Old Dog, New Tricks? Making a Change
We’ve all heard the expression “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”
Well, my response to that is “It’s a good thing people aren’t dogs.” 😉
Making a change is hard. We all know this… but, why is this? Is it that the new behaviors we’d like to incorporate are that much more difficult than our current behaviors? No, it’s just that they are unfamiliar to us. We tell ourselves that eating healthy is more difficult than eating junk food, or that we don’t have time in our day to workout… but, that’s simply not true.
So many of the behaviors we do everyday are not things we actively think about… they are just something we automatically do – our habits. It may seem like like these habits are a permanent part of our lives, because they have become so ingrained in our day-to-day that we don’t even think about them anymore. Because of this they can seem impossible to change… especially unhealthy habits.
Here’s the deal with habits – THEY ARE ALL LEARNED BEHAVIORS – the good and the bad. We learned somewhere along the way that “X” is how we get “Y” which is we handle “Z”… but, just because we learned something, doesn’t mean it is the absolute truth, or the best way. With the realization that habits are JUST learned behaviors, it gives us the power to change them. Since we learned unhealthy behaviors, we can learn new, healthier behaviors (habits) too.
Learning and incorporating new behaviors is similar to driving. When we first started driving it was stressful, and we had to actively remember every little thing we’re supposed to do behind the wheel… but, over time, it became an automatic behavior we do everyday. We don’t even think about how to turn on the turn signal… we just do it. Learning new behaviors is the same as driving in an unknown city where you’ve never been before vs. driving in a city where you’ve lived for 30 years (our current behaviors)… is it that the new destination is actually more difficult to get around, or is it that it’s just unfamiliar to us, so we have to plan our route and we more easily lose our sense of direction because we’re unfamiliar with the landmarks… more than likely it’s the latter. Once we become familiar with the behavior, it will become more automatic and acutally become a habit.
The first step to changing habits/behaviors is… we have to identify the habit/behavior we want to change. Once we have identified it, we can examine it, and determine what it’s purpose has been so far…because every habit/behavior has served a purpose. Our habits have been how we have made it successfully through each day. Our experience has taught us that these habits are “safe” – even if they aren’t healthy. The reality is, unhealthy habits are just misguided coping mechanisms… whether it’s how we handle stressful situations, or how we react to certain circumstances. It is a learned behavior. We have to identify which habits aren’t actually serving us anymore – the unhealthy habits.
Once we have identified a habit, we must identify the trigger. These automatic reactions can be triggered by certain times of the day, ranging from grabbing a Starbucks on the way to work, to hitting the vending machine at 3:00pm, to pouring a glass of wine to relax in the evening. Habits can be associated to places or events such as scarfing down the bread bowl at a restaurant, or automatically ordering dessert. They can be linked to an emotion or a stress ranging from stress eating, to rewarding ourselves with food for a job well done, or eating food given to us because we don’t want to be rude or just because it’s in front of us… even if we’re not hungry. These are just habits. By identifying the trigger, it makes us aware of the corresponding behavior… we cannot change the trigger, but we can change our reaction.
Another helpful trick to changing a behavior is to identify where this learned behavior came from. Was it something we saw our parents do as a young child? Or is it something we picked up from our peers as we entered out into the world? Or is it something that was marketed to us as normal through propaganda? Identifying when and where on our journey of life that an unhealthy habit was established is eye opening, and it allows us to have a more logical view of these behaviors… instead of viewing them from the perspective that they have control over us. It also helps separate any emotions attached to them. The more we understand why we do something, the more empowered we become to change it…
So, now that we know that we have the power to change our habits, how do we go about making this change? From my experience there are two types of change that occur. One way is a gradual change over time, and the other is a radical, life-altering change. Both can be very successful, and both can have their downfalls as well…
First I’ll talk about the gradual change… This type of change happens very slowly, and often times we may not even realize it is even happening. This is often the case with weight gain, for example. No one wakes up one day 25 pounds overweight. No, this change occurred slowly (or maybe rapidly) over time… but, it was not in one day. There was a change somewhere along the way to cause the weight gain. Maybe it was adding an extra serrving to our dinner, or a drink or two after work, or an extra snack throughout the day. Any one of these small changes had unnoticeable effects at first, but compounding them over time they have an exponential effect… and suddenly one day, far into the future, we look back and realize that somewhere along the way we shifted course just slightly, and now we are in a different location completely… 25 pounds heavier.
The first step of identifying the behaviors that got us to this location, is the first step in changing the direction. Looking back we may realize the habit is the 3pm snack we added in our day. This habit caused an increase in Calories… or maybe it was a combination of habits… maybe it wasn’t just adding a snack, but we also started parking closer to work and walking less, or taking the elevator instead of the stairs… causing a decrease in Calorie expenditure throughout the day… again, it was a change in habits. (Side note: Yes, there are physiological changes that occur as we get older that make it easier to gain weight over time, but we are not doomed to a destiny of weight gain or disease… we simply must adjust our habits to balance out these physiological changes… maybe it’s increasing our daily activity, or maybe it’s reducing our Calorie intake just slightly.)
