Embrace the Nonlinear Path
Habits can be hard to change, especially when they've been developed and reinforced over a long period of time in a variety of social situations. I have learned again and again that progress on nutrition and fitness goals is not only challenging, it's also rarely linear. And yet knowing that, I still want to imagine that adopting a new health habit will be a quick jaunt from point A to point B. These habit changes aren't just hard the way learning math was for me in school; they're hard because my resolve to ebbs and flows. Social situations (which include the habits and opinions of others), my stress levels, how rested I am, hormonal shifts, inspiring research, podcasts, and tempting Instagram food photos all influence my attitude toward making healthy choices on a moment to moment basis. So it's no wonder that progress is iterative versus linear.
As frustrating as this is, it's not only normal, it's valuable. Every "divergence" is a chance to learn about oneself. All behaviors develop to serve some purpose, whether or not we're aware of it, and whether or not we consciously believe it's in our best interest. If we never had behaviors reinforced then we would never be able to cope with challenging situations or form lasting social bonds. This doesn't mean we can't change our behaviors, but it does mean change is difficult. We like to think that as adults with fully developed brains we can logic ourselves into changing our behaviors. But our brains are not limited to our frontal lobes. And if that worked, I wouldn't be writing this post and you wouldn't be reading it.
Instead of trying to work against our natures, we can use this knowledge and take a different approach (or approaches).
Here are a few ways to help you cope when change feels like an endless uphill battle.
Notice + Name
Before we can change our behaviors, we have to recognize them when they happen. So our first step is to simply notice whenever we are performing a behavior and name it. At this stage, there is no pressure to change. For some people this may feel like not enough, but this step is extremely valuable. If we shift from blaming to simply noticing and naming, we can honor the value our current behaviors offer. Knowing what we need (or perhaps have needed in the past) helps us to see the bigger picture, and from there we can get curious. When we approach ourselves with curiosity we're more likely to be kind and get creative in finding alternatives.
Noticing and naming is straightforward, but does take some practice. Whenever you notice yourself engaging in a behavior you simply call it out (you can do this in your head). For example, you might say, "Oh, I am feeling hungry and craving sweets," or "I am criticizing myself and feeling bad about the way my body looks." That's it. No further action is needed right now. At first you may catch yourself after the fact. That's ok. As you build your awareness it will happen more easily. In an ideal world, once you've practiced this first step, you'll open up the space to ask questions and explore alternative behaviors and thoughts.
This practice is not limited to the beginning of your journey. Every new set of behaviors and different stages of your path may provide new opportunities to notice and name.
Take a moment to look behind you and see how far you've come. I'm willing to bet obscene amounts of money that you've made a lot more progress than you're giving yourself credit for. Even if this blog post is the first action you've taken toward getting healthier or losing weight, you still had to contemplate changing, decide to improve your health, look for help, and read this article. I'm guessing if you're reading this you've tried more than one diet or approach to eating, and/or made at least one fitness resolution. Even if these habits are still in flux or you discovered that one or more of those approaches was not a good fit, you've learned a few things and proved to yourself that your wellness is a priority. By shifting your focus to what you have accomplished, you give yourself the message that you are capable and reinforce the value of this journey. Each of these will help make the next leg of your journey easier and more successful.
Instead of beating yourself up along the way, see the value in each part of the journey. Looking at your process in a different light isn't just about consoling yourself. Reframing helps you to learn about yourself, which is crucial for continued growth and progress. One of my favorite adages from Precision Nutrition is "Feedback, not Failure". Every attempt you make at improving your health (whether it's a new way of eating, a new exercise plan, or a stress-release technique like meditation) as well as each part of how you execute that new habit (meal prep on Sundays, joining a new gym, or setting a timer for 10 minutes before bed) is part of a series of experiments. If you never get any feedback, how will you know what to try out next? Would we tell a child they're stupid and hopeless if they miss a math problem...or several problems? Of course not! Instead we look for a different point of entry, we offer more practice, knowing it's not going to happen over night. And yet so many of us treat ourselves this way, especially when it comes to nutrition and fitness habits. Expect that growth takes time, expect that you have unique needs, and embrace the messiness as valuable information about what does and doesn't work for you.
With so many components to nutrition, lifestyle and fitness, we simply can't work on every aspect all at once. This is a well-accepted concept in exercise programming. Even if you could commit the time to doing every possible exercise, you wouldn't benefit- in fact your fitness would suffer. So good trainers periodize, or cycle through focusing on different aspects of a workout program. This allows people to work enough on key adaptations without overdoing it or sacrificing progress. Similarly, it's beneficial to focus on one or two challenges at a time within other health domains. This doesn't mean completely dropping every habit that's not your focus, but simply deciding where to direct most of your energy. For example, you may set a goal to drink x cups of water per day. After a couple of weeks you may then prioritize meditation. Ideally you'll keep drinking water, but it's ok if the habit slides a little. You don't have to do everything perfectly all at once. You can focus on water again in the future and take that habit to the next level. In this way you inch forward on a variety of habits without completely draining your willpower, motivation or focus.
Find a Buddy
Don't climb difficult, treacherous mountains alone and don't expect to get the best results doing this alone either. An experienced partner can help encourage you, offer reflection, and see those angles that you simply can't see yourself. An accomplished health coach has a variety of tools to help you succeed, but even if you can't afford coaching, you don't have to go it alone. Find a buddy or an online support group. In this day and age there are so many resources available at a wide variety of price points. If you are interested in hiring a certified coach, sign up here for your free consultation.