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Dive 43: How to sustain Good Habits
Hey, it’s Alvin!
When I was a kid and then a teen, I had swimming lessons every week. Because of that, I had a swimmer’s body. My muscles weren’t that toned. I didn’t do any serious weight training. But, at least, I could see some abs.
When I started working full time as a software developer in my mid-20s, I ballooned. I got a muffin top, and my cheeks got puffy.
I was fat.
This was also when, if you asked me to stop eating sweets entirely, I would’ve said, “not gonna happen.” But there came a time when I wasn’t happy with my health and appearance because I remember back when I was more athletic. I remember when I felt stronger, healthier, and better about myself. So, I decided to find ways to shave off the pounds.
Now, don’t take what I’m about to say as gospel. In fact, please don’t ever take anything I say in absolutes. Consult your trusted health care provider for medical and nutritional advice.
But, if you want to live a healthier life, I’ll share with you one way I did that. If you feel it’s impossible to lose weight or eat healthier, but you’re still willing to try, keep reading. I’ll show you a different way to think about your relationship with food—one that helped flatten my cheeks and belly. And I’ll share with you a way to form a new habit to replace an old one.
The Habit Hill GAME
Human beings are creatures of habit. So, it’s not easy to just get rid of a bad habit. The next best thing you can do is to replace a bad habit with a healthier one. But whenever you start replacing a habit, you’ll face what I call the Habit Hill.
When you start a new habit, you start at the bottom-left side of the hill. Your goal is to get to the other side and the only way is to go over this hill that towers over you. The ONLY challenge you have is to stop yourself from rolling back down to the starting point.
But I have good news for you.
We can break down this hill into 4 phases, where each phase will give you one EXTRA way to overcome that challenge: Goal setting, Accepting the challenge, Maintaining your win streak, and Emergence (GAME).
Phase 1: Goal setting
The first phase IS the starting point. From here, you only have one key tool to get you moving:
You NEED a clear, detailed, Positive Vision of what you wish to achieve.
Some might call this a goal, or a motivator.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s attainable, but you need to be able to visualize this in your mind every day.
Write it down and pin it somewhere, so you can see it every day if it helps you.
Plan out what you need to do regularly to achieve your vision. These are your new habits.
Phase 2: Acceptance
You started up the hill, you’re committed to it, but you’re still far from the top.
If your Positive Vision seems too far away, then focus on what you need to accomplish that day.
Every subsequent day may feel more challenging. Accept the challenge.
Focus on putting one foot in front of the other.
Every day you commit to your healthier habit is a win.
And your focus should now be on stringing together consecutive wins because every win is now one more source of motivation.
Phase 3: Maintaining your win streak
You’re near the top of the hill. It’s been weeks or months since you began this journey. You have a routine.
Now, not only do you have individual wins to celebrate, but you also have win streaks.
You have one more source of motivation: don’t break your win streak.
Phase 4: Emergence
You’re over the hill. Your healthier habit is now the norm.
You might not have achieved your goal yet. But you now have established habits that are moving you in that direction, and they’re much easier to sustain than ever before.
You might still indulge in a prior habit from time-to-time, but you don’t crave it.
Here are a couple of examples of how I worked through the Habit Hill to change my eating habits.
What do you eat?
Around the time I started thinking more about my health, a friend of mine was following a keto diet. Personally, I never practiced keto. But what stuck with me was when my friend recounted his experience with it. He said, “it was really hard at first. I craved sugary foods. And I’d wake up in the middle of the night sweating. But after a few weeks, I was sleeping better, and the cravings went away.”
This is important because it helps set expectations. Change is never easy. It’s not going to happen overnight. When I started cutting soda, desserts, and other processed sweets from my diet, it was hard. And I expected it to be hard and to take time. I accepted the challenge.
What motivated me was that I wanted to see my abs again. To achieve that goal, I needed to exercise regularly. I also had to reduce excess processed carbohydrates from my diet. Every day I exercised and every day I refused to indulge in sweets was a win.
Because of my regular exercise routine, I also know how much effort it is to lose weight that way. I realized it’s very easy to slip back into old, bad habits. It’s a comfort zone. So, every time I felt tempted to eat donuts or drink soda, I’d think to myself, “I’ve been working out super hard and building up my willpower to stay away from this junk. If I give in now, I’ll set myself back weeks.”
I wanted to keep my win streak going.
It just feels so good to see that win streak go up as high as it can, especially knowing how hard it was to maintain.
