Build Better Habits Faster With This Simple Brain Hack

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Have you ever felt frustrated with yourself for not exercising enough, or making poor food choices? Ever checked your bank statement to see that your gym membership has come out as usual, even though you haven’t used it in weeks? Do you feel ashamed or guilty about your bad habits, but find yourself repeating them anyway, unable to break the cycle?

It’s not easy to make good choices these days… There’s so much work keeping us busy, on-demand visual content engaging our attention, and hyper-palatable fast food distracting us that it’s no wonder we’re exercising less and eating less nutritious food. We rarely look up from the rush of modern life, but when we do it can be tempting to stick our heads straight back into the sand. Recognising that you need to change long term habits and even your beliefs around exercise and food can feel overwhelming. Often we find ourselves stuck in a cycle of frustration, bad habits, and shame. Not a recipe for success by any stretch of the imagination…

I believe that if more people understood the psychology behind decision making, including why we sometimes make poor decisions around exercise and nutrition, we’d be better prepared for life’s challenges, and kinder to ourselves in the process. It can be easy and empowering to start making healthier decisions, and building those choices into better habits over time.

person cutting fruit

Your Environment Influences Your Habits

I’ve yet to come across a client who hasn't been knocked off course in some way by an environmental change. We’re so closely interconnected with our physical, psychological and social environments that it'd be impossible not to be affected by lifestyle changes.

In my experience, the top 3 reasons people stop following their exercise & nutrition plans are:

  • Changes at home, eg moving or a new baby;
  • Changes at work, eg increased demands or a new job;
  • Holidays including weddings, travel, and Christmas
  • Changes to their health status.

People are clearly at a higher than usual risk of falling off their programmes when changes to their environment occur, regardless of whether we view these changes as positive or negative (although negative ones do seem to be more negatively impactful). This is a constant consideration for me as a coach… what is my client’s current lifestyle situation?

Your environment may not be optimal for you to exercise or eat well at the moment. It may never be. In times of stress and change it can be easy to stop doing the things you need to stay healthy. In reality, the more life throws at you, the more you’ll want to reinforce yourself with great healthy habits. We need to be able to adapt quickly and effectively to lifestyle interruptions.

Even when things are going well, your health and wellbeing must remain paramount. The healthier you get, the more important it is to focus on maintenance. Wellness is a lifestyle, not a destination.

People who manage lifestyle interruptions well are:

Intentional about shaping and maintaining their environment

Flexible and adaptable in their approach

Clear on which habits they want to build and why

Willing to put in consistent effort for long term results

Prepared to research and seek help/advice relating to their goals/problems

Set Yourself Up For Success

Choice Architecture

The art of cultivating an environment where it's easy to make the best possible choices. 

You have the ability to shape your environment in many ways to set your future self up for success. For example, buying only a certain type or number of snacks to have around the house, pinning your goals up on the wall, or laying out your workout clothes the night before can help you to make better choices in the near future.

Exercise Habits

It's important to acknowledge the resources you have available for exercise, including equipment and space. You may have the luxury of a spacious, well-equipped gym, or you might be working out from home with no equipment, minimal floor space and low ceilings. Taking stock in this way will enable you to prepare in advance, making it easier to adopt a good habits over time.

person stretching on bench

If working out from home, I'd recommend investing in some affordable equipment, such as a set of large resistance bands. A good set of 4 different strengths will enable you to find effective alternatives for most, if not all strength training movements, without taking up much space in your home. If you have a bigger budget and more space, a good set of dumbbells will help you keep fit for a lifetime. A pair each of light, medium, and heavy dumbbells (of course this is very subjective! Ask your coach for more specific advice) is ideal for most people who train for general strength, fitness and wellbeing. I'd recommend Rogue Fitness as a high quality and trustworthy brand for gym equipment.

You don't necessarily need to buy equipment to work out at home, but it does help. If you're training equipment-free, you might need to be a little more creative to get the desired effect, or be okay with having a more limited repertoire of exercises.

  • Stay in touch with why you’re doing what you’re doing, especially if you’re not enjoying exercise itself;
  • Find things to enjoy about training, even if it’s just the post-workout high;
  • Decide upon and maintain a minimum level of consistency;
  • Start easy and build up gradually to keep things sustainable.

Nutrition Habits

One of the most common complaints I hear from clients is that they don’t have the time to cook proper meals. When I ask those same people how much time they spend on social media every day, they usually go quiet and squirm a little. Even if you’ve plenty of time to cook, you might find that your emotional state, food availability, or other factors can reinforce the temptation to make poor choices.

Is it really so hard to see why we're consistently making poor health choices? In his book "The Marshmallow Test", psychologist Walter Mischel explains that when making these types of decisions, we overestimate present pain, for example that of cooking a meal from scratch, and underestimate future pleasure. We tend to gravitate towards tasks that supply us with instant gratification. Whilst choosing to cook a healthy meal over watching Netflix might be the ideal choice in the long run, Mischel's fascinating psychological finding informs us that we still need to make the good decisions easier to take, and the bad ones harder.

  • Plan & prepare your meals in advance;
  • Learn to be mindful before, during, and after eating. Why am I eating? How does this food make me feel?
  • Don’t keep more snacks around than you’re willing to eat;
  • Buy pre-chopped or frozen vegetables to save time and effort;
  • Dial your calories up and down as your activity levels fluctuate.

Lifestyle Habits

What you do with your day matters. What time you wake up, where you are in the world, and the people around you all influence your decision-making. Whilst you may not have control over some lifestyle factors, there are many over which you do.

  • Get ahead on sleep the night before to make mornings easier;
  • Practise mindfulness or some other stress relieving practise daily;
  • Keep your space clean, tidy and organised;
  • Be discerning about who you share space with;
  • Dedicate different times and spaces in your home for different moods/activities;
  • Have as much “good stress” and as little “bad stress” as possible, at a sustainable level;
  • Set limits for social media use on all your devices.

What Are The Best Habits?

When it comes to lifestyle design, there's no "one size fits all" formula. A good coach will help you get clear on your goals, identify areas for improvement, and work through challenges as you decide upon and develop the best habits for you. Click here to learn about Online Coaching.

How To Stick To A Routine

Consistency is key if you want to see results that stand the test of time. If you've been here before, you'll know I don't believe in quick fixes. Intensive, short term training and diet programmes fuel cycles of binging and purging, of exercise and inactivity. Not a sustainable solution.

Whilst they may not offer the type of instant gratification you can get from such vigorous regimes, these tips will help you remain consistent, adaptable, and motivated to maintain your new healthy habits.

  • Budget your available resources (time, energy, money, etc) realistically;
  • Proactively and pre-emptively manage stress;
  • Aim to maintain, growth is a bonus;
  • Be kind to yourself as you learn to implement new habits;
  • Keep trying when you make mistakes (which you will).

Perfectionism Is Procrastination

Before I leave today, a word of caution… Try not to get too caught up in shaping the perfect environment. You don't have to wait for everything to be in place to start building better habits.

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”
- Vince Lombardi

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