On the advice of a colleague Rebecca, a dietitian who is one of the key drivers of the Eating Well at Flinders program, I sat down and listened to an interview with Dr Gina Cleo on https://www.weightmanagementpsychology.com.au/ginacleo/
Dr Cleo has built her fame (and possible fortune) replacing the traditional models of weight loss (that require specific and often difficult-to-follow and maintain major dietary changes) with one that focuses instead on building and accumulating positive small habits.
As someone who similarly considers habits a core focus in terms of healthy behaviour change, I was really interested to hear how she talks about, defines and conceptualises habit building.
I wasn’t disappointed. Dr Cleo describes habit change in an accessible and easy to digest (yes, that is a diet joke) form. I wanted to use this blog post to extract from the podcast some key points about habit building that you might find useful.
What is a habit?
A habit is a behaviour that we engage in regularly and reliably and mostly automatically. Dr Cleo suggests that up to half of what we do everyday is habitual, i.e. controlled by our unconscious or subconscious. This includes our behaviour in relation to health-related things like diet, physical activity and sleep.
Because these behaviours happen with little conscious thought, we often neglect them when trying to make healthy lifestyle changes. But they are a great opportunity. If we can get almost half of our life on healthy autopilot, we stand to make significant gains.
Why focus on habits?
Making changes in one’s life consumes energy, self-control, motivation and willpower. Those resources are finite. We’ve all had the experience of starting a new health behaviour (e.g. exercise) but eventually the motivation to continue it breaks down and we return to our old ways.
When we focus on habits, we focus the energy, motivation and willpower we have into developing automatic behaviours, things that once they’ve started, are self-sustaining. This doesn’t require us to have to continuously generate energy, motivation and willpower.
In a habit-based approach, rather than trying to force ourselves to engage in complex new routines, we instead build up those routines through small habit changes over time.
Understanding a habit
A habit consists of three things:
A cue or trigger – which activates the behaviour. A cue can be a time, a place, an emotion, an event. Just about anything can become a cue/trigger.
A routine – i.e. the behaviour itself.
A reward – something that happens after the behaviour that is pleasant or helpful
To use a common example – brushing teeth.
For me, the cue is time and place (when I wake up, when I am in the bathroom), the behaviour is brushing my teeth, the reward is healthier teeth, no bad breath and a clean fresh mouth feel.
All habits can be described using these three concepts.
How to make a new habit
Start with your ultimate goal. It might be fitness or productivity or something similar.
Identify a really small step you could take towards that ultimate goal. For example, if physical fitness is your goal, you might identify regular 10 minute walks as a simple step towards that goal. The focus here is picking something simple and achievable. It doesn’t need to get you completely to your goal, it just needs to set you in the right direction.
Select a cue/trigger that you could use to engage in that behaviour. For example, you might set an alarm for the same time each day as a trigger to go for the walk.
Over the next couple of months, try as often as you can to pair the behaviour with the cue. Every time the alarm goes off, head off on your 10 minute walk. Don’t beat yourself up if you miss a few times. Simply return to pairing the behaviour and the cue as consistently as possible.
Repeat until such a time as it starts to feel weird not to engage in the behaviour when the trigger is there. At that point, it is becoming a habit.
At that point, you have a small habit that you can build on – e.g. increase the time walking, add another activity, add a person to the walk etc. Start layering habits on top of each other.
How to break a bad habit
You have a couple of options when it comes to breaking a bad habit.
- Modify your environment such that you are exposed less to the relevant cues. One of the most simple examples of this for me is not having certain foods in the house (e.g. chips) because when I see them in the cupboard, I automatically grab them and eat them. This will require you to be able to identify what the cues/triggers are for your different habits.
- Try using an existing cue as a trigger for a different behaviour/ routine. An example might be; every time you reach for a sugary drink when waiting in line at the supermarket, instead grab a packet of chewing gum or a water instead. This method requires that the replacement behaviour/ routine is as rewarding as the previous. If the new behaviour doesn’t have the same level of reward to it, then you will fall back to the old routine.
Keep those changes in place until the old habit is extinguished.
How long does it take to build a habit?
There isn’t a magical figure of how long it takes. Can take from a couple of weeks to a year.
Dr Cleo talked in timeframes of around 12 weeks, suggesting you need to give yourself a reasonable block of time to try and get a habit formed.
Expecting that new habits will form quickly is a recipe for disappointment, as is expecting that the pathway to good habits will come without failure. Expect it to be a bit of a ‘two steps forward, one step back’ kind of experience.
If these time frames frustrate you, remember that you are building something, that once it is established, won’t require any additional effort or willpower on your part. You are modifying the 50% of your life that is done automatically. Expect that to involve a little bit of upfront work.
Why do I suck at building healthy habits?
People vary considerably in how good they are at building new habits.
Some people love routine and order and they are often better at building new habits. Other people are more spontaneous and like variety. They might struggle a bit more to establish regular habits.
Regardless of your preferences or tendencies, we can all build new habits.
If you are struggling to build new habits, a common mistake is not starting simple enough. Try adding 1 additional vegetable to your dinner, rather than revamp entirely your dinner choices.
If you are struggling to break bad habits, maybe you have not accurately identified the actual triggers or cues that are driving it. Also, you might need to make bigger changes to your environment than you might think to break a long-standing habit.
Where should I start?
Dr Cleo recommends not trying to establish more than 3 habits at a time. I don’t know where that figure comes from, but I can attest to the fact that trying too many lifestyle changes is fatiguing and likely to lead to multiple failures. Start with just trying to build one new habit.
As for what habits to build, that is up to you. The freedom of choice might be a bit paralysing, but only you really know what areas of your life need improving.
Common starting points for students include: physical activity, nutrition, sleep, socialising, and study/productivity.
Remember the goal is not perfection in any one of those areas, it is simply a movement towards improvement in that area. You will find that when you get better at building new habits, you can layer them over time to build a very different life.
Want to know more?
Listen to the full interview with Dr Cleo – https://www.weightmanagementpsychology.com.au/ginacleo/
James Clear is another author who writes a lot about habits – https://jamesclear.com/habits
I’ll be building a discussion of habits into the Mental Fitness Workbook, so stay tuned for that as well.