A huge part of nutrition counselling is helping people to change their habits. I’m like a professional habit-changer!
Sure, there’s some nutrition-based technical stuff that happens, but in the end, most people require some sort of habit-shift to improve their eating habits and their health.
This can be really tough, especially when someone has been eating and living a certain way for basically their entire life. Long-term habits are actually ‘etched into our neural pathways,’ making them difficult – but not impossible – to break. When I’m with a client, it’s part of my job to help them find their way out of the habits that aren’t doing them any favors.
I’ve had plenty of clients get super frustrated and anxious about making changes and sustaining them, which is usually the hard part of the equation. As I always say, anyone can make changes, but it’s being consistent for the long-term that really matters.
You’ve probably heard that it only takes 21 days to make a new habit, but I think that metric is ridiculous. We’re all different, and 21 days to stop something that you’re been doing forever is a huge expectation that sets you up for failure. It usually takes a lot more than 21 days to set a habit in stone, and even then, it’s common to break the habit a few times. That’s totally normal.
A recent small study of 96 people found that establishing a new habit took anywhere between 18 to 254 days. That’s a huge range!
So what’s the secret to forming new habits that stick around for the long-term?
Here Are My Tips for Forming Habits
Never force it.
The best example of people forcing themselves to change comes around every single year on January 1st.
How many times have you made a New Years’ resolution just because you thought you should? Yeah – pushing yourself into make changes is a big reason why most of them fail.
The best way to form new habits is to be ready. I mean, truly ready, not just superficially ‘ready’. Not January 1st ready. And how do you know if you’re truly ready? In my experience, people who are truly ready to make change can see their way to the endpoint. They’re ready to make the necessary sacrifices or adjustments to their current routine. They can tell me, step by step, how they’re going to get where they need to go, including how they’re going to manage the inevitable challenges. They can visualize themselves already having made the change, and how they’re going to sustain it.
They also have a solid reason to make that change. We’ll talk about that in a minute.
Make sure it’s consistent with your lifestyle and your values.
No matter what habit you want to form, you’ll never be successful unless it fits with your lifestyle. If you’re looking to work out more, and you join a gym that’s a pain in the ass to get to, you’ll probably have a lot of trouble establishing that habit.
If your co-workers are all on a no-carb diet but you don’t want to give up fruit, then following your colleagues on their diet probably won’t work for you in the long-term.
A lot of my clients come to me thinking they can build their life around a diet, but in reality, that rarely works. Your eating habits need to be built around your lifestyle and your values.
Make it positive. Be flexible.
A lot of people will make a nutrition goal like, ‘I want to eat less candy.’ But doesn’t that make you feel like something is being taken away from you?
Instead of saying, ‘I’m going to eat less candy,’ try being positive about your habit. Saying ‘I’m going to eat a more nourishing diet’ or, ‘I’m going to eat more vegetables’ is less likely to piss you off and make you feel deprived. Sure, eating less candy can be one of the goals, but you can add instead of only subtracting. Be a pencil, not an eraser.
Once more for those of you in the back: BE A PENCIL, NOT AN ERASER!
Lots of my clients want to start bringing their lunch to work more often instead of going out.
We start small, with something like them bringing their lunch two or three days out of five. Most importantly, don’t focus on what they think they’ll be giving up – like those yummy Thai noodles from the place next to their office. Instead, I help them visualize how they’ll feel after bringing their lunch to work consistently: a sense of accomplishment. Physically less sluggish. Financially richer.
See? Forming habits is about incentive!
We’re always ready to adjust it all if something isn’t working for them. If bringing their lunch three times a week is too much at first, we knock it down to twice or once a week. Once it becomes a habit, they build on that success.
Most importantly, we manage expectations. They know that some weeks will be better than others, and that’s okay. As long as they keep moving in the right direction!
If you’re having trouble forming a habit, take a look in your closet.
Self-sabotage, negativity, and the inability to make changes stick sometimes have to do with how we feel about ourselves and our past experiences, sometimes seemingly unrelated. If you’re trying to change your eating habits but keep running into barriers, you might need to take a look at what’s behind these roadblocks.
It’s super-helpful if you can talk through these issues with a professional counsellor. I call it ‘cleaning out your closet,’ and I find that people who do that have a much easier time forming positive habits with their eating.
Do it for you – not because of guilt or shame, or for somebody else.
If your reason for change is because of someone else’s expectations, that’s not good enough.
It goes without saying: if you make changes for somebody else, you’re far less likely to continue with them for the long term. You need to do it for you, and you need to feel good about the habit that you’re making. Habits that you’re guilted or shamed into making will be the first ones that you break.