By Brianna Hines
Yesterday we took some time talking about motivation and finding a worthy reason to make major changes in our lives. I hope you were able to do some digging and find a motivation that can stand the test of time.
However, motivation is not what you should hang your hat on when it comes to the nitty gritty of daily making healthier decisions. You have to go further because even if you have the best reason in the world to take care of your body motivation is, as we all know, a fickle mistress.
So we must move from motivation to something more dependable, something that is going to stick around even when we don’t want it there. What we need are habits. As you may know all too well, habits, once made, are extremely difficult to get rid of. Usually we think of habits as being a bad thing, like when we were little and would bite our nails or chew with our mouths open, but habits can also be very good things, like brushing our teeth every morning, or locking our doors. They are things that we have learned to do instinctively, barely even thinking about or questioning them.
For example, when I feel like I have to pee, I find a bathroom. I don’t have to argue with myself about the importance of using the restroom regularly or look up motivational quotes to get myself on the toilet. That would be ridiculous. In fact, it would take quite a lot to get me to NOT find a bathroom when I have to pee. We need that same reactive habit when it comes to taking care of our bodies. We need to get to a point where it would be extremely difficult for us to NOT go on our daily walk, or NOT eat a salad for lunch, or NOT choose water over soda.
But how do we bridge that gap? How do I go from someone who still needs to argue with myself about exercising or look up a motivational quote to eat carrot sticks instead of fries, to a girl that does these things out of habit without even questioning them?
Forming habits is actually not as complicated as it might seem at first if we are strategic about how we introduce them. The key is to make habits small enough to feel manageable, and when I say small, I am talking about something that should only take a few seconds to complete. If a goal seems too large, we are forced to tap into our willpower to do it. All of us only have a certain amount of willpower at our disposal each day, so these habits we try to create need to use as little of it as possible. A habit that will only take you a few seconds to complete doesn’t feel overwhelming and most of us wouldn’t think twice about it.
But how, you may wonder, are just a few seconds going to make a difference when it comes to changing our entire lifestyles of eating and exercising? Those first few seconds may not seem that important, but they can set us on a trajectory of creating a chain reaction of many tiny decisions that lead us to completely different behaviors. This is especially true if we build these tiny habits off of pre-existing habits in our routines. I will give you some examples:
If your ultimate goal is to, say, go on a run every morning, then a micro habit you could introduce would be to simply put on your running clothes when you wake up. It only takes a few seconds to do, but being in your running clothes will remind you of your goal and will make it much more likely that you will actually go on that run. Sometimes you might choose not to actually run, because the only thing you have mentally committed to is putting on those clothes, not actually running. This slight mental shift will actually take the pressure off and require a lot less willpower. The commitment is more manageable, but it is providing an opening for you to easily take it further.
To make this habit even more potent, it should build off a pre-existing habit you already practice every morning. Whether you drink a cup of coffee, eat a piece of toast, or check your email, you can connect your habit to one of those things so you remember to do it. Your habit could sound something like this: “Before I take my first sip of coffee every morning, I will put on my running clothes.” Your habitual coffee sip will remind you of your goal, and now that you are dressed for it, it will be that much easier to actually hit the pavement.
The third thing we can use to make a habit more powerful is a reward. This reward needs to be instant, not like the delayed reward of losing five pounds a year from now. It has to be something we can enjoy right after we complete our habit. This reward doesn’t have to be big either, just something to solidify the feeling of accomplishment so that our brain begins to associate good feelings with our new habit. It could be as simple as saying to ourselves, “You are kicking butt this morning!”
This might seem silly, but our brain will respond to this kind of positive reinforcement, even if we are just saying it to ourselves. Our reward could be many things, like checking this micro-habit off a list or simply even taking a deep breath and then smiling. Both of these things also make us feel good subconsciously and can tap into that mental reward system. Find something that works for you, but don’t be tempted to reward yourself with food or time on social media, both of which are unhealthy comforts.
So, altogether, our habit will look something like this: Before I take my first sip of coffee for the day, I will put on my running clothes and then say, “You are kicking butt this morning!” That’s it. That’s all you are committing to. You are not committing to actually going on a run, or losing 30 pounds, or “getting healthier.” You are just signing up to put on some clothes. No big deal. But chances are, those clothes will lead to a few short runs, which will lead to more runs, which will lead to a completely different life, and all without the pressure of a seemingly unattainable goal. Let’s think of some other examples.
To start eating more vegetables, your habit might sound like:
- When I come home from work and put away my purse, I will put a bag of baby carrots on the counter and say “check!”
Or, to get in the habit of pre-chopping healthy veggie snacks for the next day, this one might help:
- After I start the dishwasher, I will get out the cutting board and chopping knife and say “You can do this!”
Perhaps exercise is your focus. These could be helpful:
- After I brush my teeth at night, I will put my walking shoes in front of the front door and say, “Boom. Done!”
- After I brush my teeth at night, I will put my workout clothes next to my bed and say, “I will never give up!”
- After I flush the toilet, I will do three squats, look in the mirror, and say, “Hey there, sexy lady!”
- After I take my first sip of coffee, I will do one pushup and say, “I am strong!”
These are just examples, but you get the idea. Find something you already do every single day, and then piggyback a three- to five-second task onto it. You might have to get a little creative, but there are so many options! Anything can effectively be made into a habit this way! Cooking home-cooked meals, reading aloud to your kids, walking your dog, cleaning your house, anything! Just think small, and then work down to a micro level. If you need to do the dishes, find a habit to add rinsing one dish to. Just one dish. Anyone can do that! It is a non-threatening commitment. But nine times out of 10, once you have rinsed one dish, you will end up rinsing more than one because you are already right there anyway.
I personally started a micro-habit to read the Bible more, and it has stuck fast. This is my habit: Whenever I sit down on the toilet, I will open the Bible app on my phone. That’s it. But once I have the app open, I end up reading, and usually for longer than I thought I would. This habit is the sole reason I am actually almost halfway through my Bible-in-a-year plan that I had been pitifully trying to complete for several years. Now I read the Bible several times a day, and I don’t even have to think about it. I just do it.
My advice to you is to pick one, maybe two habits to start with, and give yourself a few weeks of consistently practicing them before you add any more. The last thing you want to do is overwhelm yourself and give up. So create one that will be catered to your life, your current routines, and see what happens! The only risk is a few seconds of your day. Who knows? It may lead to a completely changed lifestyle!
Keep in mind, Satan will do whatever he can to disrupt these habits after you have made them. Things like moving, having a baby, or a tragic loss can throw our lives into chaos and we fall out of habits. However, that’s where the motivation comes back in. That is when we have to remind ourselves of the WHY we talked about yesterday. We can get back onto the wagon if our why reminds us of the importance, and then we start anew to build those micro habits that turn into ways of life. This is, after all, a battle, but it is a battle that God wants us to win. If we pray for the motivation, energy, and opportunity to obey Him, you better believe that is a prayer God is going to want to answer.
I hope this gives you some practical steps you can take right now that will help jumpstart your efforts. Tomorrow we will discuss how we can set ourselves up for success by changing our environment. There will be a lot more practical ideas for you to consider, so I hope you can join me. In the meantime, good luck creating those micro-habits. Go get ‘em, tiger!