5 Steps to Changing Your Habits

We as a society find it easy to get caught up in the desire to make massive changes in life. Our nightly programming provides us entertainment and often misguided inspiration as we watch incredible weight loss transformations and think that it’s healthy and realistic to lose 30 pounds in the 3 weeks. Watching the Olympics might inspire you back to a sport you love or to hitting your exercise program with more enthusiasm than before and that can be great motivation. However, it is very important to remember that lasting change is a product of daily habits, not once–in–a–lifetime transformations. The key would be to change your habits to help you produce those results you seek.

Before we get into how to change a habit or replace a current habit you have with one that yields you better results, let’s address what is good about having habits in the first place.

  • We need habits to avoid becoming overwhelmed by the details of life, in a way they can protect us.
  • Over a period of time and repetition, the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine- having a habit can make life easier.
  • Habits help the brain conserve energy, and who doesn’t love that?

If you are at a place in life where your current habits are not supporting your goals, consider taking some time to change those habits. If you are someone who can identify multiple habits that you would like to change, I would recommend you start with one at a time.  Once you have successfully integrated your new habit into your life, you will feel more confident and even excited about changing the next one.

  1. Identify the routine.
  2. What’s the trigger or cue?
  3. What’s the reward?
  4. Make a plan
  5. Find a team

Let’s take a closer look at these 5 steps.

1. Identify the routine: What is the behavior you want to change? Is it night eating?  Are you choosing heavy foods?  Are you stress eating? Do you procrastinate? Do you have impulsive behavior? Are you overworking or obsessing? What is the routine you most want to change?  Write it down.

2. What’s the trigger or cue? What time is it? Where are you? Place, activity or event? Who else is around? What did you just do? Did something happen immediately preceding the routine? I.e. did you see or smell food? What emotions, thoughts, or physical sensations are you experiencing? One of these things is the cue. Look for which one stays the same every time you feel the urge-write it down.

3. What’s the reward? Habitual behaviors are driven by cravings for rewards or avoidance of negative consequences. What craving do you think your behavior is satisfying: the taste of a cookie, a change of scenery, temporary distraction/avoidance or socializing? Do you get a burst of energy from sugar? Comfort?  Feeling in control?  Stimulation? Relaxation?  Safety?  Find the answer that feels the most accurate and write it down. To figure out which cravings are driving a particular habit, it’s useful to experiment with different rewards. As you test each reward, jot down the first three things that come to mind. Set an alarm for 15 minutes. Has the craving lessened in intensity or stayed the same? Keep experimenting until you find something new that satisfies the urge.

 4. Make a plan: Studies show that the easiest way to implement a new habit is to write a plan. For example: When _(cue)_, I will _(routine)_ because it provides me with __(reward)__. Post this plan where you will see it. Try it for a week. Be aware of how it feels. When the intrinsic reward of a behavior (what you feel from doing it) is stronger than the extrinsic (what you treat yourself with afterwards), you’ve got a strong habit.

5. Find a team: Create a support system of people who are on the same path as you are or who have the habits you aspire to develop. People tend to associate with people who act like them Belief in your ability to make changes often comes faster to those who get bolstered by their social groups and see others like them making the changes they want to see in themselves. A strong community can also help make changes stick. State your goals out loud to make yourself accountable. Let others know when you are struggling with an urge. It helps you get out of denial and makes it real.

We need to continually and consciously practice new behaviors for them to become habits (automatic) to overpower old habits. Believe in your ability to change- if I can do it, so can you!  Would love to hear from you below in the comments section.  If you found this article helpful, please share it!  Also sign in at Power Over Food for more helpful tools for your mind, body and health.


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Weaken the Cycle of Emotional Eating

When people first come to see me they often report, “I know how to eat, I just can’t get myself to do it.”

These people are often frustrated and judge themselves harshly for what they perceive to be a lack of willpower. While we may have the facts, decisions about what, when and how much to eat also involve emotions and other physiological drives.

Emotional eating is a term often used to describe eating that is influenced by emotions, both positive and negative. Feelings may influence your motivation to eat, your food choices, where, when and with whom you eat, and the speed with which you eat.

