We’ve all been there. We vow to lose ten pounds, take our blood sugars religiously, double our exercise, and then, within weeks (or hours), we fall off the wagon. We blame our lack of willpower, our lazy attitude, our sheer stubbornness.
But as someone who has lost and gained those last ten pounds more times than I can count, I’m here to tell you that willpower has very little to do with behavior change. According to behavioral experts, shifting your habits has much more to do with transforming how you think.
To change behaviors, you literally need to rewire your brain. To accomplish that, some people believe that small, incremental changes, done for positive – rather than negative – reasons, might do the trick.
In other words, don’t exercise because you hate your body. Exercise because you want your body to be healthy. Don’t fast so you can punish yourself; eat so you can nourish yourself.
Last year, I vowed I would finally get serious about taking my blood sugars.
At first, it seemed impossible – I hated pricking myself with a needle every mealtime, and often remembered my vow only when I was halfway through my dinner. I thought of giving up. But instead, I decided to break my goal down into small, manageable steps.
First, I gathered all of my supplies – meter, strip, lancets, paper and pencil – and permanently settled them on the kitchen table, where they waited for me every time I sat to eat. At the start, I tried for one reading a day, and then gradually increased the number until I got up to four. And I tried to couch my actions in positive terms: I promised myself not to get upset if I spiked a high or a low, but simply to note it and continue to take readings without criticizing myself.
Nothing dramatic, but it worked. Not only do I have a book full of numbers to show my endo at my next appointment, but also I have a much better handle on my diabetes before I receive the results of my hA1C reading. I’ve improved my understanding of what foods trigger my sugars to jump or fall.
This year, I’m planning on using some of these same strategies to take off that pesky ten pounds. Among the things I’ve learned:
- Be patient: Give yourself a break. You didn’t gain your weight overnight and you’re not going to lose it all at once. Think of changing your behavior as a process, not a horse race.
- Keep it realistic: Go for simple techniques that are doable. Living on cabbage soup for two weeks? Not so much.
- Be specific: Rather than trying to cut 200 calories from your diet, pinpoint how you plan to do it. Instead of one whole-grain English muffin for breakfast, I might take a half. That handful of healthy nuts in mid-afternoon? I plan to count out 15.
- Make a cue: Linking a new behavior to a time, activity, or situation can help, experts say. Spotting my notebook on the kitchen table cued me to take my sugars. In the same way, brushing my teeth after dinner might ‘cue’ me that the kitchen is closed for the evening. The new association might gradually become second nature.
And with any luck, a new habit will be born.