* This post may contain affiliate links, to items I totally love and I am confident you will love too. For any health advice, make sure you check with your doctor. I am not a doctor or a health professional, I am just an opinionated mama who did lots of health & fitness reading and hands-on experience. Please read my disclaimer for more info.
In my teens and early 20s, I used to have more bad habits than I could keep track of. About 6 years ago I radically changed my life for the better.
I moved to a different country and started an adventure that eventually forced me to be alone, in a completely unknown environment.
I have been experimenting and implementing healthier habits in the past years and I also failed big time on some.
Now in my 30s, I seem to have at least learned how to count better, and I can keep better track of my poor habits.
I am still learning how to get comfortable with the inevitable pain that comes with growth and, since life is soo damn short, how to spend time purposefully and with intent.
I figured in this process that what we collectively call “bad habits” are actually defense mechanisms and I became softer on the judgment that I internally had for myself. I slowly accepted parts of me that I was running away from and I started intentionally building lasting habits with more ease. So I became:
- a non-smoker
- a regular exerciser
- a raiser of 2 self-reliant, confident toddler girls
- practitioner of deep daily breathing – I seriously only knew shallow breathing before
- intentional about money – budgeting and actively saving
- a writer/blogger
- a marketing professional – and I genuinely love what I do in eCommerce, Webdesign and marketing
- much more intentional about my relationship with food and with purchases of products that don`t enhance my life
I am constantly working on expanding my identity, unlearning and growing as a person. And I love who I am becoming and feel pretty content in the process.
As you can guess, my childhood was definitely not built around good habits and routines, but mostly around a lot of financial and emotional instability. And I am fairly sure that there is nothing special in that, most of us go through some level of negative experiences growing up.
It wasn`t all doom and there were also a lot of positive things, like the fact that my parents valued education, technology and good music.
So here`s to parents doing what they can. We will be those parents as well. And as far as I know, the debate on whether the environment around us affects us much more than our parents do is still going on.
Most likely, you too will learn pretty early on about death, loss, betrayal, and some of the wicked things people do when they are in constant stress and survival mode. That is just part of life.
In college, I had the most unhealthy years of my life: a poor diet, poor relationship skills, drank loads of alcohol, smoked and never, ever exercised. It`s as if my lungs would have been irreparably surprised to get that much fresh air at once.
So my early 20s are still like a fog to me. I can barely remember most of those times and it is not a wonder. I was constantly dissociating, trying to escape everything remotely unpleasant, numbing myself out with substances, or emotionally addicted to situations that recreated my childhood circumstances. Other times I dealt with anger, social anxiety and that is how I would pick up all sorts of distractions as coping mechanisms.
I delayed taking on responsibilities because overall, I felt powerless and I just didn`t know how to navigate that and take control of things that were actually in my power. Because I believed I had little power and control in the first place.
So while I know from experience that it can definitely be a huge setback if you have a really rough childhood, and it can take years and years to come back from that particular hell, I do believe we have in us the strength to pull ourselves out of any situation and heal ourselves. I‘ve seen it happen so many times.
So how did all this change happen for me?
And I think this is actually my most important insight in this post. My hot take is that anyone can improve the quality of their lives gradually, by creating long-lasting habits, without having to deal with or solve all of their past issues before getting started.
Do you know how you feel all inspired to action after a cool read or a motivational talk but you never really end up actually changing something?
That happened to me many times before I nailed the process of habit setting. I would end up giving in to the urge of repeating the unhealthy behavior or not practicing the new behavior I wanted, the very moment I got a little bit stressed or bored or I was just not in touch with my emotions.
So to avoid this common trap, we need to do things in a new way. In order to behave differently, we first have to start practicing self-awareness and we have to set the intent to respond differently to our emotions. And you do that gradually by putting yourself first in a position where you feel like you have some control over the outcome.
Basically, you have to go through a path of keeping small, daily promises to yourself, so you can start trusting yourself again. Assuming you are at the beginning of forming a habit, you have to give yourself a really small task to fulfill. Something that is so easy that you can`t say no to it. Doing something for maximum 5 minutes.
Once you start trusting yourself again with one little task, you can continue working on gradually rewiring your brain. And there is a lot that you can unlock within yourself that you otherwise wouldn`t.
Since I started bringing awareness to my patterns and responses to stress, I believe I understood some of the things that made me fail before and some of the things that I did well in order to succeed in building better, healthier habits.
What stops us from having good habits?
