Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The Power of Habit

I have been reading the book The Power of Habit (Charles Duhigg) on the elliptical machine recently.  Sometimes non-fiction can be a little dry and tedious, but this is a very enjoyable - and informative - book.

Those who know me know that I was a person who had some extremely bad habits when it came to food and exercise.

My habit when it came to exercise was to avoid it - at all costs.  My habit when it came to food was to indulge in high fat, high carb, high sugar foods, to the point of physical discomfort.  I would skip meals during the day and then binge at night when I got home from the office.

I had known that I needed to do something about my incredibly unhealthy lifestyle for a long time.  After all, you can only make excuses for not participating in life for so long before it starts to sound hollow.  I was not housebound, but I was dangerously close to it - - it was just too painful and exhausting to do many things. When my friend's chair collapsed under me at that dinner party last January, though, I knew things had to change. 

I have been working out since January, and working out without missing a workout since May.  What is interesting to me is that somewhere along the way, around July, the workouts stopped being tedious work, and started being part of my daily routine.  My workouts are not enjoyable to me, as such, but they're such an automatic part of my routine that I hardly ever seriously consider skipping.

Similarly, somewhere last spring I began to embrace vegetables.  Perhaps not with the fervour that I embrace cheese (!), but vegetables began making their presence known in meals last spring, and they're still part of my daily routine today.

My gradual lifestyle change has been a slow, incremental process, a little improvement at a time.  What I have never really understood until reading The Power of Habit is why I had the habits I did, how my behaviours reinforced these habits, and how habits can be changed.

Especially interesting to me are the author's comments regarding planning and visualization.  Apparently one very effective way to change eating habits is to keep a food diary.  The same could be said for reducing spending - - keep a spending log.  What these things do is make us aware of what we are doing, allowing us to make different, more conscious choices.  So many of our behaviours are unconscious, it is only by making a point of highlighting what we are doing that we can effectively change.

I started keeping a food diary with the MyFitnessPal app in July, and it was an eye-opening experience.  Well, initially horrifying, when I realized what I was consuming, and then eye-opening.

Putting my food in a diary made me accountable for what I was eating.  I had no excuses for making poor food choices, especially since there are so many points during each day when I can take corrective action.  If I am running high by lunch time, I can cut out snacks, or I can cut down on the dinner.  Worse case scenario, I could even add extra exercise if required.

This is not to say that I do not go over my target calories at times - - that happens to everyone.  But I am much more in control of what is going into my body than at any other point, which is a marvel.

Another interesting point in the book is the discussion about the importance of positive visualization.  Habits apparently arise in part because we anticipate a positive outcome from our actions.  Smokers are not physiologically addicted to nicotine within 10 hours of their last cigarette, but the emotional hook is terribly addictive - - the positive visualization of the pleasure of that first cigarette of the day is what keeps them lighting up.

To change habits, therefore, it is not enough to go through the motions (although that helps).  We have to visualize the positive results of our actions to really see an impact.  In my routine, I visualize entering each of my workouts into my various fitness apps and seeing progress charted out - - either lower blood sugar, or lower weight, or longer workouts, or whatever.  I also visualize how I will look when I reach my goal weight.

When my workouts are difficult, this kind of positive visualization really helps me push through.  Checking off another workout and continuing my workout streak is sometimes the only thing keeping me on that elliptical machine.

What the book also notes is that as new habits are established, they get easier over time.  Willpower is like a muscle that can be developed with practice.  In other words, each day that I avoid late night snacking makes it easier to avoid late night snacking in the future.

This book is really helping me to intellectually understand the things I am finding successful.  And knowledge is power.  Understanding why I act the way I do enables me to own my actions in a way that was not possible before.

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