For weight loss, muscle gain or anything else in life that spells success for us
Getting to a better place in life, at any stage, often requires that we change something. Whether that's a circumstance, a partner, a friend, or our bodies, it all begins with us. While it's immensely tempting to believe that there is some kind of EasyPill for weight loss (there isn't) or an EasyHack to gain muscle mass or endurance(there isn't), there really is only one "hack" that works:
Change your habits.
In his terrific book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charles Duhigg explores what habits are, how we form them and how to change the ones that can make the greatest difference in our lives. In this evergreen book which details the science behind how we form habits, Duhigg delves into how you can better understand how to make the sometimes subtle shifts which can end up making massive long-term changes in our quality of life.
One of my big takeaways was this:
Keystone habits are “small changes or habits that people introduce into their routines that unintentionally carry over into other aspects of their lives.” -Charles Duhigg
You and I form habits often without any idea that a pattern is taking shape in our lives. The brain likes comfort and familiarity, so as soon as we introduce a regular behavior, such as heading to the refrigerator the moment we get up, or eating a sweet snack as soon as we get home from work or a workout, it begins to establish that pattern.
After a while that pattern can become entrenched without our even knowing it. Soon, walking to the kitchen first thing upon awakening, beginning the day with a donut or a side trip to MickeyD's is just What We Do.
And What We Do shows up in life: our bodies, our brains, our lack of progress.
Which is why, if you stop by MickyD's one night for the fam, in the not-too-distant future it's six or seven nights a week. Easy, predictable, with equally predictable results on your health. In other words, the brain likes easy.
That comfort and familiarity, as any long term body builder will tell you, is precisely why, after a certain point, there is no more muscle growth. When you walk into the gym, perhaps you hit the same machines at the same time in the same order. The brain and body, both bored and comfortable, stop growing. What needs to happen is a series of small "shocks."
Often this is a simple as changing up a routine, starting with curls instead of chest presses, making every day a leg day (we should anyway). You get it. The good news is that it doesn't take a massive overhaul to get big results.I saw this for years at the gym. Men who would sling iron next to me for years, but whose bodies either showed no growth, or they actually even lost progress.
Little shocks have big impacts
This isn't just true of the body. Emotional habits are the same. If you and I run from conflict, we may live our lives in fear and self-loathing. It takes courage to face what scares us. But even by drawing small lines in the sand with people who take advantage of us is like building a brand new muscle. It gets stronger with use, and at some point, the courage it took to draw the first line becomes the confidence to set clear boundaries with others who seek to take advantage of us.
Years ago I dropped 85 pounds by changing my eating habits. It took a while, for I had a serious donut Jones. I loved fish and chips and all kinds of food that did me a lot of harm. Over the course of one weekend I started to change where I shopped. Rather than head to the Safeway, I went to a green grocer (I was living in a small Australian suburb at the time). Rather than choose a donut for breakfast, I started eating oatmeal, or eggs. I changed out sweet, creamy coffee for green tea. I changed out fish and chips for big salads.I took those small steps over time.
Day by day, week by week, I made small but perceptible changes. Soon they were habits. The habits began to pay off. At the time I wasn't at all aware of what I was doing. By the end of that year, I was down 85 lbs, and I had built all kinds of new habits around exercise and eating. But I didn't do it all at once, which tends to help the process. That weight never came back because by the time it was gone I had overhauled my habits.
How Covid threw us under the bus and why that's a good thing
Duhigg writes that “The way we organize our thoughts and work routines has enormous impacts on our health, productivity, financial security, and happiness."
Given right now, there's a really good reason why we're all feeling turmoil, although the degree varies for each of us. But in that chaos there are also opportunities to refocus our efforts. Rather than the knee-jerk desire to return to some kind of "normalcy," this might be the perfect time to question what parts of that normalcy don't serve us. That means food habits, exercise habits, habits for work and how we live our days.
Chaos contains within it the great promise of change for the better, but only if we stop trying to force the world to bend to us, and rather use the chaos to rebuild for what's next. I am not saying it's easy. It's not. But once you stop seeing chaotic times as the enemy, you can start choosing different ways of being and using your time rather than exhausting yourself fighting a battle you can't win.
In so many ways, Covid, quarantine and the waterfall effect that the pandemic has had on virtually all aspects of our lives presents, in one important way, also offers us the chance to rethink lifestyle habits that may not be serving us. And to be fair, habits that the stress and anxiety have formed in us after nearly a year also may not be serving us. Such as, too much doom scrolling, too much TV or social media or YouTube (does it matter?), not enough being outside and active, and laziness as a result of having our gyms and rec centers closed.
All perfectly understandable, but also equally hard to break.
Right now I've just tallied a few not-so-productive habits that have derailed some of my work and workouts. They came out of uprooting myself to a new city while under quarantine, our gyms closed, and much of what used to constitute the predictable scaffolding of my daily life has gone. It's been too easy to take a mid-afternoon break that stretches to bedtime. For me, that's not a good habit at all.
That allows me to build a brand new life, if I am willing to look at habits that formed during the last year that don't serve. We all have them. This isn't a condemnation. It simply suggests that if you and I want different results, we might wish to take a look at habits rather than hacks. These are the steps:
- First, you notice that you have a habit. This isn't as obvious as it sounds. We think that we just do what we do, not that something that we do has formed a habit that may not be serving us. I had to notice that I was choosing to do x instead of y. For example, settle into the couch with the remote instead of heading out for a brisk walk.
- Then we assess what that habit is gaining us or costing us. Here is where you and I negotiate, argue, make excuses: Well, I'm tired. Well, I deserve a break. Well, I need a beer. really? Honestly? What is that story getting you or costing you?
- Third, I need to decide to try something different instead. The moment I find myself heading for the couch, challenge myself. What would happen if I grabbed my keys and went for a walk? Well, you'd feel righteous. And energized. And pleased with yourself, for starters. Lots of things.
- Fourth, integrate this new action into your world until that becomes the habit.
If there were true shortcuts to excellence, people would be taking them. Then everyone would be excellent. If everyone is excellent, that's fine, but then nobody stands out. What makes us stand out is the path we're willing to take to get there, wherever "there" is for us.
The sometimes frustrating, sometimes too-long process of redirecting ourselves through small, steady steps builds us from the inside out. Then, when we finally have the results we want, we know we've earned them. There's no quick hack for that kind of satisfaction. Hacks are sexy, but they, like so much sex, are brief, dissatisfying, not so memorable and most definitely, not lasting. Habits are all those things and a lot more. For how we choose to spend our days, the habits we choose, define the success we enjoy later.