I know this part can be pretty hard to follow, but bear with me, there will be a cute prize at the end for dealing with all of this long blog piece.
False beliefs, such as:
You constantly have to make other people happy
People-pleasing is actually a common trauma response that we develop. In order to be loved or accepted, and avoid reliving childhood circumstances, we get stuck on the idea that constantly being useful to others is the only way that makes us actually matter.
Or that you need permission and approval from family, friends, etc for being who you are. You end up not being yourself like this, but a bland, curated, unauthentic version of yourself. Or a version that constantly performs for others.
However, you cannot pour from an empty vessel, the old wisdom says. I say you can, but not for long or there is a price to pay at the end. Resentment, exhaustion, lack of body awareness, numbing to cope, and the list can go on.
And it makes sense – if you constantly only take care of people or perform for them, you will be left with no time and willpower to execute your own healthy habits.
Yet your own mental and physical health has to be paramount, you need to get control of your own life as much as you can. And this means setting boundaries and kindly saying no to others, in order to stay true to yourself and follow the actions that you truly wish to follow.
Being the best caretaker that you can possibly be for yourself FIRST is the way in which you can eventually make yourself strong enough to take care of others too.
I believe that actually knowing that you can really take care of someone is what makes a huge difference in how you perceive yourself in the world. Even if you do it in a clumsy way at first. Even if it is never perfect. So I say start with you.
Give yourself the love that you imagine. As hard as that is, the hardest in my opinion actually.
There is a quote I love from Romanian author Octavian Paler, where he enumerates all the things we easily find time for and how self-love is actually the most important thing and the last we actually come to conclude we should reserve more time for.
You cannot change
When bad things happen to us repeatedly or when they are extremely hurtful or intense, we start to believe we are actually powerless and we cannot get away from the pain.
But although this pain feels crippling and it feels like there is no future without the absence of pain, there are a series of habits that you can take on that will slowly prove to you with facts that this is not true.
The problem is that growing a habit is not comfortable at first, and this can be really hard to add to someone whose plate is already full. But once you start repeating something long enough, positive rewards appear.
You have to play the game, otherwise, change cannot appear. Keeping promises to yourself and praising yourself for all the small steps you are taking in the direction of your goals will get you going that long way. Our bodies and mind are not fixed and we have the power to create our future selves and to reach mental and physical wellness.
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”Heraclitus
You just want to be happy
One of my favorite places to hang around when I am procrastinating is Pinterest.
Here I often see the idea that we should be positive 24/7 pop up quite frequently, in different variations. “Be happy”, “Smile”. “Positive Vibes Only”. “Don´t worry, be happy”.
How about no? A good mindset is what you want to aim for, but expecting and chasing happiness and positivity all the time backfires 100%.
We need adversity and struggle to grow. We need to accept all of the emotions we have inside, they have kept us alive for so long because they point to something that is important for our survival.
Negative emotions, like pain, anger, sadness, shame, anxiety, are like these goat-donkey creatures that keep appearing in the paths of life, on every crossroad. They are neither good nor bad, but they are all lessons that teach us something.
And they don´t go away – nor should we wish them to. We can however slowly learn to have different responses to them, to stop judging them as ugly or useless, and by calmly listening to their message. Other times, there is not really that much to them, you just have to observe the feeling and let it be.
Truth is, there is always a trade-off. You can´t have a good thing without the negative part it comes along with, just like you can`t build muscle without some pain and sweat, without mastering your annoying inner resistance to the negative emotion attached to the action.
The health of your mind and body
It can take years to process your childhood and the extra trauma that we we went through and are even constantly going through just as a result of being alive.
If we constantly repress a lot of emotion, we will most likely end up on auto-pilot, in an unconscious mode. We all do it, and our ego plays a big part in this.
Understanding that you are not the ego and that the ego is the story you tell yourself in your mind is very important when you want to chop through your coping mechanisms.
We can easily become blind to our behavior and be stuck in an unproductive way of being, simply because we cannot change what we don`t see. We also cannot know if what we are doing is productive or not.
Sometimes you indeed need to procrastinate or distract yourself with pleasurable things to do, but in order to tell between normal fun or learning and compulsive behavior, you have to develop self-awareness.
And that is work. You have to practice seeing past your ego’s responses and choose to create some space between the thoughts that emerge as a result of your ego being triggered and your next reaction.
That is not to say you have to aband your ego altogether, as one might be tempted to think. Because you actually do need an ego, it is the part of you that cheers for you so you feel courageous enough to engage with the world and learn from it and succeed in whatever direction you wish to.
