I’m an extreme morning person.
It’s no effort whatsoever for me to get up early. I don’t have to shake myself awake, and I don’t have to hit snooze ten times before I get out of bed — in fact, I no longer even have to set an alarm.
It wasn’t always like this.
I used to sleep until noon. During the summer in high school, I remember waking up around lunchtime. And in college, I rarely signed up for a class that didn’t start after 11:00 am.
Obviously, I had to start waking up early when I graduated and got my first job. But it became a true habit during my dietetic internship.
I had to be up in time to have coffee, make an hour-long drive to Atlanta, work out, shower, and dress — all by 7 am. In order to do this, I had to wake up every morning at 4:30 am.
I wanted to be prepared and feel my best, so a workout was mandatory for me. I couldn’t avoid the drive, so that had to happen. And I can’t do anything without coffee.
If I hadn’t had this important commitment and so many things to fit in before I showed up for it, I never would have been so diligent or consistent. But I had to, so I kept at it for the duration of the internship — 6 straight weeks.
The interesting things was, while I was doing this, I started to make a lot of new associations and notice new patterns.
I noticed how much more I was able to get done during the day after having achieved so much so early. I noticed how much easier it was not to find excuses to not work out if I did it first thing.
I noticed that I was consistently eating better. I wasn’t having my usual glass of wine at night because it would have been harder for me to get up the next day. And as a result, I was getting better quality sleep.
I started talking to myself differently. I didn’t hear that same old, tired voice that said, “Ugh, I have so much to do . . . it never ends.” I started telling myself a different story. And after a few weeks phrases like “the early bird catches the worm” kept popping into my head.
I started feeling more productive, more accomplished, more successful. As a result, I didn’t slide back into my old habit of sleeping in. I had too many reasons not to. And so getting up early became a habit.
Eventually, I became a “morning person.”
You have habits right now that are easy for you to engage in — you don’t have to force yourself to do them. To put it another way, you associate more pain with not doing them than you do with doing them. You’ve developed positive associations with these habits, and you think differently about them. (This is a core principle in Tony Robbins’s teachings if you want to learn more.)
To use my earlier example, sleeping in sounds great to most people . . . but not to me. That’s because if I don’t get up early, I miss my quiet reflective time, which means I don’t get centered for my day, which means I have less patience, which means I’ll probably snap at my kids, which means I’ll have spend the day fending off mom guilt. Totally not worth it.
Conversely, I associate getting up early with productivity, clarity, and success. Because of these associations, I jump right out of bed first thing in the morning, excited about my day.
So if you want to change bad habit, what you want to do is identify one of your best habits and model the bad habit after it. Your ultimate goal is to make the bad habit more painful to engage in than it is pleasurable. Here’s how to do it:
1. Engage in the bad habit. You want to figure out what you’re thinking and feeling when you do the thing you want to change. In order to figure this out, you have to engage in the bad habit — fully and without shaming yourself.
A bad habit is usually a reaction to an urge in the moment — you’re doing what feels good. (For now, anyway.) Hitting snooze, binge eating, watching TV instead of working out. And you’re not paying attention to how it makes you feel afterward. You’re just feeling shame and telling yourself what a loser you are.
You have to engage in the habit so you can make mental notes of how you really feel. And chances are you don’t really feel that great.
2. Make modifications. Make tiny changes to what you’re doing to start changing the habit. When people try and change a habit, what they really do is just try and ditch the bad habit and pick up a good one. This doesn’t work. You have to gradually modify the bad habit to turn it into a good one.
Doing it this way requires no willpower, so it’s easy. And you’re more likely to be successful because you get to pick the changes that work for you.
If you binge on chocolate, portion out what you usually eat and divide it over three sittings throughout the day. Eat five fewer pieces of it and keep gradually decreasing it. Eat it outside in the sunshine instead of zoned out on your computer. There are unlimited options.
3. Make new associations. While you’re making these small changes, start creating new associations. Do you feel more in control? Do you feel lighter? Do you feel more confident or successful?
Whatever positive feeling that’s emerging with the changes you’re making, create phrases that fit with it. Say “I can do anything I set my mind to” or “This is what successful people do.” Making new associations like this reinforces the good feelings you’re experiencing, and it keeps you consistent.
4. Create an identity. You’re virtually guaranteed to establish a good habit if you tie it to who you are or who you believe yourself to be.
Chances are that any ingrained habit you have has become part of your identity: you’re a morning person so you get up early, you’re a vegetarian so you don’t eat meat, you’re type A so you’re hyperorganized.
Take the phrases you’ve come up with and start creating an identity around it. You can think of yourself as a light eater, a go-getter, a health nut, a winner.
When I was developing the habit of becoming an early riser, it took about three or four weeks for me to start realizing how good this new habit made me feel. And in order to see how it made me feel, I actually had to make several changes and be consistent in making them. Then those changes started reverberating through my whole routine, creating more and more positive changes.
The most important factor in my success at changing this habit, however, was beginning to associate sleeping in with being painful and not worth it.
Take a habit that’s interfering with your success at losing weight. And the one that’s interfering the most is one that you think you really can’t change. (“I can’t live without chocolate,” “I have to have my glass of wine,” “I’m just not a workout person.”)
Once you start associating that habit with something painful — lack of sleep, bad skin, belly fat, exhaustion — you’ll be on your way to successfully changing it.
Then make that habit a part of who you are — because who you are makes you do what you do.
And you can be anyone you want to be.