One thing I hear time and again in clinic is how someone had success on a particular diet but couldn’t maintain that long term. They find that they know what to do, but they don’t know how to do that consistently or how to re-start once they have fallen off the bandwagon. So what is going on and what can we do about it? Why is being consistent so hard when it comes to healthy habits?
Why is being consistent so hard when it comes to healthy habits?
It is actually all about understanding how the brain works.
Within the brain, we have the conscious mind and the automatic mind. The conscious mind takes in new information and assesses it for relevance and meaning. This requires a lot of energy. The automatic mind runs the decisions and activities that you have already assessed in the past. The automatic mind is highly efficient and runs on little energy and is what drives our habits.
The brain has one mission: ‘avoid pain, seek pleasure and expend as little energy as possible doing so’. This is derived from our caveman brain in which avoiding pain and seeking pleasure equates to keeping safe. And safe in caveman times meant familiar.
When we decide to break an old habit say eating chocolate after dinner every night, we require the use of the conscious mind and willpower. However, this will only get us so far. When we are tired, overwhelmed, stressed, the conscious mind goes offline, and the automatic mind takes over.
The habit of eating chocolate after dinner every night comes from the automatic mind, our caveman brain takes over and safe equals familiar. This is what willpower is trying to battle against.
In addition to this, willpower is like a muscle that can be built up. But it can also be worn out. Over the day it becomes depleted by decision fatigue and by the evening, it is so depleted, that before you know it, you are back on the sofa after dinner with a bar of chocolate in your familiar, safe habit.
How do we stay consistently on track?
- Understand cue-routine-reward
Identify the cue, that drives the routine and tune into the perceived reward. E.g. when I feel exhausted, I eat chocolate on the sofa, because it makes me feel relaxed. When we identify this, we can ask what other routine could give the same reward.
- Morning routines
Having a morning routine allows us to be in charge of our day, rather than being reactionary to external influences. This allows us to be more intentional, less overwhelmed and make better choices throughout the day.
Meditation helps us to strengthen our ‘mindfulness’ muscle. Being more mindful brings awareness to the present moment where we can be observational of habits as well as the thoughts and feelings triggering them.
- Create a temptation plan
Relying on willpower to make a healthier change won’t work. Temptation will always be there, not giving in to it comes from having and executing a specific detailed plan for what you’ll do when you do feel tempted.
One of the quirks of the brain is that is not very good at distinguishing what is real and what is imaginary. Visualisation helps to us to use this quirk to move toward our desired goal. It helps to build new neural pathways around healthier habits – making them the automatic behaviour.
All of these suggestions are designed to reduce stress and promote familiarity so that the ‘caveman’ brain feels safe and doesn’t try to take over and sabotage with old, familiar, unhealthy habits. All the suggestions will take practice and that uses the conscious mind. So keep trying these over and over until they become automatic.
If you need further help with reducing stress check out my blog 6 top tips to ease stress.
If you are in your peri-to-post menopausal years you might find my free download ‘The Ultimate Guide to Thriving in the Menopause‘ more helpful.