I haven’t had soda in months, I almost never eat chocolate anymore, and I only have a slice of cake if it’s someone’s birthday.
What’s important is that I don’t crave those foods anymore, having emerged on the other side of the hill.
Remember: at the beginning, I thought I couldn’t live without those foods. Now, I wouldn’t miss desserts if they disappeared from the world tomorrow.
When do you eat?
Around the same time my friend introduced me to keto, I also started hearing about intermittent fasting (IF). While a diet like keto is about watching what you eat, fasting is about when you eat. I tried fasting for 16-hours on Saturdays and Sundays because it was an easy way to try it out.
The idea is that there’s only so much food you can eat within a smaller (8-hour) window. Of course, I don’t take the opportunity to gorge. I only eat enough to feel satisfied. Again, I expected it to be hard and accepted the challenge.
My goal was the same: I wanted to lose some belly fat. This is just an additional habit I piled on.
Every weekend I committed to the fast was a win. So, every time I avoided eating outside the 8-hour window was a win.
I used to open my kitchen cupboard at 10pm to grab cookies with a bedtime of 11 to midnight. But some health recommendations suggest you shouldn’t eat within 3 hours of going to bed. Since I started IF, and given I often eat lunch from noon to 1pm, the latest I should eat is 9pm, anyway.
So, when I first started IF, I’d open that cupboard door at 10pm. But then, I’d remind myself, “I can’t let myself do this.” With my motivation to burn fat, I was up to the challenge. I had an appetite for something sweet, but I decided to just try going to bed, anyway.
I had the best night’s sleep in a long time. I realized that whenever I ate within 3 hours of bedtime, I’d struggle to get to sleep. And when I did, I’d have nightmares throughout the night.
So, being able to sleep better gave me more motivation to stick to my new habits.
Like before, my motivations allowed me to string together a win streak, as I fasted several consecutive weekends.
Now, having emerged on the other side of the hill, it’s just a regular part of my life.
If you’re looking to start and sustain good habits, give this a try. GAME the Habit Hill.
Goal: set a goal.
Accept the challenge, and look for wins.
Maintain a win streak.
Emerge on the other side, free from cravings.
BONUS: Our relationship with food
Intermittent fasting taught me a few things about our relationship to food. Understanding this relationship will help you break free of poor eating habits:
Most people can’t distinguish between hunger and appetite.
Fasting helped me understand how I feel when I’m actually hungry. I think there are too many people in modern society who have such ready access to food that they no longer recognize what genuine hunger feels like. So, it’s easy to mistake hunger (the physical need for food) for appetite (the desire for food).
Intermittent fasting helped me re-establish what a hunger pang feels like, as well as my energy level and mood. So, on nights when I felt tempted to eat cookies, I recognized I wasn’t actually hungry. I just wanted something sweet. Why? I reasoned that because it’s near my bedtime, I’m probably just tired, in which case, I should just go to bed.
In other words, fasting can help you develop self-awareness, so you don’t confuse hunger for something else, like tiredness, stress, and boredom. It’s another way to avoid eating when you don’t need to.
Eating made me hungrier.
I know this isn’t true for everybody, but as long as I didn’t “break my fast” after waking up in the morning, I wouldn’t feel hungry. Would I have more energy throughout the day if I did? Maybe a bit more, but I could still work out pretty intensely for me.
But as soon as I ate a little food, I’d feel hungry until I had enough to feel sated.
Hunger makes food tastier.
This is something I’ve heard from other people who practice fasting, too. But imagine the blandest, most boring food you’ve ever eaten. When you’re hungry, that tastes AWESOME.
This is important because I’ve come across people who seem to hate whole foods. They hate fruits, vegetables and meats unless they’re drenched in 3000-calorie sauces chock full of processed sugar, salt, fat, and artificial flavours. It’s like they have to make their food “interesting”.
In my experience, though, hunger makes food taste so good, I could eat fruits and veggies raw. And I don’t need much more than a bit of salt and pepper on my meat. Not only is this a practical way to limit your intake of processed carbs, but it also limits your intake of artificial chemicals and preservatives.
I hope you enjoyed this dive Below the Surface of replacing bad habits and our relationship with food. Reply to email@example.com if you have questions or comments. Are you ready to take on the Habit Hill? I’d love to hear from you.
Consider sharing this post with someone who’s looking to build good habits.
Thank you for reading. Climb that hill. And I’ll see you in the next one.