It’s hard to imagine that choosing to turn left instead of turning right would change someone’s weight loss, but for my client Tom, turning left made all the difference.
“I started with one thing. Every day I used to walk out the door, turn right, head to the bakery, order two cinnamon rolls for me and my wife’s coffee, and then go to work. So I just started turning left to head directly to work instead of the bakery.”
It was a tall order when Tom’s doctor told him that he needed to lose about 40 pounds last fall. “That meant getting to my Army weight from 40 years ago,” recalls Tom. “I’m not quite there, but I am very close.” Turning left was the first of several habit changes that Tom created in his lifestyle that led to his weight loss of almost 40 pounds and his ultimate goal of meeting his doctor’s orders.
Make the habit the goal
A lot of times we hear advice about setting small goals in order to reach a bigger goal. I would argue that this advice is slightly flawed. If you have a weight loss goal of 40 pounds, you might assume that breaking it into “smaller goals” of 10 pound increments will help you stay motivated. But the size of the goal is not what’s important in this situation- it’s the habits you instill into your regular routine to get to that goal that will actually help you accomplish it. Make the habits the goal, and you’ll win every time.
We can deliberately create new habits for ourselves that lead to success with a particular goal. Habits that aid the process of moving toward the outcome are called process goals. Often I refer to this with clients as “pounding the pavement”-the tiny habits we create for ourselves that build the foundation of a larger goal. For example, you want to run a half marathon in 6 months, but you haven’t been running at all. You could map out a long term training plan, complete with the appropriate 5K and 10K races designed to prepare you for your race day. Or you could just go out and start running after work every day. Totally different strategies, right? To many people, the second one sounds a little more approachable. But how do you get that running habit to actually happen?
Establish Habit Loops
According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, helping a new habit “stick” requires the creation of a habit loop, the neurological basis for why we do most of what we do. A habit loop requires 3 steps in order to get hard wired into the brain. These are the cue, the routine, and the reward. Let’s go back to the half marathon preparation again. You decide that you will make time for running after work each day. So your cue is coming home from work. The routine is that you get on your clothes and lace up your shoes (which could also serve as cues instead of coming home from work) and run. Your reward is the sense of accomplishment from running. Notice I didn’t mention anything about pace, time, or distance? That’s because the most powerful thing you can do to create a habit of running after work is to simply “grease the groove”.
Grease the groove often
In the fitness community, professionals and coaches often refer to “greasing the groove” in terms of strength development. Pavel Tsatsouline popularized the phrase in his book Power to the People and challenged coach Dan John to grease the groove in a 40 day workout program. In the program, Pavel told Dan to pick 5 lifts, do them every workout for no more than 10 reps, and go light enough on the weight to make them perfect and easy. On Day 22, John hit his lifetime PR for incline bench press! Much like a habit loop, these examples of high frequency, easy practice with perfect execution are designed to stimulate new pathways in the brain that can be a powerful tool to reach our goals.
Keeping it simple and repeatable day after day – or multiple times a day using a cue- is the key to success. For example, I have a client who wanted to be able to do a push up, but she was only able to do push ups at counter height. I challenged her to do 5-10 easy push ups on the counter every time she entered her kitchen. Soon, she was doing them on the floor of her kitchen. Now, she can knock out as many as 20 floor push ups. She created a cue (entering the kitchen), a routine (5-10 easy counter push ups), and had a reward (doing many push ups at a time).
Of course, you’ll want to scale your habit to successful outcomes. Pick a habit that is manageable for you at this point, because success breeds more success. Running until you feel tired or feel like stopping is likely to be way more successful than running X amount of time or X amount of distance in the beginning.
Start Small and Practice Frequently
Habits that are hard, like sitting down to eat a meal and eating slowly, can be very difficult at first. So start with something manageable, such as eating one meal a day sitting down for a certain amount of time- maybe 12 minutes to start. At first, it might feel like an eternity, but after a while, this habit will be “greased” into perfect, easy practice.
New habits are delicate, so be sure to choose a cue that you can do on a daily (or multiple times a day, depending on the habit) basis; otherwise, it makes it easy to forget. Be specific about your cue; for example, push ups at the top of the stairs, or planning your meals for the day after your second cup of coffee. Make sure that it is easy enough that it does not feel like a burden or chore- that’s the easiest way to crush a new habit, and a mistake people make all the time by elaborate planning and “beast mode” aspirations.
Once you feel you’ve mastered one habit, add another as necessary. Mastered push ups? Try a pistol squat. Making your lunch every Monday? Make a week’s worth of lunches. Soon your PRs will be showing up at the squat rack, on the scale, or at the finish line. See you there!
Susan Ogilvie is a certified personal trainer and owner of SO Fit Wellness in Brighton, Michigan. She sustains a 60 pound weight loss that led to a total transformation of her life. Her mission is to help clients harness the power within themselves to make the changes they need to meet their goals. She specializes in weight loss coaching, strength training, and corrective exercise. For more information, check out her website at www.sofitwellness.com.