Pleasure & Pain
From birth, we are creatures seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Our actions are strongly and unconsciously guided by this simple principle, and this is how our basic survival needs are being met. If you are not convinced, just watch a bunch of toddlers in the course of a day and it will make sense immediately.
As we grow older, having the self-control of a toddler becomes a big no-no. For instance, if that is what you practice every time you walk into a supermarket. I mean it can be fun and ultimately tasty, but not when you start experiencing the health implications of constantly eating all you impulsively put in the cart. It obviously also stops being ok to push your friends, or snatch their stuff or hit them on the head with random stuff every time they touch something you own and you don´t like it.
So then, maturity is all about learning how to sustain some degree of pain and delay gratification, so that we can act in ways that are socially acceptable and avoid harming our own minds and bodies if the instant satisfaction involves harmful substances or behaviors.
Important for the next point, metacognition is the ability to think about what you think, to learn about what you are learning. Basically, if you pause and listen to your inner dialogue, you can actually observe the stuff that goes through your head all day long.
This provides us, humans, with the amazing opportunity to observe, control, and change what we think and learn.
But in order to find out what we actually like and what kind of pain we can actually sustain best, we must try things out. We must take small and bigger actions, which are risky. We must go out and explore, in order to try out strategies of solving problems and tasks that appear and thus accumulate metacognitive experience.
If we ask a question or make a statement, someone who is helping us enhance our thinking and metacognition might ask the following helpful questions:
“Why do you think that?”
“Is that the only possibility?”
“What evidence do you have for that?”
“Do you have an example?
Don`t forget, we can be that someone ourselves and ask these questions when we are taking action. The more experience we have, the better our performance becomes. We will use less effort to solve problems, as they become familiar through practice.
The bad news is that this natural growth and exploration process that leads to metacognition is stopped by many factors: the broken system we live in, random situations beyond our control, parents who have unhealthy patterns that they got from their broken systems and the list can go on. The good news: the process can be resumed with intent and self-awareness and the 4 questions above.
Let´s imagine that as we grow up, we get consistent negative feedback from a family member or society whenever we try out various things. We will eventually stop doing anything that is risky. If our needs and boundaries are constantly ignored or stopped, we will internalize the fear of new, of change and self-expression.
What do we first conclude in this stage of our life where our critical thinking is not yet developed? We must suck, our attempts at being our own person are wrong and we are not significant or worthy.
As kids, we don`t understand that our parents have their own conditioning and their actions say nothing about us. We internalize the voices of the people who have the biggest impact on us, or we see their own self-harming coping mechanism and we take them on too, in a natural attempt to stay connected and accepted.
Say you had an anxious, overprotective parent that constantly stopped you from even trying to do anything remotely dangerous as a baby or toddler. If this happened too many times, baby you will stop trying to do anything physical altogether.
As an ego adaptation, you can thus internalize the irrational belief that you cannot do any kind of sports well because you lack physical strength. Which sadly, can sometimes also be the case, since you cannot have muscles if you do nothing to grow them.
Or maybe you have a parent who shows love and approval only when you achieve something.
Perhaps you will later on in life realize that this was just your parent’s value, and you don´t constantly need to constantly perform and achieve something. You can even learn to enjoy just having guilt-free fun, be content and be present in the moment. Life is too short to consistently tyrannize yourself over things that don´t matter.
In psychology, there is such a thing called classical conditioning. Get negative feedback when trying to do something and you associate doing that thing with something negative.
Say you get slapped with a fish every time you try to express your emotions. Get this long enough and you will never be comfortable again in a room with either fish or emotions. You will get triggered just by hearing the word fish, because your mind creates the real fish danger scene for you.
Get a positive thing when trying to do something, and you start doing that thing more often. And this my friends is how we can start unlocking every badge for unhealthy habits.
If you get distressed or feel connected to your friends when smoking a cigarette or getting wasted in clubs, you just get hooked on that. You need a glass of wine (or more) after the stress at work to relax in front of Netflix and feel good getting your dopamines high, a loop of behavior is activated.
So smoking, drinking, food binging, compulsive distractions from life problems? All of these small addictions are actually coping mechanisms because our brains need chemicals to function and most addictive behaviors release dopamine and serotonin.
So if we come from an environment that has not yet developed healthy habits in order to get positive hormones in the body, we will adopt unhealthy coping behaviors too. Part of the learning process in childhood and beyond is imitation. Part of building a conscient, authentic you is learning to get what you need in a healthy way.
