Bigger returns on your Habits of Health

06.18.15 |

Journaling improves daily mindfulness

A core theme in the Habits of Health is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of being present. With the very nature of habits being that they are automatic behavior loops reinforced again and again by the same triggers and rewards, we cannot hope to reprogram them without first recognizing when they are occurring. You learn to recognize the moments when you are unconsciously making a choice between health and disease so that you can correct your course—one decision at a time.

I wrote about habit loops in great detail in my free e-book Stop. Challenge. Choose., but today I want to zoom out. Instead of exploring the anatomy of singular habits, we are going to look at the relationships between habits and how adopting one Habit of Health can make adopting others easier.

In Dr. A’s Habits of Health, one of the first exercises I recommend is to keep a journal. In this journal, you track your food intake, your activity, your daily weight, your thoughts, your goals, and your ideas. The simple habit of journaling improves daily mindfulness because it forces you to pause and reflect on the events of a day and the choices you made.

The idea that keeping a food journal can help with weight loss is not new. One 2008 study even suggested that it could “double” weight loss. Researchers found that asking study participants to write down everything they ate made them more critical of their food choices, leading them to make better choices. One habit—keeping a journal—ripples into what could amount to dozens of food-related habits in any single day. Reprogramming that one trigger that makes you crave a candy bar is still important, but here we see the adoption of one habit (keeping a journal) influencing an entire family habits.

Keeping a food journal is an example of how you can compound the returns you see from your Habits of Health. But what about the other things you write about in your journal?

Not surprisingly, logging your daily weight can help you lose weight and keep it off. According to new research in the Journal of Obesity, study participants who weighed themselves daily and recorded the results were more successful in their efforts to lose weight than participants who did not weigh themselves daily.

David Levitsky, one of the study authors, said, “We think the scale also acts as a priming mechanism, making you conscious of food and enabling you to make choices that are consistent with your weight.”
This is almost exactly how researchers explained the effects of keeping a food journal. Stepping on a scale each morning reminds you to be more mindful of your choices throughout the day, enabling you to make healthier choices as a result. While Prof. Levitsky specifically mentions being conscious of food choices, stepping on a scale is likely to influence Habits of Healthy Motion as well.

From a Habits of Health perspective, the value of journaling is clear, but there is a hidden beauty to the process that might not be immediate apparent. In terms of habit loops, we are often working to reprogram reward cycles that are deeply rooted in emotional responses like sadness or stress. Worse yet, these habits of have been reinforced over decades.
By comparison, starting the habit of keeping a journal is much less intimidating than giving up your favorite comfort food—the one you reach for when your boss is angry. You probably don’t have any preconceived feelings about keeping a journal, so all you have to do is start. If you are worried about forgetting, you can set a daily reminder in your phone.

With this low barrier of entry and the potential for big-picture rewards, we shouldn’t be surprised when health professionals recommend a pen and paper before they recommend a fancy workout plan. For our community, that future is already here.