Is the secret to lasting habit change as simple as changing your environment? Is the best time to make a habit change precisely when your environment changes drastically? And what’s the best way to get good habits to take root? Let’s explore the possibilities.
Table of Contents
- The Essentials of Habit Change
- A Problem of Shocking Enormity
- Cracking the Bad Habit Code
- Forming Good Habits
- Practical Applications
- Creating a system
I want you to think of all the best coaches you’ve ever known. Whether personally, or through mass media. It could be an uncle, or maybe your high school debate or football coach. Or maybe it’s someone larger than life, like Tony Robbins.
The thing is, It doesn’t matter who it is — or that I know them or not — but I know this one thing about them, definitely: they forced you to change for the better. To become a better version of yourself. And probably a better version that you even thought possible.
In fact, the very act of actually eliciting change in someone is such a rare occurrence that we never forget those who draw it out of us.
Because by now we’ve realized that if mere information were the ultimate answer, we’d all be billionaires with six-pack abs. And therefore, those who consistently elicit change in us and others are seen as our culture’s admired alchemists.
We don’t know how they do it and, in fact, it seems like their privy to some magical insight.
In reality though, these “alchemists” are simply astute students of human behavior. They know the subconscious underpinnings of why we do what we do. Even if we have no idea ourselves.
Let’s change that. Not that we don’t still need great coaches and motivators, but so that we can make continuous, self-directed and steady progress in our own self-development.
The man, the myth, the legend. My motivator, mentor, and life-coach. The late Jim Wacker, Southwest Texas State University
The Essentials of Habit Change
Time travel with me for a moment back to the height of the Vietnam War. It’s late January 1968, and the North Vietnamese have just unleashed the Tet Offensive against US lead South Vietnam.
Back home, there’s protest in the streets. The Civil Rights movement is on a steamroll and approval of the war, especially among the young, is at an all-time low. Epitomized by the open burning of draft notices and Canada’s acceptance of an exodus of US “draft dodgers”.
Still high from the Summer of Love and empowered by Dr. Timothy Leary’s “turn on, tune in, and dropout,” America’s youth were quickly fissuring from the “over 30” crowd, “the establishment”; “the man”.
In the jungles and streets of Vietnam, disillusioned American soldiers, the average age of whom was 19, are caught in a vice between duty to country and the horror of what many perceived as unjust bloodshed. And many of those young soldiers attempted to ease the turmoil with a substance that was both hugely popular and ubiquitous in this war-torn Vietnam: heroin.
By 1971, estimated addiction rates of US servicemembers in Vietnam were as high as 20%. Back home, the US government braced for a flood of drug addicted soldiers pouring back into the country as war efforts waned. That the “establishment” was scrambling to prepare for the social armageddon they assumed lay just over the horizon is an understatement of grand proportions. They feared that this situation would be the final incendiary needed to incite an all out war of domestic social unrest.
But as luck would have it, that armageddon never materialized. The looming question being, why?
Why were these service members, who were in love with heroin for a host of mind-bendingly horrible reasons while in theater, able to kick a once-assumed unkickable habit with relative ease? How was it that against all known odds at that time, they returned home addiction free?
In fact, over 95% of addicted soldiers, even after the most rudimentary of treatment programs, were completely drug free after 1 year.
In other words, 95 percent of the soldiers who were full blown heroin addicts in Vietnam did not become re-addicted when they returned to the United States.
This was shocking of course, because heroin was thought to be the most addictive substance in human history. Once blissfully high, an addict would be chasing the dragon for the remainder of his painfully tormented days.
And the American public, having by this time been fed a steady diet of every true (and contrived and propagandized) horror of drug addiction, was justifiably shaken at the prospect of thousands of heroin addicted service members returning home to roam like so many zombies in the streets.
The country it seemed, already on the verge of social fracture, now faced a drug epidemic of epic proportions.
A Problem of Shocking Enormity
This crisis-in-the-making prompted then President Richard Nixon, in 1971, to appoint Dr. Jerome Jaffe as head of a special office to address the problem.
And it was Dr. Jaffe’s opinion — and indeed the prevailing thought at the time — that these soldiers were condemned to a life of heroin addiction. Still, feeling immense public pressure the Nixon administration laid out a national program of rehabilitation and prevention. As well, the Nixon administration tasked Jaffe with researching exactly what did happen to the addicted servicemen once they returned home.
Jaffe in turn gave psychiatric researcher Lee Robins unprecedented access to enlisted Vietnam service members. Every enlisted man in theater was tested for heroin use prior to returning to the U.S. Those testing positive were required to undergo treatment prior to returning stateside. Robins found that:
- Over 40% of Vietnam service members had at least dabbled with heroin and,
- Half of those (20% of total Vietnam service members) were considered addicted to the substance
Those who were deemed “addicted” were held in Vietnam until they dried out. Using a rudimentary, at best, rehab program and with the incentive being that they could not return home until their addiction had been kicked. In other words, they were not only heavily incentivized to dry out, but to dry out fast. And, as an inadvertent consequence, they were also heavily incentivized to fool their counselors into thinking they were indeed habit free.
