Almost overnight, healthy eating became my joy, my defaults and a lifelong new identity. This is what an intrinsically enjoyable habit looks and feels like.
Okay, so what if you don’t like to run? Don’t. Choose a different activity that you do enjoy to get yourself moving.
What if all activity feels a little daunting because you’re out of shape? Start smaller. Choose something less strenuous that is enjoyable, like an evening stroll around the block. Don’t worry about how many calories it burns. Worry about starting a habit that you like.
The second part of your new strategy is cultivating awareness around your thoughts, actions and emotions. The buzzword for this is mindfulness.
The reason mindfulness is so important is that your current habits occur virtually automatically. Remember this is a defining characteristic of habits. You go through your day on autopilot, and before you know it, you’re in front of your computer munching on some chips you grabbed in the break room.
Mindfulness is a skill that allows you to become aware of your current mental state. It creates the pause necessary for you to reflect on your values before acting, giving you the mental flexibility you need to choose something new.
Think about how you feel when you get home from work. You’re probably tired and hungry, maybe not in the best mood after fighting traffic.
This morning, you planned on cooking a healthy meal when you got home, but now there’s a good chance that you don’t feel like it. This combination of fatigue, hunger and frustration is triggering you to want calorie-rich food that does not take a lot of effort. So that easy pizza in the freezer is pulling you much more strongly than the low-calorie fish and veggies in the fridge that require prep and cooking.
Being aware of these individual feelings, rather than simply reacting to them or trying to resist them, is a powerful skill because once you do it, you can then ask yourself if those feelings are worth acting on or if it’s worth it to do the healthier thing anyway, even if it’s a little harder today.
And here’s the thing: even if in this instance you decide that you really are too tired to cook, a pizza really is the best option, that awareness can help you recognize that there’s actually something you can do to prevent this situation in the future.
For instance, you could grab a handful of nuts before leaving the office to avoid compounding your fatigue with hunger.
Or maybe the dinner you chose to cook was too ambitious or not exciting enough, and you need to choose a different meal to jump start your new cooking habit.
New habits will almost always feel like more work the first few times you do them. But if they’re intrinsically rewarding, eventually it will start to feel like the easiest option. Mindfulness is what will help you get there.
This is why I recommend developing a regular mindful practice to develop this skill. Even if it is just a simple breathing exercise. Practicing mindfulness when it’s easy, when you are not triggered, makes it much more likely you’ll succeed in the more difficult situations you’ll face in your life.
The third part of your new strategy might be the most important. It is developing a growth mindset.
“Growth mindset” is a term coined by psychologist Carol Dweck to describe the belief that you can overcome obstacles of perseverance and develop your skills with effort.
A growth mindset stands in contrast to a fixed mindset, which is the belief that your talents and traits are set at birth and you can’t really change much with effort.
In my experience, health is one of the most difficult areas of life to develop a growth mindset. Because when diet after diet leaves you heavier and less healthy, it’s easy to start believing that the problem is you.
You start to develop a personal narrative about how you are just not a fitness person or you just love comfort food too much.
When you start to believe stories like this about yourself, it becomes very difficult to make meaningful change. This is the trap of the fixed mindset.
Fortunately, a growth mindset is something you can develop. It involves understanding that all humans are capable of learning and developing their skills. And you are no exception.
You can learn to cook. You can learn to like food you hated as a kid. You can become an active person even if you hate the gym. And you can prioritize your own self-care even if you work long hours or have a family – or both.
Developing a growth mindset also requires understanding that missteps are part of the learning process. Not only do setbacks not define you, they are opportunities to grow and learn more about how you and the world work – both individually and together.
If a baby falls down when learning to walk, is he a failure? Of course not.
Rather than focusing on how things didn’t work out for you or what’s impossible to change, someone with a growth mindset always remains focused on what is workable. They keep their attention on their actions and the things they can control to get a different outcome next time.
To cultivate this mindset in yourself, I love Russ Harris’s suggestion to ask yourself three questions: What worked? What didn’t work? And what can I do differently next time?