The fear of everything
The way I see it, experience enough emotional and physical pain in your development, and you can develop what I like to call “the fear of everything”. It manifests with stagnation, feeling lost, stuck, repetitive unproductive thoughts, inability to take on and successfully complete tasks, general overwhelm and overall health issues.
So how do you gain your life back together if you feel you might have a case of it?
The most commonly used method in psychology when dealing with phobias is in fact gradual exposure to the thing you are afraid of.
And this is why I believe we need small steps when starting a habit. You will gradually learn that you are not in danger, but you are safe and that you can do these small steps, contrary to what you or others might think.
To lose the fear, we are going to need a helping hand and support, just as a mom holds a baby when he is still unstable, or as we need training wheels when we don`t yet know how to ride a bike.
Sadly, many of us choose the safe path, where we are accepted by our parents and peers and we take on their beliefs and actions without questioning them. We end up getting completely confused about who we are and what we can or cannot do.
It is no wonder that so many of us as adults still have at times no idea what we really like (myself included). We never fully tried being ourselves and getting past our parents or the opinions of others.
But I’ve come to believe this is super possible to do, no matter in what life stage you are in. Doing new and potentially risky things is vital to your growth and development. You might never know exactly what you like at all times, but the journey of self-discovery is the most important you will ever get.
It is very possible to break the boundaries of what you are thought. This happens naturally as you start working on yourself. Once you start integrating small habits and you slowly bring the structure and self-trust back to your life, you can potentially develop the mindset of seeing every failure as just a mild setback.
Coz life is short and then we die. You’d think this should normally be enough to drive us to reach our goals, improve our relationships, and care more about things that are truly important to us.
But you would be wrong.
Sure, we all want to wake up early, workout, eat well, and have meaningful relationships. We want to be competent at what we do, listen better. We want to spend our time solving important problems and feeling useful and needed. Hell, yeah!
Did I manage to do that any of those in my university years, when I was too hooked on numbing out, comfortably watching movies or playing Dota 2 all night? Hell no!
And that is totally fine too. We all get trapped, sometimes too long, in things that are probably not optimal for us in the long term.
Our subconscious mind is the reason for this. The subconscious makes it possible for us to accomplish balance easier by storing a set of habits that we typically do so that we can run common actions without much effort. And anytime you try to go somewhere different than your typical route, the subconscious mind will oppose the change.
The subconscious often operates under the motto ” if it ain`t broke, don’t fix it”.
I mean, you´re still breathing, you must be doing something right. And also, you look so damn cool.
And that is where self-awareness plays a big role. You have the choice to take on healthy habits and thus get gradual, small positive feelings after accomplishing them on a constant basis. This will eventually prevent us from falling into the dangerous chemical barrel that will trick the subconscious over and over again that nothing is broken.
Habits are making us more efficient because the automation of common actions frees mental resources for other tasks. The quality of your life improves if you have the right set of habits for you.
You will be able to reflect better and plan better before taking action. So things like gaming or Netflix binging will not keep you awake all night, you will now be able to enjoy them because they are fun and have a lot of positive things to it too.
But will be able to stop at any time, because you value keeping your daily responsibilities and for this going to bed before 11 is something important to you.
What habits should I start with?
It doesn`t matter, really. Whatever you feel you need most to incorporate in your life. I have observed there are some simple general ones that you could benefit from:
- cooking home once a day
- setting a daily reminder to drink water
- putting on your sports pants every day (working out is optional)
- journaling for 5 minutes
- meditating for 2 minutes
- doing something creative for just 5 minutes, like singing, drawing, dancing, writing a little story
- hugging your partner at least once a day when you are together
- naming 2 things you are grateful for in your life
- reading for 10 minutes a day
- working on a single task for 15 minutes
- saying thank you to people who help you out
Even if these things are minimal and super small in the beginning, you will gradually be able to add more complex and bigger tasks and the positive feelings will also show up.
Eventually, you will be able to say no to your mom. You will start observing when you have an emotional reaction to a trigger. You will be able to create healthy boundaries in your relationships. Your actions will fly in the face of all of the unsolicited advice that you got from the people teaching you how to live your life. Myself included.
Rainbows and butterflies and blue skies, the cake that you can have and eat at the same time, all lie at the end of the mastery of habits.
You will consider yourself lucky because you found loads of people to look up to, which made you appreciate hard work and learning. Eventually, the puzzle pieces will come together and you will understand that you have the choice to be your own hero and that choosing to do something that is meaningful is the key to making your life enjoyable.
