The Habit Loop: Why Forcing Yourself Into Shape Will Not Form Better Habits.
If you understand how the habit loop works, you’ll never force yourself into shape, ever again:
- No more making yourself do punishing workouts
- No more scolding yourself for eating that ice-cream scoop
- No more judging your body in the mirror and devising strategies to melt that
Instead, you’ll have a deep understanding that doing things you hate to achieve something you want does NOT habits wire no matter how many times you repeat the punishing routine.
We would be thinking straighter about this if living healthy was a long-term rather than a short-term goal.
Most people tie healthy behaviors to weight loss. The problem with this is not weight loss itself but that the whole endeavor is a short-term, rather than a long-term goal. And when the goal is short-term, pushing and forcing yourself to do things you’d rather not do (like the dubious organic juice cleanse) sounds far more appetizing than if you had to do those things for a decade or more.
- Sure some people do exercise because exercise is important regardless of weight loss but many people only get in gear in order to achieve a weight loss goal.
- Same with eating. Eating better becomes part of a weight loss goal. Sure sometimes people do it for more energy or general health but the weight loss goal is there and usually not in a good way.
As I said, there’s nothing wrong with weight loss! The problem is not weight loss itself, it’s seeing living healthy as a short-term goal.
This short-term mentality is what gives spur to all sorts of evil from eating disorders to perpetually trying and never getting there.
- So you start out chasing that goal, being ready to do anything to get there, and then once you get there, then what? Is it really a surprise that many people gain the weight back? (To avoid oversimplifying, let me clarify this is one of the major factors but not the only one. There are others too, like resting metabolic rate and appetite.)
- Some people will not get “there” in the first place. So when you jump from not exercising to going to the gym for say 4 hours a week because that’s how often you should exercise, is it really a surprise many people give their resolutions up two months in?
- Some people will never get started in the first place. When you have to do all those terrible things like forcing yourself into shape, why do that to yourself in the first place?
When the goal is short-term, people are willing to do anything, no matter how unappetizing it sounds to make it happen. Sure you can suffer for a week or a month. But can you suffer for the next 10 years? 30 years?
I didn’t think so.
So is it really a surprise that living healthy is portrayed as something that sucks, something that you need immense discipline to become successful at? That exercise becomes punishing and something you need to reward yourself (usually with food) afterwards?
And it all happens because, understandably, people don’t know about the habit loop. Mainstream culture is still about “go big or go home,” “sweat is fat crying,” and little about – “Hey, you want to be doing these things for the rest of your life. Do make decisions accordingly and ONLY pick things that make you happy! Because otherwise the habit loop won’t work in your favor!”
(Obesity doctor Yoni Freedhoff is actually encouraging happiness first. I strongly recommend you check out his book The Diet Fix.)
The Old-fashioned Way Of Living Healthier: The Suffering Mindset.
As covered in how many days to form a habit, a habit is a subconscious behavior that occurs in response to an external trigger (1). So you might subconsciously turn on the kettle in response to finishing your breakfast.
They develop through repetition of the ‘habit loop’ (explained below) and they give you a game-changing power: being able to do “good” behaviors (think regular exercise, eating an apple a day, etc.) without needing discipline to make it happen.
Many people think that if they just force themselves enough to do the “right” things, then the habit is meant to be wired at some point. This is the Suffering Mindset that results in either martyrs or heroes:
- You’ll either persevere through pain and fire and reach the other side a hero, or
- You’ll “die trying” and give up at some point after having endured a lot of pain and suffering – a martyr.
Now all of us want to be heroes; only the problem is that in order to become a hero you have to endure something painful and difficult. You don’t get to become a hero for achieving something easy or getting something without pain.
This approach does actually work for a small segment of people just like it also works for short-term goals. But for most people, and for long-term goals, it backfires and they become martyrs.
But the thing is you don’t have to become a hero to create new habits. You don’t have to go through pain and suffering to build new healthy habits. The process of becoming a hero is actually counterproductive for creating habits.
In other words, the more you focus on pushing yourself, the more you make yourself do things that you feel you should do but actually hate doing, the more your new, good habits are not getting wired. I’ll explain why this happens right below in the habit loop.
But for now, I want you to set discipline aside, because with habits, discipline is more likely to be a distraction than actually something helpful.
- First, you don’t need to use discipline when a behavior has achieved habit-status. By that time, it’s already well ingrained and it’s second nature for you.
- Second, using discipline to force yourself to follow through does help wire habits that you need for the long-term. And the healthy habits we’re trying to create here like better eating and exercise are the types of habits you don’t just need for a month or two but for years and decades to come.
This comes with a big change of strategy: Instead of trying to force yourself to become more disciplined, learn how habits work and focus your attention on creating new habits instead.
Another way to see this is that the longer you spend obsessing over your lack of discipline, the longer you won’t be paying attention to what truly matters – habits. Here’s where the Habit Loop comes in and why it’s so important to understand how it works.
Creating New Habits For Beginners: The Habit Loop.
Ok, so if you can’t rely on discipline and if discipline is not what habits make, and if forcing yourself is not an option, then how can you create new habits?
Let’s start by understanding the basics of how habits are formed and why.
Trigger/Cue – First, you’re faced with a trigger. The trigger might be a specific a location, time of day, preceding action etc. For example, getting out of the shower may act as a trigger.
Response/Routine – You then respond to the trigger by carrying out a behavior. This is the actual habit. Using the example above, you may respond to getting out of the shower by brushing your teeth.
