Making Good Habits Stick Like Bellyfat

Last week, I noticed an article posted on the Chicago Tribune website, “A bit of fit: The keys to maintaining your weight loss.” 

Ah yes… where journalism and seasonal linkbait collide.

Obligatory weight/health/fitness/diet-related graphic for seasonally appropriate blog entry. (NOTE: Unless the clipart person is less than 5 feet tall and/or unless the scale units are metric (kilos) and not pounds, this clipart person is probably not overweight… oh wait, is this one of those wrap-around scale dials?)

Ok, I’ll bite.

Yes, it’s now that time of year where all the non-regulars (irregulars?) are at the gym, working their way through their 30 day free trial memberships… and where the impoverished news media posts inane articles about weight loss, diet and exercise.

The question seen a few weeks ago, “What’s your New Year’s resolution?”  is now replaced by “How can you stick to your New Year’s resolution?”  ..and will soon be replaced by “Who is advertising at the SuperBowl this year?”  So let’s hold onto this moment… let’s see what we can do right now, to keep our resolve to do whatever it was we said we’d do.

(NOTE: Although I have a resolution to blog more often, in the 3-4 times that I’ve sat down to finish up this particular post I’ve found myself heading out to the gym instead.  Apparently, the irony of sitting down to write about fitness was too much for my mind to handle.) 

Let’s summarize the “breakthrough aha-news”  findings in the aforementioned article on maintaining weight loss, J. Graham Thomas’ Seven Habits of Successful Weight Loss Maintainers…. and perhaps we can uncover a larger pattern and wider meaning:

  1. Work out 30 minutes a day
  2. Limit TV watching
  3. Limit caloric intake
  4. Maintain consistency
  5. Eat breakfast
  6. Avoid emotional eating
  7. Monitor yourself

I’ll rebrand these Seven Habits for Highly Effective Living in a Society of Abundant Decadence, where success comes from what you don’t do and what you don’t have. Three of the above items (#2, 3 & 6 )are “negative commandments” and four of them (#1, 4, 5 & 7)  are “positive commandments” designed to help replace bad habits with good habits. #7 is also a bit of a meta-discipline… the part that keeps all the other pieces in check.

To boil it down a bit further:  Replacing bad habits with good habits is about frequent implementation of slight behavioral changes.

Which leads us to some questions: How slight can the behavioral change be? How frequently does one need to implement it? For how long?  Finally, when is the best time to begin implementing a new habit?

How Slight?

The behavioral change can be as slight as a person wants… but just enough to establish a new pattern, to start replacing old habits.  A habit is like a rut in the road… a self-reinforcing behavioral trough.  So to overcome a bad habit, you have to steer down to a new path.

Item #1 in the above-mentioned list has some well-validated research behind it. Here is the concept presented a somewhat addictive video:

One of the main advantages of implementing a slight change (vs. a more radical or systematic change) is the likelihood that it will get done… and just getting it done seems to be the main obstacle for most resolutions. However, to follow from the rut-in-the-road analogy, sometimes a bad habit is so deep that the only way out is by taking a radical new course.

Determining the depth of a habit comes down to understanding what triggers the habit — these are sometimes called behavioral anchors — and gauging how pervasive or irresistible the anchors are.  A behavioral anchor can be anything — it could be a word, a sight, a sound, a sensation, a smell, a person, a thought, a situation, a chemical reward system within the brain. When a person decides to replace one habit with another, their strategy should take into account the existing behavioral anchors and seek to establish newer, more salient anchors.

Once a person knows the change they’re looking to implement, they can start.

How Frequently?

The unit of measure of frequency for most positive-habit-building advice seems to be a 24 hour period.

For many habits, weekly is too weakly…. but there are some positive habits that can be implemented using a 7 day period of frequency. Think of those ingrained weekend habits you have and how it messes with your mind when there’s a holiday or long weekend.

Fewer still are the habits that are anchored to a bi-weekly or monthly schedule…. and as for bi-monthly, quarterly, semi-annually or annual cycles, I don’t consider those as being timeframes for “habits” as much as being timeframes for “traditions,” “milestones,” or “scheduled activities” which aren’t quite automatic behaviors… mind you, the changing of seasons can serve as powerful behavioral anchors, too.

So yes, it’s possible to build a “habit” over any timeframe… but to build a new habit, you’re probably going to want to start within a frequency of hours or days, the latter being in the single digits.

For How Long?

There is a popular myth about the “21 Day Rule” i.e. that if you do something at least once per day for three weeks, the behavior will become automatic.  This is supposedly based on the time that it takes for neural connections to become permanent in a person’s brain, a theory devised by a plastic surgeon who dealt with amputees.   There is no credible research to support this claim, and intuitively we know that some habits take longer to form than others.

If a person is lucky (or if they’ve set it up right), a new positive habit can push all kinds of brain triggers after a very small number of repetitions.  On the other end of the spectrum, it may take months or years of concentrated power of will to realign their habits onto a new pathway.

A study done in 2009 found a range of 18 to 254 days as the time it took to members of a sample population to establish a set of pre-selected “good habits,”  with an overall average of 66 days for all the different habits measured.

As they say very quickly at the end of TV and radio commercials:  Actual habits may vary.

So no easy answers here… I’d say just do it once… and keeping “doing it once” until it becomes a habit.

Which brings us to the final question…

When to Start?

Make a calendar appointment, blocking out the time required to execute the new habit, starting in the next 24 hours.

Better yet, start now.


About danspira

My blog is at: My face in real life appears at a higher resolution, although I do feel pixelated sometimes.

Posted on January 12, 2012, in Learning, Life and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. quick list of suggestions around creating triggers to establish new habits:

    Two very useful triggers are 1) the time of day, and 2) the person you associate the habit with, e.g. the exercise buddy.

  1. Pingback: 2015 Blog Feed-forward: Building on an Elephant’s Memory | Dan Spira

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