Meet your brain
As mentioned before, according to extensive research, the brain is neuroplastic, which means it changes, adapts, and grows as a result of experience. Some of the things correlated with the growth of fresh, new neurons are not surprisingly the following:
- Newness and Challenge
- Healthy eating habits
- Reduction of inflammation
- Love, Meditation, and Reduced Stress
If you get your kicks from stumbling upon cool ideas like I do, you´ll find Carol Dweck’s book “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” to be a great read. Or hear, I went for the audiobook in my car, back when driving was still a thing we regularly did.
With this said, it turns out that we have the capacity to positively intervene to actually grow our brain and mindset and live a long fulfilling life experience.
While all of this sounds great, you have to understand that it does take a lot of work.
Also that your mind will be tripping as hell when you try to change it, it just likes comfort and the known so much.
Failed habits – but why?
Because failing happens to all of those who try something. Anything. Failing is not optional. What matters is learning to lose better or to get better from repeatedly losing.
My experience with failed habits is most likely incredibly common. Here are my takes on why I failed so often in setting up habits:
The habits were unrealistic
It was way too much for a beginner level. When you bite more than you can chew, you experience a lot of frustration, you get negative about the experience and you avoid it a second time. Things like, maybe don`t work out 3 hours if you go to the gym for the first time in your life, or don´t starve yourself if you want to get in shape.
On the other hand, if you make the habit so easy in the beginning that your brain cannot say no to it, you will be able to do it over and over until you can step it up.
They were not taken step by step
I went fast forward and it was too much to take for my brain. Think of driving. When you first learn how to drive, someone explains to you what the pedals and gear do, you touch them first with the engine off.
You turn on the engine and sweat in fear and excitement at the same time, you start checking that your mirrors are at your level, then you take on many small rides in the parking lot, then you move to small, untravelled streets, then you start going in the real city with the instructor there ready to keep you and others alive.
You almost never just ignite and go, expecting to be so good you can do race tracks with Schumacher. This attitude can be dangerous for everyone, not just for yourself.
Lack of patience
We cannot force things to happen fast, experience needs practice. You consistently need to go through with an action. Consistent practice is key to creating a habit, and the reason why we sometimes lack patience is that we don´t see the effects right away. We want it all, we want it now.
Patience can feel painful a lot of times because while you are waiting for the results of your hard work, you are giving up on other possibilities that would certainly give you momentary pleasure boosts.
This is the ultimate challenge that we all must undergo, learning to ignore things that are not important for our goal and being patient enough to keep ourselves motivated while we create a more experienced self, further and further away from the sucker we inevitably are when we begin things.
You did not let go of inner judgment
You judge yourself too harshly when you don’t show up for your practice once
.Planning for change is crucial because your inner saboteur as some will say, or your subconscious mind, will do anything to keep things as they are. If your inner dialogue is usually a negative one, where you judge and shame yourself for lacking some sort of personal quality.
Instead of adopting an all-or-nothing attitude that sabotages your actions altogether, just try to observe your thoughts and let them flow and surprise your brain and body with consistent action.
Because of expectations in general
Set the bar so low that you won`t disappoint yourself. Position yourself on a path where you can celebrate all the little progress that you actually make. If you have no expectations, everything is a bonus and you will have more gratitude for just doing something that makes you feel kinder and truer to yourself.
Sure, you will most likely always have an inner troll who will make fun of your clumsiness, but paying attention to the fact that he is there and seeing him just as he is – a troll – will help you be mega-meta and troll the troll, if that makes sense. We are all works in progress.
Not focusing on one thing at a time
We often believe we can start exercising, quit junk food, improve love life, be brave and take risks into new career paths all at once.
My experience tells me otherwise. If you put enough attention to something and you take all the small failures as information for change, in time you will be able to master this thing.
On the contrary, if you just start a bunch of things at once, you just don`t have enough hours in the day to analyze all the information that you are getting from constantly mostly failing at all these new things. That does no good, so focus.
Didn’t change your environment to help you reach your goal
Successful habits are easier to achieve if you anticipate what are the things that can make you break them. And you change your environment accordingly.
For instance, clearing your pantry and fridge of foods that you might crave and replacing them with healthier options. Or having a mini version of your full exercise routine for when you don`t have time for the whole set. Or placing a memo on your bathroom mirror to remind yourself to floss, or a chart to mark up each repetition if this works for you.
