4 Proven ways to Reverse Bad Habits

Ice Cream Pic

I would say one of the biggest challenges that myself and my clients face is battling the “All or Nothing” mindset.

Especially over the weekends, holidays, parties and family events, even with the best intentions to stay on track.

We know that we have a tendency to over-eat at these gatherings, yet time and time again we find ourselves in the same boat as before, starting again on Monday, searching for the next cleanse or diet to get us out of the food coma we put ourselves in….

If we know that too much wine, cookies, bread, chocolate, eating our kids’ goldfish and finishing their ice cream cones makes us feel like shit, and that those choices are keeping us from reaching our goals, why in the world can’t we just stop?

The book, “The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite” by David A. Kessler, discusses this quite a bit. How do we go about reversing the habits we have when it comes to overindulging?

Psychology has shown that there are four major components that go into reversing our habits, and the good news? They all lie within us.

James Leckman, professor of child psychiatry and pediatrics in the Child Study Center at Yale University School of Medicine, says, “We’re talking about something that’s very difficult to do. And if you fail in some of your early attempts, or if you give a try and have only limited success, it’s very easy to get discouraged and feel like, ‘It’s just beyond my power and control to manage this’”.

Have you ever felt like this? I know I have. Numerous times.

I had mentioned recently, that I spent so much time studying diet and exercise, getting my undergraduate degree in Exercise Phys., and graduate degree in Applied Exercise Science, searching for the “answers” to how to get lean and fit, but it wasn’t until I started reading more mindset and psychology literature (in books like this), that things really started to click for me.

I knew what foods weren’t the greatest for fat loss, but that never kept me from spending all weekend eating them! THAT was something I just couldn’t understand. I knew exactly what to do. I knew what to tell my clients to do. I understood what to do. Why couldn’t I just do it?? I felt like a failure. And a fraud. Who was I to tell someone how to eat, when I couldn’t get my own eating under control?

I think that there is a ton more that goes into this, but what I want to touch upon here is steps we can take when we are in those situations where we know we are about to spiral out of control. We have a choice. No one is spoon-feeding us Ben and Jerry’s (and although my 4 year olds love shove their ice cream cones in my mouth (such good little sharers, I never share my ice cream ;)) I definitely do have the choice to say no.

In just about every book I’ve read on willpower and habit change, everyone seems to be in agreement that it all starts with awareness. Awareness is absolutely key to breaking any bad habit.

In my case, I was aware of what foods weren’t “good” for fat loss, but I was never aware of what would cause me to want to eat them…. what cues, or urges occurred before opening a pint of ice cream, or go down the candy aisle in the grocery store? Was it the fact that I was alone? That I was bored? Was is it just a bad habit? Why every single Sunday when I felt like I “deserved” something, would I automatically think, ice-cream! Thats a great idea! What was I really looking for?

I had to become aware of the urge before anything could change, and also become aware of what exactly it was that I wanted, because although at the time I would think it was the ice cream, when I stopped for a second and brought awareness to the situation, it never actually was. Shocker.

And in that moment I had control. If I’m aware of the urge and the cue or trigger, I had the opportunity to make a different choice. A choice that would be more in alignment with my long-term goals.

Engaging in competing behaviors is the second component of habit reversal highlighted in” The End of Overeating”. It is our chance to resist the urge or the “pull” by developing a different response.

I’ve mentioned in pasts posts that in my coaching group, I really stressed the importance of awareness, habits, cues, rewards etc…Efficient exercise and Automated nutrition is all fine and dandy, but you have to be aware of your habits for lasting change.

One of the women in the group noticed that every time she put her son to bed, she walked downstairs and went immediately to the kitchen looking for a snack. She wasn’t hungry, but it had just become habit. She just did it. Every night. Once she became aware of this routine that had become habit, she developed a different routine. Instead of heading downstairs, she stayed upstairs and got her things ready for work the next day, showered, and relaxed – far away from the kitchen…and is down 12 pounds.

In the book, “The Power of Habit”, the author Charles Duhigg, says, “about 40% to 45% of what we do every day sort of feels like a decision, but it’s actually habit”. He goes on to say that every habit has three components. There is a cue, which is like a reminder, or a trigger for the behavior to begin developing, a routine, which is the habit or the behavior, and at the end of this “loop” is the reward. You can also remember this as reminder, routine, reward, or the 3 R’s.

Most people, when trying to break a bad habit, will only focus on the behavior itself. If they are trying to lose weight, they stop snacking at night…and that may last a few weeks (think New Year’s resolutions), but habits don’t just go away. Instead, Duhigg suggests focusing on the cue (trigger), and the reward, are keys to stop the behavior.

