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Why is it so hard to change a habit?

 

It’s extremely common for clients in my office to say, “I know what I need to do–I’m just not doing it.” It sounds like it should be simple. Knowing what you need to do is one part of the problem. Just doing it would be step two. Simple, right?

 

Actually, not quite as simple as you think. Figuring out why you DON’T do it is actually step two. To illustrate this point, Nestle and colleagues (1998) painted a wonderful picture of how a simple behaviour change can be more complex than we think.

 

In their example, a 50-year-old female comes to the conclusion that 2% milk isn’t as low in fat as she once thought, and as a result she decides to change to skim milk. This would be classified as a simple behaviour change–change from 2% to skim milk. Below, however, are a few possible barriers to making this simple change.

 

1.     Her grocery store may not carry the skim milk she likes, so she may have to shop at another grocery store.

2.     If other family members prefer other types of milk, she needs to consider storage space in her fridge for the various types.

3.     If she has to buy several types of milk, she may now also have to consider price.

4.     Some family members may like the milk for more than one purpose–cooking to coffee–and now certain milk may go bad if not consumed quickly enough.

 

The point here is that in order to create even a simple behaviour change, we often have to think about and make several decisions first (Nestle et al., 1998).

 

I see a lot of my clients state what they are going to do, fail to do that very thing, and then beat themselves up about it. For example, they might say that they will drink more water. Then as the week progresses, they tell me they haven’t kept up with that goal. If I ask them why, they typically ignore the question and promptly state that they know what they need to do. As we can see from the example above, knowing what we need to do is only part of the equation. It’s more complex than that, but it’s completely rational.

 

If you really want to stick with a new behaviour, learn about yourself through the development of the habit change. You may find out that you don’t like the taste of water. You can work with that. What would make it taste better? You may find that increasing your water intake isn’t convenient. What would make it more convenient? You may also discover that you don’t really have a lot of opportunity to go to the washroom (the need for which naturally accompanies more water intake). How could you schedule your water drinking around that availability?

 

In research, this is called problem-solving behaviour. State a new behaviour, recognize the challenges, and solve for X. You aren’t the problem, you’re the problem solver. The more you believe that you are the problem, the longer it will take you to progress. I try to make these observations in all my behaviours, not just dietary or exercise ones. It allows me to give myself grace and really get to the root of what needs to change.

 

If you’re having a tough time navigating the jungle of behaviour change, let us help. Sometimes the right question at the right time can change your life. Visit us at www.fitmetabolism.com and book your appointment!

 


Reference:

Nestle M. et al. “Behavioural and Social Influences on Food Choice.” Nutrition Reviews, May 1998; Vol. 56, No. 5, pp 50-64.

 

Jason Hagen