Note: This post is the first in a three-part series on habit change
I used to binge on chocolate. After meals, I would sit in front of my computer and down a bag of Hershey’s kisses, M&Ms, or some other kind of super-sugary chocolate. I can’t count the number of times I tried to stop doing this. I tried not buying it but then would eat whatever other kind of gross candy my kids had. I would quit for a few days and then go right back. Every time I failed, I felt so awful that bingeing on chocolate was the only thing that would make me feel better.
I finally figured out that trying “not to” wasn’t working, so I decided to start making small changes instead. Like taking a few pieces out of the bag instead of eating out of it and eating somewhere other than in front of my computer.
I always made changes that were easy for me to make. For example, it was easier for me to move my binge location than it was stop bingeing altogether. So I ate outside on my porch instead of in front of my computer, completely zoned out. Once I wasn’t in front of my computer, I realized how sick it made me feel to eat so much chocolate. So I was able to decrease the amount of chocolate I ate much more easily.
One change built on the next, and I finally changed my habit into eating a few pieces of dark chocolate after my meals. I never eliminated the habit — I just changed it to a healthier one.
There are many reasons that changing a habit is more effective than just trying quit doing it. Here are three.
Changing habits creates no resistance. Resistance is the enemy of change. Trying to change something and resisting it at the same time means you will never change it. Dieting is 100% resistance — it’s essentially forcing yourself not to do things you’ve trained yourself to do. This creates intense resistance and isn’t sustainable, so you fail. Failing over and over again makes you more likely to keep dieting, so you keep on failing.
In addition, the only way to overcome resistance is to use willpower. This isn’t good, because willpower is a limited resource — so when you run out of it, as you inevitably will, you fail. You don’t have to use willpower to change your habits. Instead you make small, subtle modifications over time and figure out what works. If one change doesn’t work, you move on to the next one. You experiment and learn rather than try and fail.
Changing habits gives you momentum. Changing your habits involves making small changes over time, which is obviously easier than trying to eliminate habits altogether (like when you diet). Successfully making one small change after another makes you feel like you’re making progress, so you’re more likely to continue and gain momentum.
When you get momentum and continue making changes, you start getting exponential results. That’s because each change you successfully make leads to more changes. And making multiple changes compounds your results — you make one change, then you make more and more, and the changes start building on one another.
Contrast this with trying to completely quit doing things and failing over and over. You never make progress and stay stuck in the same place. Sometimes for years — like I did.
Changing habits focuses you on the long term. Having a long-term mindset is essential for making changes that last. Thinking in the short term means you’re trying to go straight from A to Z, which prevents you from making meaningful changes. In fact, you don’t make changes at all — all you see is your goal and you don’t care how you achieve it. And once you do achieve it, your results don’t last, because you haven’t changed your habits.
Having a short-term goal also means you’re probably focused on the wrong thing, so you never get to the source of the problem. This is exactly what happens when you diet. The sole purpose of dieting is to lose weight. Even if you lose it, you haven’t figured out what why it’s there in the first place — from binge eating, eating too much, or eating the wrong foods. You never get to the source, so the weight keeps coming back. When you focus on a symptom of a problem rather than the problem itself, you never make progress.
Finally, shifting from a short-term mindset to a long-term mindset helps you see your actions differently, which makes it easier to change them. For example, bingeing on chocolate doesn’t just make you gain weight, it’s also incredibly unhealthy. Seeing this as an unhealthy habit rather than one that just makes you fat shifts your intention. You develop a desire to make changes that make you healthy rather than force yourself to stop doing things so you can be thin. The changes you make with a long-term mindset become acts of self-love — you care about yourself enough to let go of the quick fix and instead choose a better way of living.
Trying “not to” doesn’t work and keeps you forever stuck. I know it’s hard to let go of the desire to lose weight quickly. But knowing that the results you get from dieting never last should help you want to start a longer, more effective journey. Once you commit to changing your habits, you release the resistance, make things easier, gain momentum, and have the ultimate success of becoming healthier.
Changing your habits changes who you are — not just what you look like. But what you look like will automatically change once you start changing who you are and the way that you live.