The good news is gradual changes that were unhealthy can be changed to healthy habits gradually as well. An example of a small, gradual change regarding weight loss would be eliminating a 250 Calorie snack everyday. At first it’s not going to have a major impact. The first week we won’t notice a difference in how we look at all… we probably won’t even notice a difference after the first month, but if we continue down that path of eliminating just that ONE 250 extra Calories everyday for a year – that would equal a 26 pound weight loss. Now, THAT is something that is a noticeable change! The problem I see with people and this slow, gradual change is – they simply don’t stick with the positive change in behavior long enough to experience the end result. Since the small gesture of eliminating that one snack a day didn’t give the overnight transformational makeover they expected to have, they quit, and return to their old ways thinking it won’t work, so why bother… the key to long-term success is repeating a behavior consistently over time. If you remove the “consistently” OR the “time” aspect of it you will not get the end result.
The other type of change I see is a radical change that may have drastic effects, and may change many different behaviors at once that gives quick results. I see this attempt very often when it comes to weight loss goals… someone begins a diet and working out like crazy… they start to drop a few pounds very quickly. Big results in a short amount of time… Great! Right?! So, why are so many of us struggling to finally reach our goal weight (and stay there)?
When I see this type of change fail, it’s because the “why” isn’t big enough… meaning “Why is this goal important to me?” When it comes to weight loss, the majority of the time it’s usually vanity reasons people choose for why they want to implement this type of radical change – “I’m going to start going to the gym 5 days a week, eat only 1200 Calories a day, and I am going to fit into my size ‘whatever’ jeans and live happily ever after…” The problem with this is 1) the body will fight back with drastic changes like this, and will signal to you to increase your Calories (hunger and cravings) – so it becomes a battle of willpower… and 2) when the slightest obstacle presents itself… they throw in the towel. Why is this? Because of the “why”. Because even if we don’t like the way we look, it is not a big enough motivator to resist our favorite junk foods every time they are in front of us, or when we’re lying in bed and the alarm goes off early so we can hit the gym… all we care about is how good the food is going to taste in that moment or how comfy the bed is… worrying about how our clothes are going to fit later is not our top priority when we’re in our comfy pajamas… in that moment we don’t give a shit about how our jeans fit.
This radical, life-altering change is only successful when the “why” is as big as the amount of change taken. Often times when this change is successful it stems from a crisis, or hitting a “rock bottom” – a point of “I CANNOT live like THIS one more second of my life”. Having this experience causes a complete mindset shift, and it takes the willpower out of the equation of drastic changes. These new behaviors start to take you in a different direction very quickly, and you see big changes… and jean size is NEVER the motivator – it is a life or death matter… maybe not literally “I am going to go into cardiac arrest if I do not make these immediate changes”, but more like “I cannot live in this pain (physical, mental or emotional) for one more second” life or death matter… the importance of the “why” matches the importance of the outcome.
So, now by identifying the habit as well as knowing the two types of change, we can consciously choose the what actions to take next…
If you determine this habit is not a “life or death” situation, but it is something important to you – choose the gradual path of changing just one or two small behaviors at a time. You will be much more likely to achieve your goal. This approach takes longer to see the results, but it takes much less energy and willpower to get there. The key to success in this approach is being consistent, and being patient…. the change WILL happen, but it’s not going to happen overnight. In the beginning these small changes will take a conscious effort, but each time you make that decision to be a part of your routine, it will become more and more ingrained in your behaviors. There will be times when you find yourself starting to drift back to old habits, so you must go off of autopilot and re-direct… you must do the new behavior over and over and over until the new, healthier habit is a part of your programmed autopilot. Eventually you’ll automatically choose water instead of soda, or the stairs instead of the elevator… you won’t even think about it anymore. It will just be something that you do. 😉
Or, if you decide this is “life or death” and you choose the life-altering, radical approach… you MUST have a meaningful “why”. That “why” better be front and center in your attention day in and day out… whether it’s writing it in places you will visibly see throughout the day, or a mantra you say to yourself over and over… it has to be big enough to keep you from desiring to return to your old life.. because there will come a point where you desire your old, comfortable ways. In those moments you have to remember that temporary pleasure you will get in the moment of temptation is not more important than your “why”. Once you have successfully incorporated these life-altering, healthy behaviors you have to accept that the old life is gone, and embrace the new life that is emerging. Find gratitude for the opportunity to create a life you want.
Whatever the behavior – you have the power to change it. Whatever approach you take – it can be successful. We ALL have the opportunity to be healthy, happy, and thriving… find your power, and use it.
Let me know about your success story! I want to hear it! 🙂