“When you drop a pebble into a pool of water, the pebble starts a series of ripples that extend until they encompass the whole pool. This is exactly what will happen when you give your ideas a definite plan of action.”
Several years ago, a woman I’ll call “Jane” hired me as her weight loss coach. I spent hours asking questions and crafting a custom solution for her that included several books and videos about weight loss; a detailed healthy eating plan filled with recipes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; and a weekly exercise regimen with highly detailed descriptions of each and every workout.
She failed miserably.
No, I take that back—I failed her.
The Power of Habit author Charles Duhigg calls them “keystone habits”.
And they may just be the key to getting healthy and staying that way once and for all.
How Keystone Habits Work
The reason keystone habits are so powerful is because they can multiply and grow into additional positive behavior changes.
Here’s how Duhigg describes them in his book:
“When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why.”
It may not be completely clear why they work, but one thing’s for certain: form just one keystone habit and you will build major momentum that can lead to huge, lasting changes in your life.
So the question is, how do you build these habits?
How to Cultivate a Keystone Habit
Breaking habits requires establishing new behavioral patterns.
And to establish a new behavior pattern, you need to start small. I can’t stress the importance of this enough. If you try to suddenly overhaul all your eating habits and start going to the gym 5 days a week there’s a 99 percent chance you will fail.
Because cultivating and ingraining a new behavior takes time. And when you place too much pressure on your brain and your body and don’t allow yourself ample time to create a new routine, you will revert back to your old habits.
Here’s what to do instead.
Step 1: Commit
If you want to form a habit that sticks, start by making a commitment.
This may sound obvious, but in my experience most people go about it all wrong.
Psychologist Robert Cialdini states in his book Influence: The Power of Persuasion, “If people commit, orally or in writing, to an idea or goal, they are more likely to honor that commitment.”
And researchers Freedman and Fraser add: “It seems that once someone has agreed to any action, no matter how small, he tends to feel more involved than he did before.”
So here’s what you need to do. Make a tiny commitment right now (e.g., 2 minutes of exercise a day). Say it out loud: I commit to 2 minutes of exercise every day. Write it down too.
Step 2: Take Action
Once you’ve made your commitment, it’s time to take action.
Every day from here on out do your 2 minutes of exercise. You can find 2 minutes in your absolute busiest of days, so you have no excuses not to get it done.
The important part is commiting to just a small amount every day so you create a “habit loop.”
Once you start doing it for a week or two, you notice something awesome start to happen: you actually want to exercise more. The behavior becomes more automatic and the repetition leads you to work harder, suffer less, and dare I say … enjoy it.
That’s because once you create a habit your brain starts to crave the rewards it provides. Your body feels better. Your mind feels clearer. And you need more of that powerful endorphin rush.
As if that’s not incentive enough, habitual exercise also leads to you change other unhealthy behaviors. University of Rhode Island researcher James Prochaska says, “Exercise spills over … there’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.”
In other words, you start to eat less sugar and more vegetables, smoke less, and drink less booze—without even thinking about it.
But wait, there’s more! (Cue cheesy infomercial music). Check out this passage from the fascinating New York Times piece How Exercise Could Lead to a Better Brain:
“Scientists in just the past few months have discovered that exercise appears to build a brain that resists physical shrinkage and enhance cognitive flexibility. Exercise, the latest neuroscience suggests, does more to bolster thinking than thinking does.”
Put simply, forming the keystone habit of exercise will change your brain, which, in turn, will change your life.
Trust the Journey
Try the steps I outlined above with a new healthy habit you want to create. Make a commitment in writing, then do something small every day.
And then sit back and enjoy the ride. This part’s important though: do not focus on results—focus instead on building the routine.
Your goal should be to create the keystone habit—not to lose 20 pounds. We get too caught up on numbers and when we don’t hit our numbers we get discouraged and give up.
Weight loss will come. The first step, however, is training your brain to make exercise a habit.
Focus on the journey … not the final destination.
And you’ll quickly realize that once you create a keystone habit, the sky’s the limit. You’ll start doing making other healthy changes in your life automatically.
It worked for me personally, and it will work for you too if you make a small commitment and stick with it.
You will get in the best shape of your life.
And more importantly, you’ll stay that way. So go drop your pebble into the water today.
|Written on 1/19/2014 by Scott Christ. Scott Christ writes about research-backed methods that will help you get in the best physical and mental shape of your life on his website, The Healthy Eating Guide. Subscribe to his newsletter (it’s free) if you want to to stop thinking about making a change and start taking action to eat healthier, be happier, and create a more balanced, fulfilling life.|
Photo Credit: Ed Yourdon