For kids, this is particularly useful for potty training or tooth brushing. I have tried the sticker rewards system and it works wonders both because I am reminded that they need to do it and because they get a positive correlation when doing the behavior.
Didn’t use the power of accountability
Nothing is perceived worse than public embarrassment by us humans. We are social and crave human connection and approval to a certain degree.
So basically what you do when you let other people know that you are starting a habit is enforcing a negative consequence to you not taking the actions you promise to.
Just as you reward yourself with something in order to create a positive habit, the negative works just as fine.
You were not fully aware of the brain`s resistance to change
Your mind resists the unfamiliar if you are already used to doing things in a specific way. One of my personal goals is to make sure that I am more aware daily of this inner struggle.
You don’t have your “why” clear
This is a deep philosophical topic, but Nietzsche somehow managed to indeed say in a phrase what most of us could cover in a whole article or book.
He who has a why to live can bear almost any howFriedrich Nietzsche
Yes, having meaning in our lives and using the values that we hold dear is actually the most motivational thing for us to act in a way that we desire. When we struggle with no motivation, it often is because we do not yet believe it is worth the effort.
And what you consider worth it is up to you and your personality, it can be a big loving family, fame, an ambitious career, or constant adventure.
Motivation can be external – you want a reward or you want to avoid punishment, or internal when you do it because you want to, as it is important to you since it aligns with your personal value, whatever those are.
Both of these types of motivations work, and we all do things because of external and internal motivation. And it is normal since the potential outcome of not doing something that you don`t want to do at the moment can be a bigger pain in the butt than actually focusing on the activity itself.
But research shows clearly that external motivation is superficial and internal motivation is much more effective.
Ex. I want to work out 3 times a week and build muscles to get likes on Instagram, attention and free stuff (External)
I want to work out often to keep healthy together with my family and live a long, optimal life (Internal)
I want to work out because I want to inspire and help people stay fit and live healthier lives with their families (Internal).
You tried to make a habit out of not doing something
Getting in shape is not a habit, writing a book is not a habit, becoming healthier, happier, *insertyourword*-er is not a habit. These things are overall goals and they are too vague. The habits are the subtasks that make you achieve your goal.
Eating low-carb food for breakfast is a habit, cooking dinner 4 times a week is a habit, drinking 2 liters of water a day is a habit, doing a 25-minute youtube low-impact video daily is a habit, walking outside with your dog after dinner is a habit and you get the point.
Being specific lets you know which action you need to take.
I personally shamed myself for failing to change my poor eating habits way too many times, but the actual change came when I started eating low-carb meals daily.
Although there was endless research on sugar making you tired all the damn time, I probably didn`t have the energy to read those studies. Overeating carbs and feeling sleeping right after kept me too busy.
Sticking to this habit long enough made me eventually understand that all my perceived laziness was actually me not eating proper foods and not an inherent inner character flaw.
But if you judge yourself for not managing to eat healthier 100%, then this activated shame and you now started thinking you were indeed lazy or not strong enough to resist the junk. This then confirms your self-defeating negative thoughts and now there is no even a point in all this struggle. You are also junk, forever, and now the next thing you know, you are eating pizza crumbs from your belly button.
The truth is that your “bad” habits are actually your way to cope with stress, being tired or boredom or they are a mechanism that your body developed in order to push you forward.
So do pay attention to your feelings of shame and inadequacies – they say a lot and you have to reframe this to cause change.
Because you know what happens if you eat a bit of junk food from time to time? Nothing. That`s right. Or even better, you can just enjoy it and move on.
Last but not least – because of sugar
Oh yes, sugar.
The big problem is that fructose in sugar is the chief spirit of evil because it makes us even more hungry. It causes our bodies to become resistant to our main guardian angels, our appetite suppression hormones, insulin and leptin. So when these 2 no longer do their job, our appetite is not shut-down when it should be and we just keep eating. Ouch!
Another aspect of eating high-carb foods is that they stimulate the release of endorphins – in other words, they make us feel pleasure. And of course, we love high-carbs and keep coming back for more. But this an evolutionary adaptation of the body, to hook you on high-carbs when food was scarce.
Anyways, sugary food get to be highly addictive and in my opinon, a safe bet we have is the progressive implementation of enorphin realeasing activities.
I also quit smoking by hating cigarettes, I quit sugar by declaring war on sugar. I stand firm that sugar is not well enough regulated and too accessible and present in everything. Especially considering how addictive it is and all the data we have on excess consumption.
