In the last article about health habits, I made a point to help you see that not all health advice is the best advice, even when it’s backed by good intention. And that’s because it must come with some type of context for your personal needs.
We covered a bit about what habits are, how hard they are to change, and I even referenced some ideas from my book Stay Leaner, Longer.
In this article, I’m going to give you a framework to build health habits that stick.
At the end of the last article, I promised to tell you about the following:
- Why everything you know about creating new habits and goal-setting is probably wrong.
- The most powerful concept I know to help change your behavior (it all has to do with how you actually perceive yourself).
- A simple, but powerful, 5-step habit creation framework you can implement immediately.
Most Goal-Setting Advice Is Good Intentioned, But Hard To Implement
The traditional goal-setting advice is to set S.M.A.R.T. Goals. S.M.A.R.T. is an acronym for “specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.”
Now while I don’t disagree with this idea, I want to take it further and actually give you the framework on how to set a goal and work toward it.
Anyone can sit down and write out a specific, measurable, realistic goal that is measurable and timely, but how do you actually go about actually getting yourself to do the work?
That’s the hard part. Because while it’s fairly easy to sit down to daydream and brainstorm and put your goals to paper, the taking action part is tough.
This is why it’s easy to get caught in a trap of thinking there are some people who just get things done while others only procrastinate.
The only difference between these people is calculated action.
Taking calculated action is a combination of being willing to do the daily work and having clarity on what needs to happen.
Anything you do on a daily basis, as you now know from the last article, is considered a habit.
But when it comes to actually creating a new habit, it’s easy to get discouraged because change is hard even when we know that the change might improve our lives or make us happier.
I know, it doesn’t seem to make sense, but it’s true. We crave familiarity, even if it’s not doing us any good.
For a quick example, let’s use the topic of fat loss. When most people are starting out with a goal of fat loss, the entire process can seem overwhelming.
You have to change your eating habits, make better food choices, create a caloric deficit, track your intake, exercise, lift weights (not mandatory, but recommended), get enough rest, manage your sleep schedule, deal with hunger and cravings, manage stress, and manage your emotions (you’re human, after all) on top of everything I previously mentioned.
Depending on where you’re at on your journey, some of the above might be easy for you.
But for many wanting to make changes, this list might be incomplete considering all you have to deal with.
When you’re trying to create new habits and kick the bad habits, you’re attempting to change your behavior.
And changing your behavior is no easy feat because, as I mentioned in the health habits article, Charles Duhigg estimates more than 40 percent of your daily actions are not conscious decisions, but unconscious habits.
How To Change Behavior (Keeping It Simple Wins Every Time)
Ever wonder why people fail miserably with their New Year’s Resolutions? There are many reasons, but the main problems are a lack of a plan that is manageable, and most people try to change too much at once.
They want to go to the gym, eat better, join a running club, get up earlier, commit to reading a new book each week, keeping a journal and the list goes on and on.
And before you know it, the changes people try to implement last a few weeks at best, and they’re back to their old routine.
This is due to inertia—it’s easier to fall back to what’s familiar and ultimately, remain unchanged.
I speak about this, among other topics in my GMB podcast interview.
So instead of trying to change a million things at once, when you’re trying to change your behavior, it’s best to focus on only 1 to 2 changes at a time.
If you try to change all of your health habits at once, you will burn out. Inertia will win.
So, to lose body fat and to get into better shape, let’s say you want to make all the following changes:
- Start waking up early
- Get more sunlight
- Commit to training 4 times per week at the gym
- Make all meals at home
- Go for a long walk after dinner
That’s a LOT to change at once.
And to prevent the dreaded burnout (and the self-sabotaging negative self-talk that comes with it), It’s best to pick a singular goal and only focus on that for a while before adding anything else.
But here’s where most people get this dead wrong (don’t fall into this cycle).
You sit down and write out all the things you want to change to be healthier and more fit (those SMART goals).
