Today we will be discussing the Power of Habit. You’ve all probably had an experience with a client that has said to you something along the lines of “I don’t know what happened, I just found myself eating pizza” or “I couldn’t help myself” or “I just went on auto-pilot.” They really have no idea how they found themselves in that situation and then they really beat themselves up over it. They tell themselves that they just can’t overcome these things or there isn’t any way to control them. Or maybe they believe that they are just self-sabotaging themselves, or that they really don’t want to lose weight. However, what they are in fact experiencing is a habit.
A habit is a repeated pattern of behavior that LITERALLY changes our brain and creates a “neural pathway” in our nervous system. This means, that it very easy for us to slip back into old habits because they have become a part of our biology. That’s right, they become part of us. It’s just like the old saying “it’s just like riding a bike” which of course means that even 20 years from now you could get back on a bike and all the movements would come right back to you. This is because when you were younger you developed a neural pathway that made these movements almost second nature. The same thing happens with unhealthy eating. These patterns of behavior become so ingrained into a person’s lifestyle that it becomes a part of them.
This doesn’t mean that the client is helpless… on the contrary! Since they changed their biology in creating unhealthy habits then they can change their biology in creating healthy habits! The first thing is to recognize that habits are like making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Now, just follow me here. I want you all to imagine making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It’s simple enough, right? We all know how to make one; you just do it! Just as simple as that. But, if we actually take the time to imagine ALL the steps it takes to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich then it becomes much more complex. Let’s think about it:
Step 1: Decide you want a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Step 2: Go into the kitchen.
Step 3: Grab the bread from the pantry.
Step 4: Grab the peanut butter from the pantry.
Step 5: Grab the jelly from the refrigerator.
Step 6: Grab a plate from the cupboard.
Step 7: Grab a knife from the drawer.
And so on and so forth…
I think you see my point. It takes WAY more steps to complete than we originally thought. This is the exact same thing for habits. We tend to see an unhealthy habit as just a motion we go through but in reality we go through MULTIPLE steps. This is really great news because that means the client has multiple chances to interrupt the habit! So, here’s what we do… Help the client to think through their habits and identify all the steps it actually takes them in order to complete the unhealthy behavior. Write these steps down. Decide which steps would be the easiest to interrupt? Which steps are the easiest to notice? What can they do once they catch themselves? This way when they are about to go “on auto pilot” they will be more aware of what they are doing and have a better chance at stopping themselves.
Remember that it is not our job to give the client all the answers; in fact, doing so only helps them to become dependent upon us instead of taking responsibility for their own actions. Help to guide them through their own answers to the questions. A few questions you can ask them are: What happens right before you go on “auto-pilot”? What are you thinking or feeling right before you engage in unhealthy eating habits? What happens right after you engage in unhealthy eating habits? What are you thinking or feeling right after you engage in unhealthy eating habits? What were the steps that led up to the unhealthy eating? What were the emotions that triggered the unhealthy eating? Guide them to recognize their own thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
Now, if the client asks for some advice directly from you, here are a few tips you can give them to help:
1) Practice patience. It can take as many as 180 days to truly drop an old habit and adopt a new one, so tell them to stay with it!
2) Celebrate catching themselves. When they are able to interrupt the habit at any one of the steps be sure they celebrate this! Tell them not to just say “oh, here I go again” instead have them say “Yes! I was able to catch myself from doing this.”
3) Use cues to help themselves. Have them set up reminders for themselves such as photos or magazine clippings of something that represents an important metaphor for their goals. Note: unrealistic or perfectionistic images (such as supermodels) don’t work quite as well.
4) Get help. Have them ask themselves “Who can support me? Who will be my ally? Who is on my team?”
Remember that habits are going to be different for every client that comes through the door and it is incredibly important that we recognize that every person’s path to changing these habits will be unique. Some will have a much more difficult time with habits than others. Some will conquer their habits only for them to come back months later. The most important things for us to remember are 1) to practice patience ourselves, sometimes it can seem that we want the client to lose weight more than they do but we have to remember what they are truly up against and 2) that all we are really doing is making offerings for the client to explore themselves, they need to take the responsibility to change themselves. Don’t be the teacher, don’t give them the answers. Instead, be their guide, be their ally, be their cheerleader and stick with them as they go through their journey.
By Nick Frye, Behavorial Specialist/Medifast/TSFL