When I first made the decision to stop dieting and focus on eating for health and happiness, more changed than just my body. As I explored new foods and new habits I met an entirely new group of people.
Instead of talking about calories, carbs and cardio, these people spoke about balance, acceptance and a “healthy lifestyle.”
I hated it.
I agreed with these principles in theory––of course you should balance your nutrition; of course you shouldn’t think worse of yourself because of the shape of your body; of course health is a lifestyle and not a short-term goal––but there were no concrete instructions for actually making change.
It felt like a fluffy echo chamber, all philosophy and no action. Maybe there’d be some laughable tips like “eat everything in moderation” (what does that even mean?) or “get plenty of sleep” (pffffff, I wish).
But I wanted to know how to stop when I’d eaten enough and how to pry my eyes away from my computer screen so I could actually get ready for bed.
One of the nice things about the dieting world (putting the pure evil thing aside for a second) is the specific, actionable advice you’re given.
“Eat no more than 50 grams of carbs a day” is a horrible recommendation, but at least I knew how to do it. Count the carbs in your food, add it up, and stop at 50. Easy.
Compare that to “you need to make lifestyle changes.” Where do you even start?
This is one of the main reasons I started Summer Tomato, to create a resource for people who were ready to embrace a more enlightened approach to health and weight loss with strategies that actually work.
I wanted results, not just a feel good pow wow. Because while the first step to success is having the right mindset, if you don’t have a concrete plan of action nothing will ever change.
In the dieting world the concrete actions typically surround specific micro- and macronutrients (e.g. protein, carbs, calcium) and calories. You have numbers to work with, so success is unambiguous. Yes these regimens require willpower, but as long as you have the strength the system works.
What I learned from both personal experience and studying the psychology of behavior change is that for long-term results the concrete actions you must focus on are NOT specific numbers, but specific recurring behaviors. Habits.
Changing habits feels harder than altering the ratios of macronutrients that you eat, because it is more nuanced and requires more thinking and cognitive processing. But in the long-run it is actually less difficult, since once the habits are developed they require hardly any extra effort.
Changing habits is also the only thing that really works. So there’s that.
Focusing on behaviors instead of numbers is by far the best strategy. Yet at the same time, it is easier to get stuck along the way. When this happens, take a page from the dieter’s playbook and get more specific.
Ask yourself things like:
- What exactly is the desired outcome of the behavior I’m trying to change? Is there another way to achieve it?
- When will I be able to take this action? What day? What time? Is there a better time?
- Where do I need to be for this behavior to happen? Could I do it somewhere else? How will I get there?
- What will I need to do this behavior? Is there a preceding behavior that I should focus on first?
- What might stop me from doing this action? What can I do to eliminate this barrier?
The more specific you can be, the easier the action will be for you. The easier it is, the more likely you’ll do it. The more likely you’ll do it, the more likely you’ll do it again.
All habits are different, so this process needs to be repeated for each behavior you want to change. But getting specific about making the change can get you out of excuse mode and into action mode.
Have you been stuck trying to make a vague “lifestyle change”?
Originally published Feb 4, 2015.