You employ the typical goal-setting mentality of needing to make a massive change all at once (the New Year’s approach).
And instead of choosing one aspect of your lifestyle to change, you want to change everything starting Monday morning.
You wake up early on Monday and get to the gym for a hard workout.
When you get back home, you cook breakfast and pack a nutritious lunch for work.
After the day ends, you get home to cook dinner, usually something easy and bland like chicken breast, green veggies, and potatoes.
And then, despite being horribly exhausted from waking up an hour early to hit the gym, you go for that post-dinner walk you promised yourself.
You repeat the same schedule on Tuesday, but the fatigue is real as you drag yourself to the gym.
Despite being worn out when you get home from work, you make dinner and go for that post-dinner walk.
But come Friday, you’ve slipped up on a few of your goals.
You’ve either slept in and missed the morning workout, or gotten take-out at lunch because you couldn’t pack anything due to missing grocery shopping the night before.
Instead of cooking dinner, you’re worn out from waking up super early, so you stop by your favorite restaurant on the drive home.
And before long, all of these good ideas for making changes have just become that—good ideas.
You’ve soon abandoned your initial goals because let’s face it—making all these changes at once is incredibly hard for anyone.
Not only is it hard, but it’s discouraging because while you WANT to change, the actual process requires planning, strategy, effort, focus, willpower, even.
So what’s the solution?
You start with ONE CHANGE to make, and that’s it.
You continue to work on that one thing until it becomes routine.
Let’s use an example of our scenario above.
I know you want to get up earlier, cook more meals at home, go to the gym 4 days per week, and take walks after dinner.
What if you just picked ONE of those changes to focus on instead of all of them?
It’d be much easier on you, and once you got that change mastered, it’d be time to move onto the next.
For example, you could start with going to the gym.
No matter what, commit to the gym 4 days per week.
If all else within your week fails, just get to the gym.
Make that your mantra.
After a month or so of making this happen, it will be more routine. Then it’s time to make another change.
What could you improve next? You could decide to make a better effort to cook more meals at home.
Now that the training habit is taken care of, you have more mental energy to focus on eating better.
In time, cooking at home will become routine just like training.
And here’s where your efforts stack on one another.
In fact, now that most dinner meals are made at home, it’s super easy to go for that walk after dinner.
Building one habit can easily lead into creating another one.
Since these goals are related, this is called Habit Stacking.
Now all you’d have to do is focus on getting up earlier, which will require a similar approach as the other goals because it’s an act of changing your behavior.
And with any deliberate change in behavior, we must be focused and prepared to deal with the lulls we are bound to experience.
So how can you make your goals mean more to you? How will you ensure you actually stick to the process of making change?
Who You Choose To Be Defines Your Health Habits (Identity-Based Habits)
There are lots of processes for building new habits or breaking bad ones, but the method I love the most is known as Identity-Based Habits.
And to make it as simple as possible, this is the premise of the approach:
You have beliefs about the world and yourself.
Those beliefs dictate your actions and behaviors.
Those practices determine who you become, and who you become is your identity.
Your identity defines character traits and what makes you unique.
If you don’t believe you can change, then you probably won’t.
But this isn’t because of some magical, woo-woo idea that your beliefs automatically create your reality.
This is because our beliefs influence how we perceive the world around us.
It determines how we think. And our perception and our thoughts determine our actions.
So if you don’t believe you can be stronger, leaner, more active, and in better health, you probably won’t be.
And it’s not because this reality is impossible for you. It’s because you don’t do what it takes to get there.
Here’s a quick mental exercise:
Imagine someone you know of who is exactly how you want to be. They’ve reached some goal that you aspire to.
The good news is this: if someone has achieved something, it’s most likely entirely possible for someone else.
They might be strong in the gym. Maybe they have six-pack abs. Maybe they’re an early riser.
But more importantly, the person’s belief about themselves allows them to put in the work to get the results they want.
