will have the skills to create any new habit for the rest of your life.
Creating new habits has the power to transform your life entirely. And it gets easier with every new habit you form.
If you want to get started with creating a new habit yourself, pick one very small “test” habit. Do the planning and preparation work, choose your trigger, set up your systems of accountability and rewards, find your support team, and keep it to 5 minutes. In 4-6 weeks, your new habit will be part of the new you!