“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit” – Aristotle
I’ve seen and heard about this book from various sources over the last year or so and just now got my hands on it. Being someone who works with others to make lifestyle changes, I’ve been excited about the impact it might make on my perspective and how I work with people. I can see why it’s been on the New York Times Bestseller list. Duhigg’s style in presenting a combination of hypothetical thought and scientific research is wonderful for all sorts of minds ranging from the creative to the data driven. Here are a few of my takeaways so far for you to think about:
40% of the actions we take each day are habits.
This means they didn’t actually require a conscious decision. This is amazing if you think about it! Nearly half of your day is essentially on autopilot! Better yet, our brains are essentially trying to create a habit out of every single thing we do. Why? Habit circuits in our brains require less brain activity. Like nearly everything else physiological, our brain is designed to make things as easy as possible.
The neuronal wiring of a habit never disappears once it is created.
This is either our greatest strength or most glaring flaw. The great part, we never forget how to drive home from work, even if we go on vacation for a month. The flaw, our brain doesn’t distinguish between good or bad habits. So if your habit on the drive home from work is to stop off for a tub of ice cream, that too returns after that month long vacation. We can override this habit by creating a stronger, more consistent habit, but that takes quite a bit of mental energy to establish and overcome.
The Habit Loop
Our habits are born through this idea that a cue, such as hearing our phone ding or seeing it light up with a text message, leads to a routine, us attending to the message, and ending with a reward, the excitement of a message (anticipated or novel) or the distraction from whatever we are doing. The habit being born isn’t the powerful part however. It isn’t instantly something that is automatic. Some habits, if the reward is consistent enough, create a craving in the brain that turns this into a powerful loop. You can actually see this in brain scans where the habit has been reliable enough to cause the brain to anticipate the reward. Our brain and body actually react to the cue as if it were the reward. This craving aspect is what drives the loop to be automatic. So now, after you’ve received several messages that brought you excitement, you automatically want to reach immediately for your phone every time you receive a notification. Now that this loop is really cranking it takes an immense amount of brain power to slow down. What if you end up in a big lunch meeting with a potential client and now your phone lights up? Of course it’s inappropriate in that setting, but you are already hooked. Even if you don’t give in, your attention is significantly divided and you’re spending much of your brain power on how to not reach for your phone, instead of closing the deal with a new client. That brain power is also willpower which may come to bite you later in the day. Your willpower is finite. So if you're spending large chunks of it throughout the day resisting urges from other habits, you will be weaker come nighttime. Hence, food cravings being the hardest to resist late at night.
Why do some exercise habit attempts succeed while others fail?
Exercising, we can all agree, is a good habit. Now why is it that some exercise habits stick and others fizzle out. In The Power of Habit, Duhigg cites a research study that claims people who continue exercising are the ones who “feel good” after exercising because of the endorphins produced by the exercise (“runner’s high”) and those who felt a sense of accomplishment from completing their workouts. This, among other reasons, is where having an exercise professional is paramount for creating exercise as an automatic habit. Many people who work out on their own or in classes never manage to work hard enough to reach the feel good “runner’s high”. More so, many people do not know how to or have the desire to track their workouts in a manner that shows their accomplishments and progress relative to their goal. Coincidentally enough, if you are tracking your workouts and progress appropriately, you would have the information you need to push your body into the endorphin rush stage consistently time after time. In this case, you get the best of both worlds! This is why we keep records the way we do in my practice. It drives people! Does anybody know the hottest trend in exercise right now? Here are some hints – Fitbit, Apple Watch, Garmin, Polar, Nike Fuelband, etc… Yes, fitness tracking devices. The forerunners in creating and selling these products knew this information undoubtedly. If you’ve been struggling to make exercise a habit, I hope this sheds some light onto your situation. If you really want to move your exercise habits in the right direction, find a professional to help you make the change. Accountability, safety, efficiency, and a life changing new habit are all you have to gain.
What is your experience?
What are your tricks to making something a habit or getting rid of a bad one?
What habits are you struggling to set or get rid of?
What diet plan is best? What do you think of the ____ diet? What kind of diet do you eat? This is probably the most common question I get before people actually work with me. Little do most people know how loaded these questions really are. Have you ever counted the number of diet books in a Barnes and Noble? I would roughly guess around 200 and that’s just the most popular sellers. Without a doubt, each one of those books has numerous first-hand accounts about how that diet changed their life. Accounts from people who have tried every other diet out there and this one was the only one that worked. Every. Single. One. How can that be possible? I don’t know if this is a product of the information age or if it has always been like this, but we want everything straight. No grey area. No option. We want true or false. Right or wrong. Unfortunately, life just isn’t that way. Neither is nutrition.
The truth is that different foods, in different amounts, and at different times are right for different people. In fact this goes for exercise and to some extent lifestyle habits as well. Why is this so hard for all of us to admit? I think partly because we inherently think if something works for us, then it should work for others as well. Think critically about it though. Even if you know very little about nutrition, would you assume that a marathon runner needs the same diet as a business executive? Of course not. Different vehicles need different types of fuel. Now forget about the surface for a second. Assume two people have the same job, height, weight, body fat percentage, and daily demands. Two people who look the same on the outside, are biochemically diverse. We have different genetic makeups, hormone patterns, blood types, nutritional stores, and neurotransmitter levels among countless other internal components. Although we cannot see it, we know it’s true. How in the world then, can there be just one perfect diet?!
This is why I practice functional nutrition. I've found that some of the most commonly accepted “healthy foods” are not right for certain people at certain points in their life. I've seen one person in particular who found through functional nutrition that almonds, eggs, apples, broccoli, honey, and olive oil among other things, were not healthy foods for him. Most of those are generally accepted as healthy foods wouldn't you agree? Not for him, at least not at that point in his life. Those foods actually did more bad for him than good. Functional nutrition isn’t a specific diet. It’s a YOU diet.
Now, I will say that there are many overlaps in what is good for different people just as there are great parts of most any fad diet. However, we are dynamic creatures. Even within one person, different foods, amounts, and timing are ideal at different points in your life. Even at just 26 years of age currently, my diet is and has to be different than it was 10 years ago.
To answer the first question about which diet is best, here is my answer:
You have to run lab tests to find out. You have to know what your hormone pathways look like, how your liver is functioning, and how your digestive system is functioning. You have to know your neurotransmitter levels are and if you have any pathogens. To create the perfect diet, you have to find out what foods your body is sensitive/intolerant/allergic to and if you have any nutrient deficiencies.
If you’re interested in finding the YOU diet, contact me about these. Here is another little bit for you though. Adherence is paramount. The best diet is useless if it’s not one that you can execute. The best diet is one you can stick to and adapt to for the rest of your life.