creating healthy habits

Always falling short of your goals? Stress can be a wall between you and your success.

As disease shifts from acute health problems to chronic health problems, the biggest challenge facing you is your ability to manage your health effectively on your own.

But instead of being a “burden” that must be overcome, the process of creating healthy habits can actually be enjoyable and fun.

Central to this shift to healthier lifestyles is the science of behavior change.

The Science Behind Creating Healthy Behaviors

I have spent more hours than I want to admit to over the last few weeks filtering through some of the latest insights from behavioral psychology.

I’ve listened to podcasts, sat through webinars, read books, reviewed journal articles, and even took a look at my own behaviors and where they have been getting me.

Over the next few weeks I hope to share these insights through articles geared towards helping you create healthy habits for the new year

Hindsight is 20/20

When we look back at decisions we have made, it’s easy to “rationalize” why we made specific choices or why we reacted in a specific way.

During the moment of the actual event, our behaviors are rooted in mind viruses, & “invisible scripts” .

What we say we do, and what we actually do are two very different things…

Believe it or not, you and I consistently make irrational decisions.

We make decisions much more on emotional and situational context, than we do on rational and pre-meditated action.

These forces are so strong that even knowing they exist is still not enough to prevent you and I from making irrational decisions.

But hidden between the lines in every single concept I’ve studied, there is one factor that will undermine any plan to create a new healthy habit.

Whether you want to lose weight, quit smoking, become leaner, and enjoy more energy…one factor will defeat you before you even begin.

That factor is STRESS.

Why Does Stress Create Unhealthy Behaviors?

While there are physical reasons (such as nicotine addiction) behind some unhealthy behaviors, many unhealthy behaviors are predicated by some form of stress.

Think about the last time you craved chocolate (or bowl of ice cream, cigarrette, etc…)

What else happened that day?

Maybe you…

  • Had a fight with your spouse.
  • Had a particularly long day at work
  • Noticed that your car had suddenly started making weird noises again (after you just spent $600 to repair it).
  • Didn’t sleep well the night before
  • Ran into a traffic jam on the way home from the grocery store

No matter the event, many unhealthy behaviors are triggered by stress.

When we are stressed, we look for superficial crutches like sugar and caffeine that help to superficially boost alertness and energy, but also may help superficially boost neurotransmitters like serotonin.

But with every peak is typically followed by a sharp valley…

These emotional “valleys” have us reaching for that 2nd serving of ice cream, pooring that second glass of wine, or inhaling the rest of the box of cookies.

But some of the effects are even more hidden.

When we are stressed we are also more likely to…

  • Make riskier purchases and investment decisions
  • Drive less carefully
  • Make riskier sexual decisions
  • Decide to go to the gym tomorrow
  • Lash out at loved ones for a trivial reason
  • Hit the snooze button an extra two times…

The fact is that if you fail to manage stress, you will also ultimately fail in creating new habits for yourself.

Unfortunately, many of our decisions end up creating vicious cycles of behavior (and physiology) that are tough to break!

The Difficulty with Managing Stress

At this time, you might agree with me that stress has a harmful effect on just about every area of our lives.

The difficult realization is that even when you recognize that “stress” is the problem, it is something that feels so intangible and difficult to grasp mentally that we respond with inaction.

Making matters worse, well-intentioned professionals rarely have practical, context-specific advice for you.

Our doctors tell us to “sleep more“, “take it easy“, and to “try meditation“. When those do not work, they quickly move to prescription drugs like anti-depressants or sleep aids.

But to us, these activities are the least practical options when we are feeling frustrated and emotionally exhausted.

Prescription drugs may make us feel better, but at risk of potentially serious side effects, and making us feel like zombies.

Creating a Stress-Free Lifestyle that Invites Healthy Habits

I have found that through working with nutrition clients, that focusing on stress yields the most results in helping you master healthy living.

The key to reducing stress is to break up its complexities into simple parts.

Our nature is to strive towards abstract goals. “I want to be healthier”, “I want to start living a healthier lifestyle”, “I want to reduce stress this year”.

Other times, we may reach too far: “I want to be worth a billion dollars at the end of 2012”

When we focus on personalized “baby steps”, we slowly build the habits and more importantly the context by which new healthy behaviors can be created and maintained.

  • Instead of focusing on “what” to eat for breakfast, we need to actually make sure we’re eating breakfast every day in the first place.
  • Instead of earning a million dollars, we need to learn how to earn $1000 first and then scale our process.

When you focus on small goals, something magically happens that’s supported by research – you automatically begin accomplishing bigger goals.

“How to Create New Habit” Homework:

What is the most limiting lifestyle factor that is keeping you stressed out?

Is it finances? Is it a close relationship? Is it your job? Is it that you do not have a set routine to plan around?

Make a physical list of at least twenty things keeping you from accomplishing a specific goal.

Be as specific and comprehensive as possible. You don’t have to share this list with anybody else!

Of those twenty things, is there a common underlying theme? (Hint: the theme might surprise you and be totally unrelated to the problem you’re setting out to solve in the first place!)

Is there 1-2 things that you think would remove 80% of your barriers?

Is it something that’s actually controllable?

Find a factor on your list that passes these three criteria:

1. Small & Measurable

2. High “bang-for-your-buck” yield

3. Controllable

…Start there!

What is the simplest action that you can take consistently that will still offer a measurable result for that one thing? 

Feel free to share your findings publicly through a comment below.