Just after I had moved into my new townhouse after my divorce a few years ago, I realized that I had lost all desire to cook.
This was very unusual because over the previous ten years — despite being raised in a house where cooking was more of a means to an end rather than something enjoyable — I had developed a love of doing it.
I had spent hours poring over cookbooks, trying new dishes, practicing cooking techniques (through trial and tons of error), and experimenting with new ways of eating. It was something I had learned to truly enjoy, and I took pride in taking care of my family’s health.
But then I suddenly realized that I barely spent time in my kitchen — it had become a place of stress rather than relaxation. And I spent more time (and money) ordering DoorDash than I did cooking anything.
I also felt really unhealthy. The stress of the divorce had pushed me back into my binge eating tendency, and I wasn’t working out much either.
Added to all of that was the overwhelming feeling of failure I had — failure as a mother by not taking care of my children like I should, and (of course) failure as a woman for not looking perfect.
To cap it all off, I was asking myself the ultimate defeatist question: What is wrong with me?
When I finally decided to check myself and analyze what was really happening, I was able to see objectively and solve the problem.
I hadn’t lost the habit of cooking because I had abandoned my health or because I didn’t care about my kids or because I was a failure. I had gotten out of the habit because of the chaos and emotional upheaval in my life (obviously!).
I finally got to the source of the problem and was able to fix it. I finally figured out how to re-engage in my cooking habit not by using force or willpower — but rather by implementing some unusual hacks that I learned about a few years ago.
Here’s how I did it.
Step One: Ask Yourself the Right Questions
The first thing going wrong for me was that I was telling myself the wrong story. We all do this, and it’s because we ask ourselves the wrong questions. Here’s why we do that.
All too often, we fail to see just how powerful our environment is on our behaviors. We have a house to keep clean, kids to take care of, and maybe even a job outside the home to worry about. These environmental elements can cause tremendous stress, and this stress frequently pushes us to take all the wrong actions.
Not only that, women have the never-ending pressure to look young, beautiful, fit and toned — and we’re reminded how far short we fall on a daily basis (hourly if you’re on social media).
When we fail to see how powerfully all these things influence us, we end up blaming ourselves when we don’t stick to our healthy habits. And that’s when we start asking ourselves that terrible question.
So first things first: there’s nothing wrong with you. And it’s really important that you get this, so you can stop doing it.
Why? Because when you ask yourself what is wrong with you, your brain is wired to give you an answer. Unfortunately, the assumption behind that question is that there really is something wrong with you.
And if you ask yourself that question, here are the answers you’ll get: You’re lazy. You’re disgusting. You’re disorganized. You’re a terrible mother. You’re a failure.
Those were certainly the answers I was getting. And I was keeping myself in a downward spiral because these answers were completely demoralizing. And feeling this way keeps you from doing the very thing that will solve the problem: take action.
So step one is to ask yourself a different question.
In my case, the right question was, “Why have I lost my desire to cook?” This question took shame out of the equation and helped me think rationally.
I was able to see that my life had been upended, I was now a single mother, I had a full-time job, and I had tons of emotional stress that I was dealing with. Cooking had taken a backseat to all of that — and rightfully so!
Once I realized that there wasn’t anything wrong with me, I was able to be more objective. And objectivity is what you need to effectively solve a problem.
Whatever habits you’re looking to form or re-engage in, ask yourself what’s really happening. Have you been through a challenging life event? Did you recently move? Have your kids left for college? Are you going through menopause? What is really happening that’s pushing you to do the opposite of what you want?
Put yourself in an objective frame of mind — be a detective and figure out what’s really going on by asking yourself the right questions.
Step Two: Identify Your Limiting Step
The next step is to look at your environment and identify the one thing that’s preventing you from engaging in your habit. There are probably several issues going on, but your goal is to find the one thing that is pushing you to take the wrong actions and that, if you fixed it, would push you to take the right ones.
And here’s the key: that one thing isn’t necessarily what it seems.
In my case, it seemed like the biggest thing keeping me from cooking was the new stress of being a single mom and feeling exhausted by all that I had to do. But I decided to go a little deeper and see what was underneath that.
When I went below the surface, I saw that all that stress was preventing me from keeping my kitchen clean. There were other things going on — like not feeling like going to the store as often and therefore not having healthy foods on hand — but the main thing was that I hated being in my kitchen because it was a mess (very unlike me!).
Then I drilled down even deeper. What was the one thing that was preventing me from keeping my kitchen clean? And what was the one thing that pushed me to get in there and clean it up?
That’s when I had a huge “aha” moment. I realized that keeping dirty dishes out of my sink was the common denominator.
When the sink was free of dishes, I felt more motivated to straighten the rest of my kitchen. And when it was full of dirty dishes, all I wanted to do was get out of there and call DoorDash.
I had just identified my limiting step.
Step Three: Establish Your Keystone Habit
This brings us to the concept of the keystone habit. I learned this from Charles Duhigg in his amazing book The Power of Habit.
A keystone habit is one that spawns all other kinds of positive habits and makes it easy for you to engage in them. And once you identify your limiting step, you’ve identified your keystone habit.
In my example, my goal to keep my kitchen neat, clean, and organized hinged on having my sink clear of dirty dishes. Therefore, my keystone habit became to load and run my dishwasher every night.
Choosing a weekly menu, making a daily grocery run, and prepping food for meals were all habits that would ensure I cooked more. But those were all dependent on having a clean kitchen to motivate me to do them — which depended on whether or not I had a sink loaded with dirty dishes. (Crazy, right?)
Once I identified my keystone habit — running the dishwasher every night — all those other habits became much easier to engage in.
I made a commitment to simply get all the dirty dishes out of the sink and into the dishwasher each night, which meant that I came downstairs each morning to a (mostly) clean kitchen.
This meant that I felt relaxed instead of overwhelmed, so flipping through a cookbook over coffee was more enjoyable. And once I had chosen a meal to prepare, I was off to a quick trip to the grocery store to get what I needed. Then I returned home to get everything prepped for dinner.
Not only was dinner now inevitable, it was actually enjoyable to make. And that’s how my habit of cooking was re-established — and how my joy of cooking was regained. (If you want some inspiration on how to enjoy cooking, read this.)
Put These Hacks Into Practice
What health habit are you trying to establish? To work out consistently? To quit eating fast food? Or, if you’re like me, to cook more?
For example, if you’re trying to stick to a consistent workout routine, the problem isn’t that you’re lazy or unmotivated. Figure out what’s actually keeping you from working out.
Your limiting step might be that you can’t find your car keys in the morning — so your habit could be to put them where you can find them before going to bed. Or it might be that you never have clean workout clothes — so you develop the habit of getting them washed and laid out the night before.
Sit down somewhere quiet, think about how much you actually do get done in a day, praise yourself for it, and realize that the last thing you are is a failure.
Then objectively assess your habit scenario. Start at the outer layer, then go deeper, and then even deeper than that. Identify the smallest single barrier (which is actually the biggest) to you consistently engaging in your habit.
Then, choose your keystone habit. Write it in your planner, put it on a sticky note, or tell Alexa to remind you.
Then make a commitment to do that one thing every single day. We may not be able to climb Mt. Everest, but we can definitely take one small step.
From all my experience in changing and maintaining habits, I’ve learned that the solution is almost never to double down and work harder.
It’s to take one small step — and to keep on taking more.