I`m now at a new level where I can not only blame sugar for most of my past, present and future problems (I will keep consuming it at times for sure) but I can link it to most of our global challenges and I could probably build up a strong case for that.
How do habits work?
MIT researchers discovered that all habits work the same – there is a simple neurological loop consisting of 3 parts at the core of every habit: A cue, a routine, and a reward.
Charles Duhigg takes this idea forward and creates a framework on how to identify and create new habits, explained in detail in his best-selling book “The Power of Habit“.
What helps with habit formation?
The best way to change an existing habit is to create a new one to replace it
Replace dessert with a walk outside with the dog right after dinner.
Buy low-carb chocolate bars instead of sugar-based treats.
Practice deep, long breaths when you feel like smoking.
Instead of watching Netflix after work, read for 10 minutes. Repeat.
Habits are like system automation, but for humans
This is exactly what habits are for humans, automation, just as the ones you would implement with the help of technology in order to make your work easier. You set up your bills automatically, you email clients automatically, you have an answering machine message that directs calls to a specific department.
None of this automation would be possible if you didn`t first go through the same process and encounter similar situations so many times that you will realize automation makes sense.
Only then you set up the right tools, so you don`t have to think about it anymore. You put in the time to create the automation once and then you just need to do very minor exchanges. And this saves up a lot of your time and opens you up to create another useful automation for you, your business and your community.
The more complex automation a system has integrated, the more sophisticated and unique it becomes.
I believe we humans are in a way all like that too and we are the ultimate software programmer/system architects for our lives. But things take time.
Setting the intention to observe our triggers
So let´s go with this idea further. Just like systems, we are susceptible to viruses. For humans, ideas that run on repeat are the most dangerous.
I found this to be true in myself and people around me: when I was smoking, the moment someone else will pull out a cigarette and I was slightly bored or anxious, I was instantly triggered to look for them too and light up another one of those life-sucking, money-draining, stinking sticks.
Or when I was super tired at night, I would feel the urge to snack in order to replenish my energy.
Or when faced with a new or challenging task at work, I would automatically think I just can´t do it, it´s too hard or I don´t have *insert excuse* to pull it through.
It was a revelation for me to practice observation of these triggers and deep breaths. Our bodies look for self-regulation and in order to get rid of a painful experience, and so the mind comes up with a quick fix to the problem and the body will automatically do this action for you.
It works for many reasons: you can reflect on your habit and progress, you can think about what worked in the past, and try to apply the principles to the new habit.
You can write about your triggers and when you feel the least motivated, you can imagine your future self and try affirmations that your brain doesn`t normally hear.
It is basically creating a vision for the future and getting rid of highjacking idea viruses with new, contradictory behavior.
Consistently journaling will make you trust yourself more and create more confidence. It is a great tool to understand yourself.
Aiming for small behavior change at first, one at a time
Simply because failure can be discouraging. Aim for something small and simple so you set yourself for success. You can always do more when you feel you manage the minimum. But take a habit that only needs 5-10 minutes in the beginning. That is more than enough.
Once you can trust yourself with just one intentional habit, you’ll begin to be more aware throughout the day and you will be able to add different other habits along the way.
Small, specific, easy to do actions are more likely to become a habit
If you do too much at once, your brain will get tired fast and you might experience overwhelm. Remember to take breaks. Allow your brain to form new brain connections slowly and gradually gain tolerance to the new activity you are doing.
Expecting change to come slower than you imagine
You can try 30-day challenges, they help a lot to keep motivated. Yet new research shows that in order for a behavior to become automatic, you need about 66 days.
So I personally prefer the no BS approach, and to accept the fact that I need to practice something for 2-3 months at least in order to make it a habit.
Thinking that change will come faster than it typically does can activate resistance to the activities. You need to be patient and practice and practice, even beyond 30 days.
“Patience is the calm acceptance that things can happen in a different order than the one you have in mind.”David G. Allen
Expecting and planning for mental resistance
The inner saboteur, the resistance, the mental chatter – whatever name we use – it is there for all of us. We resist change and our minds have emotional outbursts whenever we try to change a deeply inbuilt pattern.
Overcoming the mental resistance by choosing small progress over perfection is actually the key to being able to achieve things we set up to do.
Small changes are better than no changes. So keep low expectations when you are just getting started. Instead of focusing on being “perfect” and doing it “right”, just do something each day and complete tasks – this is a very powerful step.
