Paleo + Habits = Success²
Imagine you’ve had a uneventful, rather dull day at work, sat on your behind, tapping away at your keyboard.
It wasn’t an obviously stressful day, it was….blah.
You’ve driven through the traffic and the rain and the dark, and you get home, call out but no-one responds. The house is empty.
You spy the sofa, and then the remote, and for a second, just a split second, you consider planting yourself down (again) and tapping out buttons (again) for a few hours.
But you hesitate.
And instead of sitting, you swivel on the balls of your feet, you go upstairs. You pick up your gym bag and, with a sigh, haul it over your shoulder, open the door, and head back out into the rain and the dark.
To the gym.
You might imagine that under sub-optimal conditions, the easy option would win over the tougher one. And that often is the case, as I’m sure you’ve found many times in life.
But there’s an instance when your willpower is weak and yet you still “do the right thing”.
And that’s when you have a strong habit in place.
The reason for this is that ingrained habits are performed automatically, often without conscious thought. It feels “off” not to do them, so we do them anyway.
And when the strong habit is in place, it takes work not to do them. And when your willpower is low, it is easier to complete the habit than it is to avoid it and do something novel in its place.
Psychologists have found that when personal resources are low,
“people are unable to deliberatively choose or inhibit responses, and they become locked into repeating their habits. Thus, depletion increases habit performance.”
Now it is true that this works for good and bad habits but it also shows that if we establish plenty of good habits in our lives, we protect the achievement of our goals from the ups and downs of life, energy and willpower.
Dr. BJ Fogg, Director of the Persuasive Tech Lab at Stanford University runs Tiny Habits. He writes:
I’ve studied human behavior for 18 years, mostly at Stanford University. Here’s what I’ve learned: Only three things will change behavior in the long term.
Option A. Have an epiphany
Option B. Change your environment (what surrounds you)
Option C. Take baby steps
He states that having an epiphany isn’t practical so we should rule it out, although I would argue that we can have a shock or an educative experience where we suddenly have a jolt of emotion followed by a surge of motivation.
However, we won’t get very far on motivation alone, and it is the further two options that will instill habits over the long term for sustained success.
There are three things you need to instill a habit:
1. A cue or trigger – something that always precedes the habit.
2. The behavior – going to the gym, for example.
3. Some form of reward – the emotion resulting from the activity or a tangible reward you give yourself.
In the beginning we will use the decision-making part of our brain to perform these habits, consciously choosing to do them. We might use tools such as checklists to remind us, or apps like chains.cc
for rewards (the “ting” always makes me feel happy) but we will need to work to do them.
This is the hard part.
(It’s also one reason why parenting is so hard – we are repeatedly attempting to instill many habits in our children – acting as their conscious, reminding them, rewarding them.)
But after a while of repetition and consistency, the basal ganglia
part of our brain takes over
and we perform these activities automatically, unconsciously, without thought or conscious choice.
We will keep performing this habit, even when we don’t feel like it, because it is easier for us to do it than not.
…our conditions change for the habit to be performed. We will then lose our ability to automatically follow it because our trigger for it has been lost.
This is why when we go on vacation many of the habits that we do effortlessly at home require a lot of effort – something we’re not inclined to put in when we’re faced with downtime.
Learn from experience
It’s always a good idea to review what has worked well for you in the past, so when you want to instill a good habit, look at habits that you do effortlessly already – get up, go to bed, clean your teeth, grocery shopping. Break them down to identify patterns you can apply to the new habit you want to start.
- What tees them up? A particular time, a sound on your phone, or day of the week? Or a preceding activity such as getting out of bed, spying your gym bag on the floor or because you are at a stop sign? (I drink from my water bottle at every stop sign or light.)
- What is the reward? The simple sense of satisfaction gained from accomplishment, the endorphin high of a workout, or do you give yourself a treat of some kind?
- The new behavior you want to instill
- The trigger for the new behavior
- The reward you will get, or give yourself, after performing the new behavior
BJ Fogg advocates using an existing established habit as the trigger for the new one. As in, when you’ve finished cleaning your teeth at night-time (regular habit), do a set of T-Tapp Hoe Downs (new habit).
One of the most important habits I’ve had to cultivate in my own paleo journey is to cook homemade food 100% of the time. I learned that I could do this as long as I did the following:
- Trigger: 7:30am
- Behavior: Plan weekly meals, write shopping list, shop Whole Foods outer section
- Reward: Cup of tea, put my feet up for a few minutes, sense of relief(!)
- Trigger: Return to the house from school drop-off
- Behavior: Prepare family dinner, check meal plan for following day, pull out food from freezer to thaw
- Reward: The reduction in mind clutter and ability to concentrate on longer term projects
I remember the first time I shopped the outer section of the grocery store it took me three and a half hours. It took commitment and motivation.
Now it takes me 30 minutes max.
The conscious, decision-making process was HARD, but now it is routine, and I no longer have to think about it. Motivation isn’t necessary, and if I take a wrong turn and find myself down the cereal aisle, it just feels plain weird.
As Sarah Ballantyne, The Paleo Mom says:
It’s only effort until it’s routine.
Work out those habits you have successfully established and identify a new one. Go through the process outlined above to work it into your life.
How long can you go?
One day’s miss doesn’t appear to derail a habit. But more? Hmm. At your own risk.
Maybe. It depends. It is an urban myth that it takes 21/28/30 days to establish a habit. It can take more or less depending on your unique situation. Research shows that it takes on average 66 days to form a habit so don’t set your expectations too low.
What habits have you successfully instilled to succeed with paleo? How long did it take you? What do you think is most important when making a long-term behavior change? Tell us in the comments!
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Are you struggling to sustain a paleo lifestyle change? Or not sure how to start? Or perhaps those around you are resistant and you’re feeling undermined and unsure. The Modern, No-Nonsense Guide to Paleo provides practical tools to ease the transition to a full-on paleo life. Each chapter includes strategies, tips and checklists to identify the actions to power you on your paleo journey and create sustainable change. Buy it at Amazon.com.
Are you struggling to sustain a paleo lifestyle change? Or not sure how to start? Or perhaps those around you are resistant and you're feeling undermined and unsure. The Modern, No-Nonsense Guide to Paleo provides practical tools to ease the transition to a full-on paleo life. Each chapter includes strategies, tips and checklists to identify the actions to power you on your paleo journey and create sustainable change. Buy it at Amazon.com.