Here are some examples of what emotional eating might look like:

  • Eating to soothe or reward yourself after a long day
  • Eating during or following a stressful event
  • Turning to food to stuff feelings of anger
  • Eating to procrastinate
  • Eating to numb feelings or forget your worries
  • Secretive eating
  • Eating quickly and mindlessly without really tasting the food
  • Grazing on food when you are not particularly hungry
  • Eating that feels uncontrollable or very difficult to stop
  • Frequently craving and eating foods you think of as “comfort foods” 
  • Eating to celebrate or as the primary source of adding joy to your life
  • Continuing to eat when you know you are moderately full

Many people eat in an attempt to self-soothe or to momentarily escape painful thoughts or feelings. Emotional eating is often related to feelings of inadequacy that we don’t know how to manage. When emotions become hard to handle, many people feel like they don’t have the skills to cope and eating seems like the best option available to them at the time.

I used to turn to comfort foods often as a way to manage stress. It was quick and improved my mood almost immediately and with little effort. Sounds good, right? Wrong! Think about your own experience. Does turning to food provide you with true or lasting relief? Most people tell me that the relief they experience is fleeting and is often followed by self-recriminations and guilt which often triggers more eating and thoughts like, “I blew it; I’m a failure.”

As a first step to weaken the cycle of emotional eating, just notice your emotions before and after eating. Do your best to be as nonjudgmental as possible. Take a “just the facts” approach so you can gather important information.  Recall a situation in which you recently overate where you believe emotions were the primary trigger. You might want to jot down in a notebook the answers to the following questions:

  1. What was the circumstance? Where was I, who was I with, had something recently happened that might have prompted the urge to escape feelings through food?  
  2. Was I more vulnerable to eating due to something in me (fatigue) or the environment (appetizing food in view or in the pantry)?
  3. What was I feeling and/or thinking? What sensations was I aware of in my body?
  4. How did the emotions or thoughts affect my eating?
  5. How did I feel physically, mentally and emotionally after eating?

When you begin to notice the feelings, thoughts, and other aspects of your eating experiences, you are taking a step back and getting more perspective on your triggers. When you practice gaining perspective, your behavior will become less impulsive. Over time, you will become able to say things like, “Oh look, I’m really angry and I want to go munch on cookies.” From there you will have the choice to learn a new way to cope with the anger rather than feeling controlled by it.     




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What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is intentionally paying attention without judgment to the thing that’s the most important for you to be effective in the present moment.

It may sound complicated, but in certain situations, you’re probably being mindful already without noticing it.

For example, I’m being mindful right now. Here on my desk are cards I need to send out, a CD that’s supposed to remind me to call a friend, and of course my computer with my e-mail program, the Internet, and the potentially infinite number of distractions it offers. Even the parakeet is chirping for attention. But the thing that’s most important for me to be effective right now is writing this blog. So I intentionally focus on it. When something distracts me, I bring my attention back.

Your senses bring more information into your brain than your conscious mind can possibly absorb. Your nervous system is constantly filtering out low-priority information. Typically, your mind is occupied to some degree with chattering thoughts; sometimes called “the monkey mind.” It is perfectly normal to experience mind chatter. Chattering thoughts may recede into the background when you’re concentrating on a project. They may grow to overwhelming proportions when you’re bored or have nothing to do.

Your job is to observe these thoughts, and yet continue to bring your attention back to the most important thing, the thing that will make you most effective in this moment.

When you pay attention without judgment, without listening to the monkey mind’s complaints or criticisms, you increase the capacity of your conscious mind. Then when you intentionally return your attention to the most important thing, you have extra capacity for new and valuable information that will help you be more effective.

To get the best information about how to manage yourself in the present moment, all you have to do is intentionally focus on your body’s signals, including your thoughts and emotions, and recognize their ebb and flow.

Watch the Ebb and Flow

It’s a fact of life that things always change and pass. Even a headache is not steady state. If you can put off grabbing the ibuprofen for a few moments and just observe, you’ll find your headache gets stronger one moment, weaker the next, and then back to stronger or maybe something in between. It ebbs and flows.

The better you get at listening to the ebb and flow of what’s going on in your body—whether you’re hot or cold, confident or unsure, tired or raring to go—the better you’ll get at recognizing and meeting your own wants and needs. 

If you’re like most people, you probably use food at least on occasion to manage your discomfort, both physical and emotional. You might even have come to depend on food to keep your nervous system stable, balanced and comfortable. The more extreme your discomfort, the more vulnerable you become to compensate with emotional eating.

So avoid the extremes! When you listen to your body’s messages throughout the day, you’ll be aware of when you’re getting hungry, lonely, angry or tired so you can intervene and take care of yourself before any of these conditions become overwhelming. Become mindful so you can get the information you need to manage your discomforts effectively.

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