Celebrate and give yourself positive reinforcement
There will always be times when we will not be able to practice a habit, because of, well, all the unpredictable things that we don`t yet know are coming.
We tend to quit because it is easier. But in skipping momentary physical or mental discomfort, we can end up believing things about ourselves that are going to eventually cause us much more emotional pain.
Avoid self-defeating thought patterns like “It´s because I am lazy, or “I am quitter”, or “I am I am bad at this beyond repair”.
Replace your inner dialogue with positive reinforcements instead. Talk to yourself as you would encourage a friend. It is ok. You will try again tomorrow. Tomorrow you will show up. You did the best you could do today.
If it doesn´t work, just know that studies have already shown that missing a practice of your new habit does not affect the habit formation process. So Hakuna Matata. No stress, tomorrow is a new chance.
Celebrate your progress, celebrate just being there and choosing to become. This is no easy work you are doing, but it is the most important you will ever do.
Also, it feels amazing when the behavior you are trying to achieve becomes much easier to perform. Enjoy that feeling. Change comes through consistent, intentional effort.
Your brain’s capacity to re-wire and produce neural pathways can be improved by the food you eat. The brain is primarily fat and is in constant communication with the gut.
After experiencing severe joint and back pain and finding no help in the medical system, I spent my last years digging into the connection between the brain and the gut and mental disorders and physical imbalances.
The research I found came to me as new information: having a healthy gut is connected to better mental health and the opposite is true, disbalances in the gut microbes have been linked to many health issues, including depression.
Your gut is shown to influence motivation, emotional and cognitive functions. So then, why is this not something that is discussed primarily by our doctors? Why is it not a norm to ask about nutrition when dealing with a disease? I have yet to meet a doctor who asks me or virtually anyone I know about nutrition and habits when treating a disease.
This is why I believe that when you are building a new habit, it is imperative to support your brain and aim to eat anti-inflammatory foods.
This means removing processed foods, sugar, gluten, and replacing them with nutrient-rich foods like meats, omega-3 fatty acids, veggies, fermented veggies like pickles and sauerkraut, kefir, grass-fed butter, eggs, and dairy if you can tolerate them well.
Tell someone (besides your parents) that you are working on a new habit. A partner, friends, your Instagram followers. Support is helpful and there is a big community of people going through similar experiences, which helps you not feel alone when in the process of change. It can be lonely. Don´t keep yourself from supporting other people who want and work on creating new habits too.
Visual home reminders
It is a proven fact that habits that have auditory and/or visual cues associated with them will be easier to create and maintain. Workouts with music are easier to keep. Visual home reminders work like cues. Once you see them, you will be reminded of your goal and you will be triggered into doing the behavior.
We tend to lose track of our goals and habits if we don`t check in with them, it is a normal thing for the mind, to forget things. But a very smart thing to do is to create a system that will help you stick to your new habits.
Either it is post-its or your daily to-dos on your whiteboards, printables, or daily habit creators with rewards for your kids, they work really well. I have successfully used visual cues to establish habits with our toddlers.
I placed in the bathroom a chart and rewarded the girls with a sticker every time they went potty or brushed their teeth. We all loved to see the progress and celebrate it.
One small behavior change will lead to another
Everything is seriously connected. You will get more confident to build another healthy habit and you can also bundle things together much easier after some time.
For instance, I promised I will put on my sports pants every evening after putting the kids to bed (around 19-20). This made it much easier to start doing aerobic and stretching daily, once I nailed doing the first step. I also added drinking 1 L of water during the workout.
Most people like attaching a new habit to an existing habit. In my case, putting the kids to bed at the same hour. But you can do it after brushing your teeth or after your coffee or tea.
Other people choose to do something when a trigger occurs, like after the alarm rings or as soon as they arrive home. Or others choose a specific time of the day and consistently practice at the same time, in this case, the set time is the trigger.
The key is to start with making the first promise small, so you put yourself in a position to succeed. If you cannot work out in the evening, think about what works for you. And then enjoy the joy and watch the magic happen.
Find internal motivation
Habits motivated internally are more likely to persist when the external motivation wears off.
But also internal motivation, or meaning, is something beneficial for us and others and it is usually an act of love and connection. Which enhances our life. So try to figure out what is really important to you.
I promised a reward, so here it is.
* This post may contain affiliate links, to items I totally love and I am confident you will love too. For any health advice, make sure you check with your doctor. I am not a doctor or a health professional, I am just an opinionated mama who did lots of health & fitness reading and hands-on experience. Please read my disclaimer for more info.