I gave a talk called “Becoming a Wellness Detective,” on Monday at the Whole Foods Market in Centerville. The idea behind the lecture was to help people figure out why they do what they do, replace bad habits with good ones, and provide a sustainable framework for replicating the process.
The impetus behind me focusing so much on habits was unquestionably Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit,” in which he describes something he calls the habit loop: the cue (the thing, person, place, smell, or memory that prompts us to want to do something); the ritual (the action we take, like eating something we know we shouldn’t or engaging in a behavior that will have negative consequences); and the reward (what emotion or sense of satisfaction we get out of the ritual).
Duhigg’s work radically altered the way I coach my clients to achieve their fitness goals precisely because he gave me an easily digestible framework that clients could learn and replicate on their own. The investigative part of the process—hence the name, “Wellness Detective”—is figuring out the individual pieces of the habit loop. Figuring out the reward for our behaviors is often the most difficult part and can take some trial and error.
I got into fitness to support a fledgling (read: unsuccessful) screenwriting career, and when I lived in Los Angeles I was especially depressed about my professional prospects. My habit loop consisted of training early morning clients, going to McDonald’s and buying multiple breakfast sandwiches, then sitting in my car and listening to Jim Rome’s show.
The cue was the time of day and finishing at the gym early.
The ritual was eating the sandwiches and listening to brotastic sports radio.
And the reward—ah, here’s where things get interesting.
You might think the reward was eating the salty and fatty breakfast sandwich. But really the reward for me was the distraction from my crumbling writing prospects.
Now that I have healthier mindset about my place in the world, early morning clients don’t represent the same health obstacle to me. The cue stays the same (early morning), but instead of visiting a fast food restaurant I drink a healthy shake and then work out (the new ritual). The reward is that I continue to get stronger even as I approach 40—and I still get a little bit of a distraction from professional and personal stress.
The important thing about my personal example is that I had to really identify the reward and what was going on with me before I could hope to change the habit. I needed to understand that I was feeling a little depressed about my life, and I only compounded that by treating my body like a veritable trash compactor.
At Whole Foods on Monday someone in the audience asked a question about what happens when we are able to successfully change habits, maybe even for several months, but then we slip back into our old ways. Sometimes this slippage can be prompted by life events or just general fatigue from maintaining our new habits.
This is where mindset matters. If changing habits is the beta version of developing a healthy lifestyle, then the latest software release is full integration of healthy actions (nutrition, fitness, wellness) into our everyday lives. What’s the difference between working on habits and having a healthy mindset?
I would argue that habit transformation or formation necessarily involves purposeful action. For a while I had to actively tell myself not to eat fast food. Now it doesn’t occur to me. The bridge was knowledge: even though I was a so-called “fitness professional,” I never really bothered to think or care about nutrition. Once I learned how thoroughly interrelated what we eat is to how we feel, think, and perform, putting healthier things into my body became easier. And now I’ve nearly automated things like eating vegetables at every meal.
Think about where you are on the continuum of healthy living. If you’re just starting out, I think it’s a great idea to start with Duhigg’s “habit loop” framework.
But if you’re already consciously working on your habits, you might benefit from seeking out and internalizing new information. Choose one area of your lifestyle (fitness, wellness, nutrition) and use your Google machine to find the latest. You might just find that reading one fact about the power of strength training (or sleep or vegetables or healthy fats) changes your life.