Food for Thought: A Complete Guide to Habit-Forming

From StrengthTheory.com

“We are what we repeatedly do.” Aristotle gave us this insight into habits over 2,000 years ago and it remains true.

A habit is a response to a contextual cue that we have developed over time by giving the same response to the same contextual cue. In other words, a habit is something we repeatedly do. We carry out many habits every day without thinking about them. Do you take the same walk to work every morning? Do you brush your teeth with the same hand every time? Do you eat the same thing for breakfast every day? Habits are meant to be exactly that: things you don’t have to think about.

In fact, they are defined in Promoting Habit Formation as “behavioral patterns enacted automatically in response to a situation in which the behavior has been performed repeatedly and consistently in the past” (Lally et al).

Habits are your automatic response to an environmental cue – and they are automatic for a reason! It would be a catastrophe if we had to think about the same things over and over to perform all of our daily tasks. We wouldn’t be able to think about anything except for exactly what we are going to do. Habits allow us to do things on autopilot. Without them, we would be train wrecks.

Some habits, however, are not beneficial to our health or our training. Do you always crave a sweet dessert after dinner? That might be an unhealthy habit. Some people smoke cigarettes when they drink with friends. That’s another unhealthy habit. Habits can be bad for our health or for our lifting. How about shoulder pain from overuse? Are you in a habit of using that same shoulder that hurts for all of your daily tasks? If you think you might have some habits that are negatively affecting your numbers on the platform or your life in general, maybe it’s time you try to learn how to change them.

Before we begin, it is important to note that the study of habit formation is ongoing. It’s difficult to quantify, therefore, this article includes lots of theoretical and anecdotal information. If you want to read more about habit than I could fit in this article, read The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It is a great book and inspired me to write this article; it is very straightforward in its message and easy to apply to areas of your life like lifting and business.

Identify the Habit

Many great strength and conditioning coaches and personal trainers out there who give great advice and have tons of knowledge. There are many lifters who coach themselves and know what they need to do to succeed, but have trouble actually doing it. How many people have a vast amount of knowledge, but can’t seem to act on it? They can’t develop the habits in themselves or their clients to achieve goals. Since habits are subconscious, the first step to changing is to make them conscious. You need to realize what you are doing. This is where having a third party, such as a coach, nutritionist, or training partner can really help. You need someone to ask you questions about your lifestyle that you might never think about.

Some habits are easier than others to bring to consciousness. You might be able to tell me what you eat for breakfast every morning, but which shoe do you usually tie first? Do you warm up properly for workouts? What are your workout habits? How do you approach the bar before a big lift? Where are you looking when you squat? Ask your coach or lifting partner if they can start to see patterns emerge. In fact, you may not even need a third party since the problem might jump out at you as soon as you start thinking about these things. If you work out alone, you can simply record your workouts for a minute before, during, and after your lifts. Or write down every exercise, set, and rep in your workout, including your warmup. If nutrition is your weakness, start by making a food log. If you are struggling to stay on track or are binge eating, try writing down what is happening in your life and what you are thinking for a few minutes before you go off track. You may read this and think that you don’t have any bad training or eating habits, and maybe you really don’t. But I am willing to bet that every single person has a habit they can improve.

The tricky thing about a habit is that you’re not supposed to know you’re doing it! That’s why my first tip is to find someone who can, or to keep a detailed workout or eating log. Remember, you are looking for an environmental cue and a response. For example, I usually crave something sweet after dinner. The cue is dinner and the response is to crave dessert.

Change or Replace the Habit

Once you have identified the habit, it’s time to change it or replace it. The saying “old habits die hard” holds true. In most cases, it is better to simply replace the response to the cue than to eliminate the response altogether. When you go cold turkey, you are eliminating the response altogether, but you still have not eliminated the cue, which is the root of the problem. In this case, it may be better to keep a response, at least for a little while, but replace it with something healthier. Someone smoking cigarettes, for example, may start to smoke an e-cig or use cinnamon sticks to simulate the act of smoking. Or, if you usually crave a sweet dessert after dinner, try eating fruit instead of something like cookies or cake. That way, you’ll still get to eat something sweet after dinner, but you will eat fewer calories since fruit is more filling than cake.