Reward – This is the benefit you get from the outcome of your response. Without a reward, your brain has NO incentive to wire that habit so the habit is not getting wired. It might be an intrinsic reward (e.g., peace of mind that cleaning your teeth will protect them from falling out the next time you bite into an apple), or extrinsic (e.g., looking great or earning money for every pound you lose).
Initially, your response to the trigger requires a lot of headspace, but as you repeatedly face the same trigger, respond in the same way, and gain the same reward over and over again, the loop gets reinforced and you create a new habit (2).
If you think about it logically, this all makes a lot of sense as it means a behavior you carry out frequently requires less effort to do and the whole process becomes much more efficient. If it didn’t, your whole life would be spent deliberating over things that you automatically do as second nature:
- When to clean your teeth.
- What gear to change into to as you pull away from the traffic lights.
- And in what order you put your clothes on.
Thanks to habits, you do those things without thinking.
It’s not just day to day tasks that become habits though, and you can develop habits geared towards virtually any area of your lifestyle.
For example, let’s say you want to create a new habit of getting better at push ups:
- Trigger: Your trigger might be getting up from your office chair
- Response: You respond to the trigger by doing 10 push ups
- Reward: The reward you get is knowing it will benefit your health and contribute to strength gains
Another example of not quite such a healthful habit could be buying a cookie from the vending machine during an afternoon work break.
- Trigger: The trigger is the time of the day.
- Response: Your response is making a beeline for the vending machine.
- Reward: The reward is the chocolaty goodness of the cookie.
So creating new habits is simple, right? All you have to do is repeat the loop until it becomes autonomous?
Well, sort of. Repetition alone is not enough to guarantee habit formation. Why?
Because you need to understand rewards – the third part of the habit loop. You need a reward to give your brain an incentive to get busy wiring a habit. Without a reward the habit won’t be wired no matter how many times you repeat it.
The Problem With The Suffering Mindset: It Acts As A Negative Reward.
Say you sign up for yoga classes. You feel good with yourself for making it happen. However, when you first attend you just can’t stop thinking how unfit you are; that everyone else is doing the poses better than you; that they’re probably watching you and laughing on the inside.
The class ends and you feel relief!
The class itself in this example was torturing, not necessarily because exercise was that bad, but because your mind was judging you non-stop. Now will it really be a surprise when you don’t show up again?
What has happened in your brain?
Did you give your brain the incentive to wire the habit of going to yoga class regularly?
No – you suffered through the class so the message your brain has received is to wire any habit OTHER than going to class so you never have to face that torture again. The reward is in avoiding the torture not in actually going to class.
And that is why forcing yourself to do what you think you should do doesn’t work. Anything that helps you avoid the class will now seem more appealing – whether than is working late, watching TV, doing housework, anything.
Yet whipping yourself into shape does work for some people…
It’s true – a (small) percentage of people who force themselves to do things they hate will establish good habits out of this process.
So does this seem contradictory to what we were just saying before? It does if you only understand the Habit Loop superficially.
Example: Some people like challenges, others don’t. If you’re the type of person who enjoys a good challenge, even when it gets hard, then guess what whipping yourself into shape will do for you?
It’ll reward you enough that your brain has a good incentive to get on with habit-wiring!
But if you’re the type of person who hears of the word challenge and turns the other way, then what is a 30- or 60-day challenge going to do for you?
Give you the incentive to wire any other possible habit in the face of the earth, so that you stop following that stupid challenge!
As you see, rewards are very individual and they depend on your personality. There is no one-size-fits-all with healthy living. It’s part of the reason some people need 20 days while others need 8 months to wire the same habit. It’s why if you choose a habit that’s not a match to your personality you may never wire the habit and become a martyr instead, no matter how many times you’ve repeated the behavior.
What game are you playing: The long-term or the short-term one?
Forcing yourself to do things you don’t want to do will usually result in martyrs not heroes. However, if you’re the type of person who enjoys a challenge then you most likely know this already. If you, on the other hand, hate every fiber of your being when, say, exercising, then you know that too.
Many people will be somewhere in the gray area between those extremes. The rule of thumb is if you want the right behaviors to become automatic, you got to give your brain rewards, you got to use the Habit Loop to your advantage:
- Go easier and lean towards kindness more than you lean towards judgment; catch the Suffering Mindset when it condescendingly judges you that “you didn’t do enough exercise.” Instead, say to yourself: “You showed up! Congrats!” Praising yourself for showing up wires habits, while judging yourself incentivizes you not to exercise!
- Choose things you enjoy more than things that feel uncomfortable for you; Don’t choose HIIT workouts just because of the fast results – go with walking if that rings your bells more. Do choose HIIT though if you enjoy getting your workout done in 20 minutes or less though and prefer that to being on the treadmill for an hour.
- See healthy living as a long-term, rather than a short-term goal – heck, when exactly you lose those 10 pounds and whether you lose them in the next 2 months or in the next 2 years will make absolutely NO difference when you’re 92 and still exercising like a rockstar.
(To clarify, I’m not advocating against short-term goals. Short-term goals are fine if they’re done in the context of long-term goals. They’re like goal posts that you move you forward step-by-step. It’s when you only focus on short-term goals that the Pandora’s box may open.)
But what if you hate anything healthy living related? As long as you decide that living healthier is important to you, there are ways to move towards this direction while using the habit loop in your favor. Check out how Cathy did it for example – at age 57.
Your homework: Catch the Suffering Mindset when it creeps up! What is it telling you? What does it want you to do? How are you going to reframe your thoughts to align them with the habit loop? Leave a comment below.