Stop that cake! Habit changing tips that may actually work
According to recent research (2015, University of Scranton), ‘losing weight’ was the top New Years resolution for 2015. Shockingly, the statistics also showed that most New Years resolutions have a poor success rate of 8%.
Fortunately, in the last decade psychologists have made huge advancement in their understanding of brain science; they have been able to discover what leads to addictive behaviours, and sabotages resolution-making. To get started, here are a few critical ingredients for effective changes:
1. Break it down to one thing - one ‘stupidly small’ thing
“Take it one step at a time” - you may have heard this piece of life wisdom many times, but it is absolutely critical when it comes to creating lasting habit changes. It is supported by what we now know about brain science.
As evolved as we are, part of our brain - the limbic system - still operates very much on a primitive level. It is easily startled, constantly worried, and has a propensity towards negativity. Some people call it “the lizard brain” because it is about all a lizard has for brain function. From research into addictive behaviours, we now know that this part of us is responsible for many of our unexplainable, irrational and impulsive behaviours.
When we set multiple, big, life-changing goals, our lizard brain gets intimidated. Once it is hijacked by the pressure to achieve, we are immediately put in a fight, flight, or freeze mode, which results either in highly reactive actions (impulsive behaviours i.e. eating even more cake), avoidance (trying to not think about or deny your goal) or inaction (procrastination).
Breaking down your goal can stop the lizard brain from sabotaging your intention. We can start by stratifying your ideals into steps, then eventually arriving at one, smallest, possible step. For example, your dietary change goal maybe cutting down on sugar, quit eating processed food, or transitioning to a completely different lifestyle (e.g. becoming a vegetarian), the task here is to reduce it into one thing. Many people have achieved success by starting with one food that they wish to take away, and do it for 30 days. Often, a small action will bring momentum that surprises you. If you wish to know more, the power of this method is clearly laid out in Stephen Guise’s book Mini Habits:
‘The reason people fail to change their lives is because they try to do too much at once... if your new habit requires more willpower than you can muster, you will fail. If your new habit requires less willpower than you can muster, you will succeed.’
2. Make it an identity issue
After setting a mini-goal, you can attach the meaning of this new habit to your self identity.
Let’s say you have decided to quit eating cakes and sweets, inevitably there will be moments where turning away is difficult: When you walk pass the cake aisle, when they are on sale, when others are pressuring you, when your willpower is low. During these times, you need a mantra that is more powerful than a simple ‘no’. Think bigger. Think about the 'you' that you are becoming, and say to yourself: ‘I am not that person who eats cakes. The fact that it is on sale is of no relevance to me.’ Ultimately, it is not about this one-off behaviour, but about who you wish to become, who you identify as.
This act of thinking big can create a subtle but profound shift. Mentally, it connects you to something bigger than your small self. You can reinforce this sense of virtual community by finding others like you, online or offline. When confronted with temptations, you can think about the many others who are on a similar path, and tap into the greater field of collective wisdom. This sense of empowerment can be instant, and is much more powerful than your own willpower.
3. ‘A little girl doesn’t always get what she wants’
This is a quote from Betty Draper from the TV show Mad Men. It was certainly not what Sally Draper, her daughter, had wanted to hear. Sometimes, when reasoning does not suffice, a firm line needs to be drawn. The truth is, we cannot have the cake and eat it too; eating it will bring about negative consequences. Sometimes, it just is. A firm, clear and matter-of-fact statement likes this wakes us up to reality and cuts through our mental excuses, denials and illusions.
We can think of the practice of drawing boundaries as self-parenting. Self-discipline is often more challenging for individuals whose parents did not model healthy boundary-setting; the lack of guidance during childhood means self-regulation is something to be learned. There will always a young and rebellious child within us that wish to push the boundaries, that argues back and pushes you to reach for that cake. Yet self-parenting is a skill that can be practised. Healthy boundary setting is kind, firm and consistent: ‘Dear little me, I know you really want this piece of cake, but sometimes we don’t always get to do what we want. How about we buy that magazine for a sense of comfort and fun?’
4. Connect to your 'why'
Remembering again that it's not about this very action, or this very cake. Your true intention is the desire for health, beauty, vitality and aliveness. Connect your decision to the personal mission that matters to you and write it down: ‘I need more energy because that is when I can be the best parent to my daughter, that is how I become the mother I want to be, and fulfil what I am call to do in this world.’
To recap, we started by breaking down the important goal into one small request for our lizard brain, but then we link it back up to our higher values and personal mission. The action is simple, but during the process of achieving we keep the end in mind.
‘We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit’. - Aristotle
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About Imi Pui Yin Lo
Imi is an award-winning mental health professional, accredited clinical psychotherapist (UKCP), art therapist (HCPC, BAAT), supervisor and trainer. She specialises in emotional intensity, sensitivity, borderline personality traits, and unblocking creative potential in people. She is the founder of Eggshell Therapy Practise, based in London, UK.… Read more
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