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Healthy habit myths: Willpower, how to break a bad habit and why difficult goals can lead to failure

Willpower, breaking bad habits and difficult goals. How you can make effective, sustainable changes.

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One thing that makes me really frustrated is when I see someone putting a heroic amount of energy into improving their health but yet they are getting diminishing returns.

There is nothing more defeating than feeling like you are trying really hard and getting nowhere.

Or doing something that you think is helping in the short term (read; juicing, eating bowls of so-called healthy cereal all day) and yet it results in the opposite of what you were trying to achieve (weight gain/poor health).

A lot of this unproductive striving is driven by misinformed beliefs. Beliefs that perhaps come from the media, our social network, or even well-intentioned family and friends.

When it comes to behaviour change what you believe is key. Our beliefs determine how we act, what we think and ultimately whether or not we achieve our goals.

If our beliefs are what drive our everyday habits and behaviours then in order for successful behaviour change to occur we must examine these beliefs in more detail. If your beliefs are steering you in the right direction then great! However, more often than not these beliefs could be the very thing holding you back from success.

I like to tackle the most commonly mistaken beliefs around behaviour change. These are the things that we have come to accept, that ultimately are not necessarily true or helpful. To the extent that they could be harmful to our long-term success.

I call these habit myths.

I can help you address these beliefs head-on, looking at the most frequently cited myths I hear from my clients. My aim is to help you navigate these myths for yourself by providing you with bite-sized, evidence-based actions to support you in tackling these myths head-on.

Myth 1: It’s the magical combination of motivation and willpower that will lead to success

This is one of the most common myths I encounter. When we start out on our healthy habit journey our motivation is high and we tend to assume that it will only grow from there (rather than diminish over time which it commonly does). We believe that the further in we go into our journey the more motivated we become.

This is a HUGE mistake that I frequently see clients make. This is dangerous as motivation is highly volatile and will change dependent on mood, hunger levels, the weather, your social life….the list goes on.

How to counter this belief and take action:

Rather than relying on motivation, rely on planning instead. Plan how you are going to act when you have low mood, plan how you are going to adapt to the weather, plan what you will do when you go travelling. When it comes to sustainable healthy habit change focus on building your planning power rather than your willpower. By having an alternative plan, it helps you overcome excuses, unproductive habits and develops a system for change in all circumstances rather than relying on your unreliable willpower.

People who plan, succeed.

How do you do this?

Reflect on the last time you tried to achieve the same goal. List all of the barriers that got in the way, and any new ones you foresee interfering with it in future. Start with the most frequent barriers and create an action plan for three of these. For example, when you feel stressed rather than saying I shouldn’t overeat and trying to use your willpower to resist a habit that has built up over years of repetition. Have a plan.

Experiment with mini strategies until you find the one that works for you. For example, one of my clients has built a 3-7 minute strategy for when they feel stressed. Following an identified trigger, they will make a cup of camomile tea, take 5 deep breaths whilst making it, set a 3-5 minute timer (depending on how much time they have) and write out what is worrying them at the time. This process can take anything from 3-7 minutes. It gives them something active to do, leaves them in a much happier headspace and has helped them break the cycle of using food as an unproductive method of stress relief.

Myth 2: You can get rid of bad habits by eliminating them

So many of us try and effortfully will away our bad habits (again relying on willpower and motivation), this is difficult and, in more cases than not, is unsuccessful.

Habits are rituals that are built through a loop contingent on a particular cue or trigger to start the habit process, behaviour or action (the habit itself), and are contingent on a particular reward in return for that behaviour or habit. Ultimately, it is not effective to try to break or get rid of bad habits rather we need to replace old unhelpful habits with new more productive ones.

Thus in order to “break” a bad habit the best way to do this is to examine the habit loop in more detail to look at how we can replace it with a new healthy habit.

Taking action:

In order to become more familiar with your own healthy habit loops, it may be useful to track them. You could monitor yourself over the next 5-7 days writing down when you are most likely to give in to temptation and why. Try and focus on having a particular curiosity about what triggered you, and what reward you were looking for from the habit. In other words, what is the benefit you get from performing it? By approaching your habits with curiosity, it can help us understand better the function they serve in our lives.

You can read more about this type of tracking which I term “temptation tracking”, here. 

Firstly, you can ask yourself what is the trigger for my habit? Is it a particular time of day/location etc. what/if anything can be done about this? For example, if the trigger is seeing the cake/beer/cheese first thing when you open the fridge when you come home from work, removing this trigger and/or replacing it with a new healthier trigger (e.g. cut up fruit/veg) will help. However more often than not our triggers then to be more complex than this and maybe mood-related which then call for both a better understanding of the reward we get for indulging in an unhealthy habit.

Become curious about your habits, what is the reward you are seeking from them. For example, if the habit that you wish to change is overindulging in too many biscuits with your work colleagues, are you ultimately seeking stress relief/social stimulation/a break? In order to successfully knock a bad habit on the head, one method is to look to replace the old behaviour with a new healthier behaviour that brings about the same or similar reward. So if you are snacking unhealthily for stress relief or for social reasons is there another way in which you can get the same reward without compromising your healthy habits? Can you bring your own snacks or have alternative snacks in work so the biscuits aren’t the only option? Can you have a break outside of the kitchen? Could you take a non-food related break? Could you go for a walk with others?

Focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t, action rather than avoidance is the best medicine for unhealthy habits.

Myth 3: Your goals should be difficult

So often, when it comes to our healthy habits we set ourselves really difficult goals. These goals feel like enormous mountains to climb, and that any action we take feels meek in comparison to where we need to get to. This is not motivating and it doesn’t support long term change. Think about any time you resolved to start a diet on Monday. No doubt the moment you decided you were going to go on a diet you spent the weekend having all the foods you felt you were going to be deprived of come Monday. We’ve all been there and the research shows that even hearing the word diet can result in compensatory eating. The problem is then we start out being far too strict on ourselves, we end up feeling deprived, which inevitably makes us miserable and is unsustainable. We ultimately go ‘off the plan’ and this reinforces the belief that we are never going to be successful. However, it’s not you that is failing it’s your goals that are failing you.

Taking action:

When we break down our big audacious goals into bite-sized chunks they become more manageable and thus more achievable. Achieving small, even laughably small goals is important as it helps us build our self-efficacy or confidence in our personal ability to change. If you believe you can achieve your goal you are so much more likely to do so.

To find out more about how I can support your healthy habits in 2020 or sign up for my newsletter, visit my website. There you will find tons of helpful information about making healthy, sustainable changes to your habits.

Go forth and be kind to yourself!

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