Accomplished athletes have a belief that they’re the type of person who is disciplined enough never to miss a training session.
They always get to bed on time and eat enough to fuel recovery and good health.
High achievers in business possess a belief that their time is valuable, and that they should use it wisely while hiring others to help bear the load of daily operations.
As a result, you won’t see them spending time doing things they’re not good at.
To reach your goals and change your health habits, you have to begin assuming the identity of those who are where you want to be.
When working on assuming the identity of the person you wish to be, you must know two things:
- You must adopt a similar belief system
- You must act in a similar manner
When going about adopting a similar belief system, you must deconstruct a few things, first.
- What do they believe about themselves?
- What do they do daily?
Let’s break it down.
What do they believe about themselves?
How you see yourself, and your situation is a product of your beliefs.
Again, if you think you can change, and want to bad enough, you’ll start to figure out HOW to make the change.
If you have a limited view and see your situation ‘fixed,’ then you might not take actions to change your behavior (because why attempt to change what is fixed and permanent?).
Most high achievers have a belief in themselves that their goals are possible and within reach.
But how do you instill a belief if you’re intimidated or unsure about losing 20 pounds, or getting a six-pack for the first time?
You pick small changes to implement and work on those first.
It’s like the example above—making massive change all at once is never doable.
Most people don’t have the willpower and discipline, or environment (which is a much bigger determinant of outcomes than you might imagine) to change a bunch of habits at once.
So it’s better to start small.
And when you start small and prove to yourself that you can get to the gym no matter what, or eat more meals at home consistently, then you start to build momentum.
Consistency is the mother of all progress.
And as you make progress, you build momentum.
And as you pick up momentum, belief builds in your ability to make things happen.
And as the belief forms, you get more comfortable making changes.
Again, start with the smallest goals first.
Commit to those changes, and build the belief in yourself required to continue the follow-through. As you build discipline, making more changes becomes easier.
As you build discipline with doing your one thing, making more changes becomes easier.
Let’s look at the next aspect of assuming the identity of someone making significant progress.
What do they do?
We already know that their belief in themselves is what allows them to make progress and be consistent (which is what matters most).
But what do they do?
It’s different for everyone, but success leaves clues.
Any professional athlete has a particular and specific practice schedule. They have a set amount of work that has to get done each day to improve their skills and abilities.
So if your goal was to be leaner, stronger, and confident in your bathing suit?
Look at what that person is doing every day.
What do they eat?
What type of training are they doing?
How much time do they spend meal prepping?
How closely do they track their daily calorie intake?
How do they manage stress?
What daily actions led to them the place they’re in today?
Answer those questions, and you’ll have an idea of what’s expected.
There’s a lot of questions to ask, but once you figure out the behaviors, you can begin to implement the same behaviors to get a similar result.
But don’t worry if you don’t know the answer to every question… you don’t have to know it all at once. All that matters is you aim to make one change at a time, and continue doing so. Just keep getting better, systematically over time.
Build Better Health Habits In 5 Steps
The main things to remember are that no one particular health habit is going to be the same for everyone.
It all depends on the context of your own life, needs, wants, and goals.
What you want and need is going to depend on where you’re at right now.
I’ve created a set of simple steps to help you implement lasting behavior change below.
- Determine what habits you’d like to create or change, and a develop a reason why (dig deep—how much will you regret it if you don’t make this change?)
- Pick 1 change at a time and stick to it until it becomes part of your routine.
- Build a habit loop — once you create a new habit, start another one that builds on top of the other (habit stacking).
- Identify with and become the person who has achieved a similar goal. Adopt similar habits and actions, and above all remain consistent. I want you building momentum over time.
- Get support/reinforcement/accountability as necessary to keep you on track.
To get some support on building new habits, you should join my private Facebook group (I’ll have to approve you, so I ask for your patience). If you need personal help, you can apply for 1-on-1 coaching.
note: I first learned about identity-based habits from James Clear.