When it comes to our health, sometimes it can be hard to see the progress that we’re making. Weight loss, for example, is a lagging measure of our eating and exercise habits in addition to stress or illness. If weight loss is something that we’re intentionally working towards though, assuming that we are generally healthy, the gap between the time when we start exercising and eating healthy and the time when we actually see the payoff from all of our efforts can be a while, and this can be pretty demotivating. This is totally normal and understandable, of course. It’s hard to get into a routine when you perceive very little reward. I mean, it’s easy to see why eating that slice of cake right now seems like a great idea. The second I take a bite, I instantly enjoy the taste rather than suddenly noticing how delicious that cake was one month later. Plus, that sort of instant gratification can be so appealing that we engage in these types of behaviors without even thinking about it. If you’ve seen The Social Dilemma on Netflix, then you also know that this isn’t just about how we approach food and exercise.
6 Small Changes That Lead to Big Results
Focusing on habits is a much more effective way to achieve results. Habits are about the little things we do everyday that is often part of a routine. Understanding the primary process of building a habit can help us change them.
1. Identify Cues and Response
Habits are the outcome of some sort of cue, internal or external, that we respond to almost instinctually without thinking about it first. For example, when I’m scrolling through my Instagram feed and I see that amazing new nail polish that my friend has (cue) it leads me to go and purchase some for myself (response). I didn’t even know that looking at those photos was a cue and I definitely reacted without really thinking about it. Now that I know that this is a cue that triggers a behavior that I want to stop, one thing I can do is put my wallet away in an inconvenient spot before I log onto Instagram. Like putting my wallet out of reach in my bedroom and looking at Instagram in the living room. Or, I could leave it locked in the glove compartment of my car, which would force me to go down several flights of stairs and out into the cold to get it.
2. Do A Little Less
In some situations, it can be hard to quit something all at once. Instead, it might be helpful to think of it as just doing a little less. For example, it might be really hard to give up all snack foods all at once, but it feels easier to eat one less French fry or one less M&M in the bag. Over time, this approach can help us avoid eating the fries and candy altogether, especially if we start using this technique with all the foods in these categories.
3. Remove Obstacles
In the same way that we can make things we don’t want to do harder, we can also make the things we do want to do easier. For example, I have the tendency to eat whatever is available to me, especially first thing in the morning. Cereal, chips, cake… I don’t care if it’s not the most nutritious meal I can eat. I will eat what looks delicious and is conveniently available when I’m half awake and in a hurry to start my day. To combat this, the first thing I can obviously do is not buy this type of food in the first place. But that doesn’t exactly work when I’m not the only one in the house. What I can try instead is to take some time to cut up fruit like pineapple or peel some oranges, so that I have a convenient alternative that I can enjoy when I’m running on autopilot like that. I chose fruit because I have a bit of a sweet tooth first thing in the morning and fruit will help me satisfy the craving but in a healthier way.
4. Reward Yourself
Since it can sometimes be a while before we can actually see or feel the difference from our healthy behaviors, we can do little things for ourselves now to help make these changes feel more rewarding. For example, maybe take a nice bubble bath and relax after meeting your goal for the week. Also, some people find it rewarding to mark their calendars every time they exercise or eat a healthy and nutritious meal. There are also apps that track what you eat if you prefer (see this Healthline article, for example). Tracking your habits on a calendar can be a nice way to see all of the progress that you’ve made. Plus, it’s a small but effective way to motivate yourself to stay on track.
Another thing you can try is to take away something that you dislike doing. This is known as negative reinforcement in psychology — if that sounds totally backward from what you thought, you’re not alone. I mean, it sounds like punishment, right? Well, anyway, it’s actually a really powerful way of rewarding yourself. For example, let’s say that you hate having to do the dishes before you go to bed or start your day of work because you would rather take that time to relax. One thing you can do is reward yourself by putting this task off until a more convenient time if you met your goal of working out that day. Whatever you reward yourself with, make sure that it doesn’t compete with the habit you’re trying to establish. So no cake or burger, although, know that this is okay as long as it’s in moderation.
5. Temptation Bundling
Speaking of rewarding yourself, another thing you can do is bundle your new habit with an enticing reward. For example, I love listening to audiobooks and podcasts, and a perfect time to listen is when I’m working out. To make sure that I keep audiobooks and podcasts rewarding, I only allow myself to listen when I’m exercising, even if that means I’m taking my dogs on a walk. I have friends who use a version of this with Netflix and a spin bike or treadmill.
6. Habit Stacking
Lastly, a great way to reinforce a habit is to stack it with another habit. For example, I want to do at least 30 minutes of cardio exercise every day. So, I can be intentional about how I plan my day to make sure that this happens. For example, after I wake up and brush my teeth (an existing habit), I will get dressed in my workout clothes (which I will purposely leave in my bathroom by the sink) and I will turn on my computer to join in on a fitness class (new habit). Of course, I recommend doing one with us over here at FIT & NU, but there are also plenty of free videos on YouTube as well. After that, I will make my progress on a calendar (new habit and reward) and eat breakfast as I usually do (existing habit), which will be the fruit that I conveniently prepared over the weekend (new habit that’s altering the existing habit). Then I’ll start my day of work (existing habit). This way my new habits have been integrated into my daily routine.
Remember that the small things that we do each day can have big results, which can have big consequences on our lives. We may not see or feel the difference right away, but we also won’t achieve any results at all if we don’t change anything. The sooner you start establishing healthy habits, the sooner you will see and feel the difference. Any step that you take today is important, even if it’s just thinking about what you’re going to start doing or eating one less cookie in that bag. Your future self will thank you.