In that example, we have a cue (dinner) and a response (crave something sweet). If you eat fruit, you are giving almost the exact same response – eating something sweet. If you ate almonds, the response would be different and probably wouldn’t work as well. Maybe you have a cue that lacks a response in one of your lifts. If you have a stiff back but never stretch, make stretching your response to back pain (the cue). Every time it tightens up, you stretch. It’s really that simple to create or improve a habit.

Practice the Replacement

Remember the saying “practice makes perfect”? In order to create a habit, practice it every day, or as often as possible. Researchers Lally et al found that it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to create a habit that is supposed to be practiced daily (keep in mind that not all participants complied daily). That is why I title this article Succeed Every Day. You must practice this new habit as often as you can to make it a habit. It needs to be done so many times that it is automatic. The researchers discovered that while one miss did not affect habit formation, multiple misses did. The graph below from Lally et al shows how practicing this habit more will make it more automatic, but there is a point of diminishing returns. It is also important to note that a habit can’t be completely automatic; it can just be more automatic. This makes it crucial to consistently practice and maintain your new habit. That’s right, once you work hard to create a habit, you must maintain it! This is easy to do, but it is still important to remember.

 

Graph from “Promoting Habit Formation,” Lally et al. We can see that as repetition (X) increases, automaticity (Y) increases. Automaticity increases quickly at first, then begins to increase slowly. This means that your progress will slow down eventually, but that will be at the point when the habit is more automatic.

Graph from “Promoting Habit Formation,” Lally et al. We can see that as repetition (X) increases, automaticity (Y) increases. Automaticity increases quickly at first, then begins to increase slowly. This means that your progress will slow down eventually, but that will be at the point when the habit is more automatic.

The new habit also must be small and simple enough that it is possible to complete every time. For example, don’t try to overhaul your diet overnight. Start by changing one thing, such as eating more fiber with one meal every day. If the new habit is not achievable, then it will not be practiced consistently enough to become a habit. Start small, be consistent, and amazing things will happen. This is how someone who has poor eating and exercise habits can reach his or her fitness goals. The things that will bring them success must become habit. Working out must be as much a part of a daily routine as brushing your teeth. You shouldn’t have to decide to go to the gym or eat vegetables: You just do it because it’s automatic.

Start with the area of your training, diet, or life in general that you think needs more improvement. It could be fitness, business, relationships – that’s up to you. Seek help from someone who you respect or someone who does this specific thing really well. Ask them what your worst habit is, something that you repeatedly do (or don’t do) that is hurting you. Then think about what is happening before you perform this habit. Search for the cue that sets off the habit. Now try replacing the bad habit with a positive habit or better routine. Practice this new habit every single time you receive the cue. This is where you have to work hard and be diligent. Don’t perform the new habit poorly, or that will become the habit. Do not get used to half-assing workouts, because this will become the norm. After a while, the habit will become automatic, and you will have enough free space to start working on a new habit. Take them one at a time and get them right so that you don’t have to work on them for too long.

Forming new habits will open many new doors and allow you to better yourself. Take a different route to work every once in a while to see new things. Go to different restaurants and taste different food. Work out at different times of the day and see if you feel better at a certain time. Get out of your routine every once in a while to see what or who you might be missing. We get stuck in our ways too easily and lose the ability to change ourselves. Start small when you want to remodel yourself, choose one thing you can change at a time – like brushing your teeth with your other hand – and go from there.

Remember the three steps:

  1.      Identify the habit.
  2.      Replace the habit.
  3.      Practice the replacement.

Keep in mind that if there is a habit you want to create, you need a cue that will consistently be in your environment whether you have to create it or not. It is also easier to replace a bad habit with a good habit than to stop the habit altogether.