Now, had my client done the same routine, which was going directly downstairs, chances were pretty good that at some point she would fall back into her old routine of heading towards the kitchen. She had to 1. Recognize the cue or trigger (putting her son to bed), 2. Figure out what reward she was searching for (relaxation after a long day) and 3. Change her routine (stay upstairs and unwind for a little while).

Raymond Miltenberger, professor in the Department of Child and Family Studies at the University of South Florida and an expert in repetitive behavior disorders, states that “You’ve got to be prepared with some other behavior, because the closer you get to eating, the more powerful it becomes, the more reinforcing. If you intervene early and start a new chain that will prevent you from going down the other path, then you’re more likely to be successful”.

Her new chain was staying upstairs and relaxing instead of heading to the kitchen.

Think about when you tend to lose control. Figure out your cues. Is it a time of day? A certain place? Certain people? Once you become aware of the cue or trigger that brings you down this path, you can plan exactly how you will respond when in that situation again.

For me, being in the house on Sundays was always a trigger. I’m not as busy with the boys as I am the other days, my husband is home and it’s the first time we are able to relax with nothing much to do. I usually go food shopping on Sundays and I often catch myself thinking “maybe we can have an appetizer, dinner AND dessert tonight (and wine of course)”. Which obviously is not a “bad” thing, but if I really sit back and think about it, why in the world would I eat so much more than I normally would just because it’s Sunday? It’s not a special occasion. It’s Sunday. Same as Monday, except for the fact that we are all home together…which is nice, but no need to eat like it’s Thanksgiving.

But it had become “our thing”. That’s just what we did. Some families have pizza night, we would have “Sunday Funday”, and feel like crap on Monday. And every Monday, at 5am while I’m getting ready for work, I would think to myself “I’m SO not doing that again next Sunday, I feel awful”. But every week it was the same thing. Once I realized this, we changed our routine by doing things to get us out of the house, and it’s worked like a charm. Such a little change has had such a great outcome.

Can you think of any situations that trigger over-indulging? Is there anyway you can change the routine?

The third element highlighted in the book is probably my favorite. It involves “formulating thoughts that compete with, and serve to quiet, the old ones”. By just changing the way we talk or think, we can change our habits.

Sounds simple right?

Here is an example of how I’ve made this work for me. Instead of saying “the homemade chocolate chip cookies my mother-in-law brings up every weekend look really good, I’ll just have a bite”, I now say, (sometimes it’s out loud #notgonnalie) “I know it would probably taste really good, but there is no way in hell you will just have half, you’re going to have about 17, so find something else to do”. It helps. Sometimes I’ll still eat it, but if I do, I’m fully aware of the choice that I’m making and the outcome it will have. Makes a big difference.

You can also remind yourself, as I often do, that although you may have a minute or two of reward by eating whatever, it will be quickly followed up with not feeling great physically or mentally, so is it really worth it? Focusing on the outcome (feeling like crap) and not the instant gratification of eating the cookie, changes the way we tend to view the situation. Again, is eating cookies “bad”? Of course not. But when fat loss is your goal, and you tend to lose control around them…then you may have an issue. Is having a few bites (basically finishing) my sons ice-cream cones a bad thing? No, of course not…but if getting leaner was a goal of mine, finishing 2 ice-cream cones a couple times a week, could very well keep me from doing so.

Finally, the fourth component in habit reversal is support. Finding support, more importantly, the right kind of support is huge. Surrounding yourself with people who are going to encourage, not discourage you, as you work towards your long-term goals is key. This is one of the reasons my coaching group has grown so quickly. We have an amazing group of women who are all dealing with similar issues. It’s nice to know you’re not going it alone and the constant support and encouragement we get on a daily basis in pretty incredible. I say “we” because I get just as much motivation and encouragement from the group as they get from me 🙂

Get your family, friends and co-workers on board with what your goals are. Make them feel part of them. Part of the reason why Sundays are always hard for me is because I want to spend time with my husband, who likes to spend (like most boys) his Sunday afternoons relaxing and watching football or golf or any sporting event that is televised. Once I filled him in on the fact that I still wanted to spend time with him, just not in front of the TV all day, we came up with a compromise. He either watches a game or records it, and we spend Sunday afternoon doing something active as a family.

Habits play a huge role in the way we deal with SO many things in our lives. I’ve said this before, but you can have the best trainer, coach, protein shake, class, “cleanse” in the world, but if you aren’t becoming aware of your habits, any result you get will be short-lived.

Myself, as well as my clients, have benefitted greatly from just taking the first step and becoming more aware. If you’ve done every diet and exercise plan out there, it’s time to do some work what’s going on between your ears. It’s fascinating stuff and has become an integral part of my coaching group and continuing education. If you’re more interested, definitely check out some of the references above!




Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.