Week 1: Focus on cutting out soft drinks
Week 2: Stop buying junk at the grocery store
Week 3: Cook at home at least three times
Week 4: Prepare a week of lunches in advance
It’s a fictional syllabus, but it might be familiar to you.
If you’ve ever taken an online course focused on nailing down your nutrition and improving your lifestyle, there’s a good chance you’ve seen advice like the above.
The template is more or less standardized at this point: pick 1-2 things you want to stop doing and 1-2 things you want to start doing, then focus on them individually over the course of however many weeks. And then boom: you’ve learned good habits, and how to break a bad habit permanently.
And the thing is, this advice isn’t actually bad. It’s better advice than you’ll get from a lot of people and coaches, both online and in person.
It’s better advice than “exercise more so you can eat more.”
It’s better advice than “cook all of your meals a week in advance.”
It’s better advice than “figure out your macros and count every calorie.”
I’m not saying any of these are bad habits. Exercising more and changing your body composition will definitely change the number of calories you need to eat (look no further than Michael Phelps’ insane xxxx calorie diet).
But exercise alone is probably not going to help you lose or gain much weight.
Meal prep is great, especially if you’re someone that comes home from work late or exhausted. But which meals should you make? What if you don’t know how to cook? What should you store them in, and how can you reheat them?
The idea of cooking 14+ meals every week is daunting to the new meal prepper.
Counting calories will almost definitely work. Yeah, it can be tricky to accurately track calories, but tracking calories should give you a pretty good idea of what’s going into your body and what adjustments you need to make to change your weight.
But it’s also super boring and tedious. It gets old quickly, and makes it hard to go out to eat with friends.
(especially if you’re friends with this guy) via GIPHY
Each piece of advice is actually great! If you can figure out how to do it. But that’s the hard part for most people.
How to Change Habits
That four week syllabus tries to deal with a lot of the problems with popular nutrition and lifestyle events.
Instead of saying “track all of your calories now!” it says “let’s work on cutting out calories from this one source.” Soft drinks.
Each week it adds a new source. Junky snacks, pre-made food, and eating out are tackled one at a time. That’s one approach that teaches you how to break a bad habit permanently.
And I actually like that. It’s important to recognize that habits rarely change all at once. Huge, life-altering moments are life-altering because they don’t happen all the time, and snap us quickly out of routines.
If you want to change your bad habits (or good ones!), you don’t want to rely on a single life-altering moment. You want to use thousands of tiny life-altering moments. You want to learn how to break a bad habit permanently, so that when you look back a year, or 10 years, you don’t even miss your old bad habits.
So yeah, I like the gradual approach changing your habits.
Can you feel the “but” coming?
The But: Why is Change So Hard?
There are still problems with the standard syllabus for habit and nutrition change.
The biggest problem: it’s not as simple as just stopping habits. This is not how to break a bad habit permanently.
In week one, you try to stop drinking soft drinks. Maybe you even succeed.
But you definitely still have the urge to drink soft drinks. When you get home from work, you still want to reach into the fridge for a can of Coke. When you go out to lunch and the waiter asks if you want drinks, you start put in your usual order before uncomfortably stammering “just water.”
When week two comes around, you start to go to the next level. You walk around the grocery store consciously avoiding the Doritos and still fighting the urge to pick up a two-liter of 7-Up.
When you start cooking more healthy food in week three, you still aren’t over soft drinks. Maybe you were good the last two weeks, maybe you haven’t had any soda. But one day in the store you cave and grab a bag of Lays potato chips, and you know you can’t eat just one.
In week six, after you’ve started meal prepping, you have a bad day at work. You miss a day of cooking and get McDonald’s. You can almost feel the grease seep into your skin as you walk in the door, and you definitely want fries with that.
Hell yeah I want fries! via GIPHY
Gradually, your new “habits” start to spin off the rails. One missed day of cooking turns into two, then 10. Your meal prep is gone. Your pantry is filled with junk food. And, finally, you start drinking soda again.
There are a dozen different ways the plan can go awry; this is just one example. The point is this: dropping an old habit is so much more than just “deciding” to do it.
You need to train yourself to not want it anymore, or organize your surroundings to prevent you from getting it.
When you try to quit soda cold turkey, you still want it. And as the new “habits” start piling up, the pressure rises. All it takes is a small disturbance—a bad day at work, an argument with a friend, a poor night’s sleep—to send it all tumbling down.
This approach teaches you how to change actions for a little bit, but it doesn’t teach you how to break a bad habit permanently.
What can you do instead?
How to Break a Bad Habit Permanently: Swap, Don’t Stop
Habits don’t happen in a vacuum. Starting a new habit or stopping an old one will affect other things.
Every habit you have is cued by something in your environment or one of your own internal feelings. These cues are the key to habit change.
When you try to quit drinking soda, or any other habit, you are trying to ignore these cues.
They are still there, clamoring at the edge of your awareness for attention. They are the reason you reach into the fridge without thinking. And they are the reason you eventually fail.
If you want to learn how to break a bad habit permanently, you really have two options:
- Remove the cues
- Change the action they trigger
I’ve covered the full psychology of habits and environments before. Removing cues is sometimes easy and sometimes difficult, but even being aware of them is helpful.
Changing actions is a different approach, one better suited to combatting habits that come up in your everyday life (where cues are harder to delete).
If you are trying to lose weight, replace your soda habit with a diet soda habit. When you get home from work and flop down with a can of Coke, make it a diet and you’ll start losing weight.
Is diet soda good for you? Probably not, but reaching a healthy weight is. If you are overweight, it’s better than drinking regular.
People often object to this. Fitness pro Dick Talens relates his experiences:
“Let’s say that a person is experiencing health issues, and their doctor tells them that it’s primarily due to their weight. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the conversation below with a client:
Me: How much soda do you drink?
Client: I drink about 5 sodas per day, but I really like soda.
Me: Could you switch to diet soda? That would save you about 600 calories a day and you’d lose one pound per week.
Client: Not really… I’m really worried about the health effects of aspartame and diet soda in general.
Failure to lose weight may very well kill this person. But instead of making a simple substitution that could help them achieve life-changing results, they’re too busy worrying about the unverified and oft-debated effects of the sweetener. They’re focused on the second order problem and not the first order one.”
What do you do after diet soda? What if you’re already drinking diet? What if you still just can’t bring yourself to drink diet?
Switch to soda water, then water. Switch to juice (also not great), then something like Vitamin Water, then water.
When the cue triggers you to crave something, give it something different. The urges will go away over time.
How Do You Change Other Bad Habits?
Soda was only one of the week’s in my example syllabus, but these principles of breaking habits apply to all habits. Again, if you want to know how to break a bad habit permanently:
- Remove the cues
- Change the action
Do you want to stop buying junk at the store? Eat before you go shopping (removed hunger cue), shop around the perimeter of the store (remove visual cue of junk food), and build a shopping list in advance (which removes several cues and changes several actions).
Aren’t there some people that can just quit cold turkey?
Maybe, but that isn’t most of us, and those people are often still using these tactics without realizing.
If you want to drop bad habits, you need to remove both the habit and the urge.
Remove the cues. Swap actions instead of stopping.
What bad habits are you trying to break?