The beginning of each year starts with lists. Lists of goals that will never be implemented in any meaningful way.
Eat better. Exercise more.
Or maybe you’re smart about goals and attempt to be specific:
I’ll start P90x on Monday. I’ll make it through Insanity by March.
If you have ever attempted to create a new habit, you will understand how frustrating it can be (or maybe I am the only human who has struggled to floss their teeth).
The ritual of creating a New year’s resolution is a case in point. The list of eating better and avoiding ice cream and exercising is forgotten by February.
It is not enough to commit to a goal.
Eating more fruits and vegetables will not occur by putting your mind to it or by writing it down.
Studies show that to be successful at committing to your goals and creating strong habits you need something more.
Fortunately, the scientific literature (from the field of psychology) gives us guidance. I will show you three techniques to help you create rock-solid healthy eating habits your mother would be proud of:
- Mental contrasting to commit to a goal
- Implementation intentions to take action
- Reinforcement management to reinforce the habit
Use Mental Contrasting to Commit to Your Goal
With mental contrasting you imagine a better future (goal) and then make detailed plans to conquer the obstacles in your way.
The process helps you discover what gets in the way of attaining your goal – allowing you to plan better (which makes you more effective).
To do this you need to name and imagine the most positive outcome as well as the most difficult obstacle.
There are 3 steps to mental contrasting:
- Identify an important goal. Write it down and commit it to paper. In fact, consider writing down several goals and circle the one that you feel would have the biggest impact. This could be as simple as eating more fruits and vegetables. However, try to be specific. Drill down to food type and time of day. For example, maybe you would like to eat a healthier breakfast . . . possibly steel cut oatmeal with fruit and walnuts (instead of sugary boxed cereal).
- Imagine the most positive outcome of the goal. This will link the behavior to your intrinsic motivation. Why do you REALLY want this? Is it an awesome sense of wellbeing? Do you want to buzz with energy? Better clarity of thought? Better sleep? Do you want to avoid chronic diseases? Do you feel the need to lower your cholesterol a bit? Do you want to loose weight to feel more attractive? Be specific about what you really want – this will help sustain the behavior. What really moves you to action?
- Identify the most critical obstacle towards reaching the goal. What gets in the way? What obstacle is present? Do you crave donuts in the morning with your latte? Not enough time to prepare some oats? Once identified work to solve these problems. Preparation to face the obstacles in advance will help you succeed when the time comes. In our example, if you do not have the time for regular steel cut oatmeal (30 minute prep time), get the instant steel cut variety from Trader Joe’s (or any awesome grocer).
So, you have committed your goal to paper, imagined the most positive outcome and figured out your likely obstacles. Well done.
Studie have shown that this process, when done properly, will help you to commit to your goal, be more persistent and even more effective. It cannot get much better than that.
It turns out that even if people are strongly committed to goals they still may NOT fully implement them.
You need an effective action plan to implement your good intentions.
Hence, psychologists created the Implementation Intention.
Use the Power of “IF-THEN” to Trigger a Healthy Action
Implementation intentions are a tool to bridge the gap between intentions and actions and are proven to be effective at helping people establish new habits.
An implementation intention answers the “IF-THEN” question.
“IF X occurs, THEN I will Y.”
IF I’m bored and feel like a snack, THEN I will eat an apple.
IF I get hungry after dinner, THEN I will snack on some grapes.
I like to think of these as rules in your head or better yet, your habit playbook. You can set them up pretty easily and maybe you already have a couple of your own.
My wife and I created similar rules when we first began our quest for improved eating.
IF I got hungry at work, THEN I would snack on a CLIFF bar.
IF I we went out to eat at a restaurant, THEN we would drink water (and not pop).
One study showed that using mental contrasting along with with implementation intentions led to increased fruit and vegetable intake after 2 years compared to a control group.
We’re almost there. One last step to really nail it home.
Give Yourself a Mini-Dopamine High to Reinforce Your New Healthy Habit
So, in order for what you have created to become a habit you will need reinforcement. This is like adding duct tape or hammering in a few more nails.
Junk food has a natural reward, a small hit of dopamine in the reward center of your brain. So, we need to create a “mini-high” for your new behavior. By creating rewards for healthy eating we essentially accomplish the same thing. This is what reinforcement management is – a reward for a healthy behavior. This could be you rewarding yourself or a reward from family or a friend.
Imagine you are at home and a bit bored, and hungry. You remembered your implementation intention . . .
IF I am bored and feel like a snack, THEN I will eat an apple.
So, you have apples available, because of the healthy environment you created, and you grab one and start munching. You definitely earned some self-praise, which you deliver (pick one):
“I’m healthy as a horse”
“Nice choice, bro.”
Don’t over due it. Just one quick response should work. You could also . . .
Do a little dance
Jump in the air and pump you fist
Kick your heels together
Hum an awesome fight song
Now, I would choose to get my wife involved and ask her to give me some praise if she catches me making healthy choices.
“Good job baby!”
“Boy your looking trim today!”
“Nice choice, sweetie!”
But, my absolute favorite is the praise-without-words-kind-of-praise my wife gives.
A big hug
A deep knock-your-socks-off kind of kiss
A slap on my ‘HIND PARTS like I made a great play on the football field
Now that you know how to get your praise on, lets put it all together.
Putting it All Together:
1. Start with Mental Contrasting to choose your goal and find any obstacle in your way:
Identify an important goal (e.g. eating more fruits and vegetables, drinking more water, eating oatmeal for breakfast)
Imagine the most positive outcome of the goal (e.g. an awesome sense of wellness, more energy, better sleep . . . )
Identify the most critical obstacle towards reaching that goal (e.g. Craving for Chunky Funky Popcorn, dislike veggies, more time needed to grocery shop and prepare foods, family not supportive . . .)
2. Create an Implementation Intention (to implement your good intentions):
“IF X occurs, THEN I will Y.”
If I go out to eat, Then I will drink water (not pop)
IF I eat breakfast, THEN I will make oatmeal
Also, you can make an implementation intention to help you through the obstacles that occur (which you discovered during mental contrasting):
IF I crave Funky Chunky popcorn, THEN I will eat an apple
IF I dislike broccoli, THEN I will roast it and add pepper
3. Add on some positive reinforcement
“I’m awesome when I eat veg.”
“I love myeslf.”
Well done. You deserve a pat on the back for finishing this one.
Image Credit: Marines Participate in a Pie Eating Contest, circa 1941, USMC Archives on Flickr