You see the quote written on the wall at Athlon: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Who you currently are is a result of the habits that you have had for your entire life.If you’re someone who naturally makes healthy eating choices, it is because you have made it a habit to buy whole foods, prepare square meals, or whatever it may be. If you’re punctual, it is because you have made it a habit to plan ahead and watch the clock. If you know all the words to your favorite song, it is because you have made a habit of listening to it periodically. You get the point!
Unfortunately, our undesirable traits are also the result of habits. If you eat too much junk food, it is because you have made it a habit to indulge your sweet tooth, hit the fast-food drive-thru on your way home, etc. If you have a messy room, it’s because you have made it a habit to throw your clothes on the floor after changing. Again, you get the point!
There is no shame in having some habits you wish you didn’t. Thankfully though, there is a way to improve!If there is something about yourself that you would like to change, guess what? You’re going to have to develop the habit or habits to obtain the new skill or attribute that you seek. “We are what we repeatedly do.” Simple enough in theory, right? So why do only about 8% of New Year’s Resolutions actually stick? Why is it so difficult to start making healthier decisions, and become who we want ourselves to be?
As we so often do at Athlon, let’s take a “brain-first” approach to answering this question. Your brain is a predictive organ. It is constantly doing the following:
Taking in information from the world
Figuring out what it means based on your life experience up to that point
Predicting what will happen next
Taking action accordingly
When your brain compares incoming information to your past experience, it is always asking “Is this safe?”. This is because your brain has evolved over millions of years to always prioritize survival first. And at a deep subconscious level (in the amygdala specifically), your brain isn’t really worried about living a happy healthy life until your 100 years old as much as it’s worried about surviving the next second. You can’t live until 100 if you don’t live until now and until now and until now…. and so on.
So, how does this play into the science of habit change? Your habits are hard to change because they are the habits you have had up until this point, and you haven’t died yet. So, at that deep subconscious level, where your brain is primarily worried about living until the next second, it has (however old you are) years of evidence that these habits keep you alive. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” your deep subconscious brain would say. They might not be the healthiest habits to keep you healthy and happy until 100, but it’ll worry about that later.
Ok, now knowing that, how do we override our natural, evolved over millions of years, deep subconscious resistance to changing our habits? Because consciously, we are smart enough to know that we could be making healthier decisions to lead us towards a happier, longer, fuller life! We’ll go into three things that will make your chances of successfully ingraining a new habit into your lifestyle SIGNIFICANTLY more likely.
Our brain is less likely to be threatened by change if that change is a small one. In addition, you increase your chances of starting out successfully, and build a habit of being successful at building habits! So, if your goal is to start flossing your teeth, start with just one tooth. If your goal is to walk outside for 30 minutes on your lunch break, start with one minute. If your goal is to eat more vegetables, start with adding a salad to lunch on Wednesdays.
It may seem too easy and simple to amount to necessary change, but the mindset of “this is easy” is a great place to be. At the start, it should seem so easy that you’d be embarrassed to not succeed! Over time, it will amount to more! Studies show in the long run, starting small leads to bigger change.
2. Stick to one change at a time
Research shows when people work on one habit a time (and follow the rest of the principles we’re discussing) success at retaining the habit for a year or more is 80%. When trying to stick to two new habits at a time, success is 35%. When going for three or more at a time, success is less than 5%.
Our recommendation is to spend at least 2 weeks at a time on a new habit. Give it enough time for that new practice to become habit. If it doesn’t stick, modify something and keep working on it, and only once it sticks, start working on something else.
3. Have a Reminder and a Reward
There is a 3-step pattern every habit follows: reminder, routine (the action of interest), and reward. Even simple things like a light turning green (reminder), driving forward (routine), and therefore getting closer to your destination (reward) follow this pattern. By setting up a new desired behavior (the routine) with a reminder and a reward, we make it a lot easier on ourselves to integrate it into our lifestyle. No more “I just forgot” or “I just lost motivation.” Let’s go about habit change by using the 3 stepsthat our brain already uses all the time. Work smarter not harder!
So, select something as a reminder that you already do every day, or at least as often as you are trying to do the new habit. Brushing your teeth, drinking your morning coffee, taking your shoes off, whatever it might be that makes the most sense to you to link to the new habit. Take away the pressure to remember.
Next, select a reward. The reward might inherently follow the new routine (you enjoy the minty fresh taste in your mouth after flossing), but you might need to consciously add a reward. That could be something as simple as saying “Good job!” to yourself. Even if it seems silly, reward is an important part of that 3-step process to making your new habit something you don’t even have to think about!
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Start going about acquiring the habits that will make you the person you want to be. One final thing that will help with all of this: accountability from others in your life. If you work with us at Athlon, this is what your coaches are for! Whether you are a client or not, use the people you’re close to for support as well. Having someone in your corner to help you stick to your plan can make all the difference. We’re all in this together!
To a healthier, happier future,
Clear, J. (2019). Atomic Habits An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones. Place of publication not identified: Cornerstone Digital.
Fitness success secrets: On practicing one strategic habit at a time. (2019, September 20). Retrieved from https://www.precisionnutrition.com/one-habit