Making healthy habits stick can be hard! Here are some solutions

In an earlier blog I mentioned that each little change we want to make to our diet can include 5 or more steps to actually accomplish. This can be a real hang up for people who underestimate how much time it takes to make a food change. On the bright side, understanding the steps needed to achieve that goal is very empowering. 

I recently had a conversation with Tommy Schnurmacher from The Tommy Schnurmacher Show on CJAD 800am about this very topic. You can listen to my interview using this player:

If you haven’t figured it out yet, psychology plays a HUGE role in why, what, how and how much we eat. So using the principles of psychology to achieve desired changes is key.

Workplace wellness and positive psychology expert Michelle McQuaid has a few tips on how to make changes with less effort and more success. Her suggestion is to use rituals you already are doing and integrate them into the new habits you want to make. 

Michelle says that rituals signal our mind that it’s time for a specific activity. Since they are already part of our daily routine, they can act as triggers to get us ready for what we want to change. By combining rituals with small habits you want to change, you are already on your way to carrying out that change with less effort.

There are 3 components to changing a habit- the cue, the routine (or the ritual) and the reward. Here is an interesting flow chart by Charles Duhigg that shows these 3 components:

Let’s use an example of a 3 p.m. coffee break that includes eating a pastry. Imagine the health goal is to eat fewer pastries. The ritual includes getting the coffee (either at the coffee shop or to the coffee maker), drinking the coffee and eating the pastry. You are also likely socializing a bit, which is also part of the ritual. The cue is that mid-afternoon period where you’re craving coffee and something sweet. The reward is perhaps feeling re-energized. 

Harness the power of that coffee ritual to help you eat more of something you are lacking while eating fewer pastries. A great example is fruit. You could try drinking the coffee while avoiding eating all together, but trying to not do something is harder than replacing one food for another. Try placing the fruit near the coffee machine or somewhere along the way to the coffee. 

An important factor in this triad for change is the reward. Michelle states that “whatever reward you use try to make it something you really want… It doesn’t matter what the reward is as long as you’d rather complete your habit than miss out”.

If you are trying to start a new habit, say eating breakfast in the morning, match it up with a current routine you have as well as a reward for getting it done. For example, if you are in the habit of grabbing your lunch out of the fridge in the morning, why not also have a breakfast prepared and waiting to be eaten. The reward for eating breakfast could be watching hilarious YouTube cat videos while you eat.

As I mentioned above, Charles Duhigg has a nifty flow chart that explains the “Golden Rule of Habit Changing”. Unfortunately he is not a psychologist, but his “Golden Rule of Habit Change” looks interesting and sounds very similar to Michelle’s.

His Golden Rule of Habit Change goes like this:

1) Identify the cue;
2) Identify the reward that you crave for;
3) Identify the routine that you perform to get the reward; and
4) Change the routine when the cue appears so that you get the same reward.

One last tip from Michelle’s website is to try to make changes to your habits at a time of day when you are most energized. In other words, waiting for the end of the day when willpower is lowest is not a great strategy. I’ve mentioned this in previous blog articles such as 
When is your vulnerable hour? and Temptations and the unreliability of willpower.

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