Robins held little hope for the program’s success. However, once she began to compile follow-up data on those prior-addicted, she was shocked. Her data indicated that 95% of those who were addicted in Vietnam did not become re-addicted when they returned to the United States.
This flew in the face of everything prevailing science knew about both heroin specifically, and drug addiction in general. In fact, Robins’ peers accused her of padding her numbers, and falling prey to political influence.
In fact, she spent most of the rest of her career defending the integrity of the study.
50 years later however, the findings of her work are widely accepted. Indeed, the mechanisms behind habit change have undergone a complete paradigm shift since the 70s based on her work.
So how did Robins explain such a low rate recidivism in one of the most highly addictive substances known to man?
Cracking the Bad Habit Code
Before we dive into exactly what Robins found, we need to first understand what researchers believed at the time about the causes of addiction and what was required to prompt habit change. Because, (and unfortunately), many of those outdated and refuted ideas are still prevalent in our culture.
And we’re still suffering because of it.
“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” – Arthur Schopenhauer
What scientists believed at that time was that if you wanted to change someone’s behavior, you had to first change their goals and intentions. The prevailing thought was that changing a person’s attitude, will and moral bearing was required before behavior change could take root.
Quite simply, change was thought to be a direct result of willpower and moral integrity. If you wanted to change bad enough, you could.
The flipside being, of course, if you did not change a nasty habit, you were either unmotivated to do so, or morally deficient.
During this time, researchers were also studying how to organize public health campaigns, and how to use social pressure to change attitudes. And they found that those interventions were mostly effective. But only in those behaviors that people don’t engage in frequently.
For instance, a well-crafted public awareness campaign might do well at motivating people to give blood. But if you want them to quit smoking, these types of campaigns were next to worthless.
In other words, these campaigns can successfully alter what people want to do. But once a behavior’s been solidified — and especially so if a person does it in the same set and setting — the “want to do” rarely carries over into a sustained, altered action.
The bottom line being that behavior doesn’t necessarily follow lockstep with intentions. Which, due to the “willpower and morality” application, leads to a fractured self-esteem in those who fail to alter negative behavior.
Robins’ work indicated that habit has more to do with the way that, over time, our physical environments come to shape our every behavior. The soldiers she studied seemed to have outsource control of their addictive behavior to the environment.
If that sounds a little too far fetched, let’s look closely at a very basic, everyday behavior: getting into a car, and the act of driving itself.
Think of the myriad set of complex actions that must be performed, in perfect sequence, to pull this off.
We take driving for granted. In fact, we probably wouldn’t even consider it a “skill” per se. But all of this is actually very complicated, and someone who had never driven a car before would have no capacity, obviously, to do that without thorough instruction.
Think back to when you first learned to drive. How much concentration and attention to detail did it require?
But it becomes second nature to us and so automatic that we can do it while we’re conducting complex other tasks, like having in-depth conversations.
Our environments then come to unconsciously direct our behaviors. Even those behaviors we might loath, like smoking.
For a smoker, the view of the designated smoking area at their workplace or the post meal cup of coffee becomes a powerful mental cue to smoke. It’s a subconscious pull that the smoker is unaware of.
And over time those cues become so deeply ingrained that they are nearly impossible to resist. So we smoke at work when we don’t want to, or maybe sit on the couch with a tub of ice cream when we’re not even hungry.
We don’t feel manipulated by the environment (in fact, we’d deny that we are). But in fact, we are very integrated with it.
The first step to habit change: alter the environment
The first step to battling a bad behavior then is to disrupt the old environment in some way. Even a small change can help, like smoking (or eating) with your non-dominant hand.
Anything that disrupts the subconscious and forces a conscious thought. The old school idea of snapping a rubber band worn on the wrist can work toward this end. But really, anything that can consistently force us out of a subconscious reaction to the environmental cue supporting the bad habit is what we’re looking for.
An interesting aside: this works not because there is pain involved, but because the subconscious mind has been disrupted. The environment has been altered enough to once again force the conscious mind into action.
The trick is to in some way alter the action sequence of the habit you wish to change. Disrupt as best you can the habitual sequence of the action driving the behavior.
Have a habit of picking up fast food on your way home from work? Simply take different route home each day. The key here is not that you won’t run into any fast food joints on the way — you most certainly will! — it’s that the unconscious impulse to pull into that particular haunt will not be there.
And that it gives your conscious mind half a chance to make a better decision.
Of course, the larger the disruption the better. Which brings us back to heroin use in Vietnam.
Now there were for sure a variety of factors at play in the surprisingly low rates of recidivism. But the predominant theory about why the rates of heroin relapse were so low on return to the U.S. has to do with the fact that the soldiers, after being treated for their physical addiction in Vietnam, returned to a radically different environment.
In other words, the were immediately put on a plane home.
We think of ourselves as controlling our own behaviors, as directing the actions we take. But it’s not that simple. Because over time, we deposit parts of ourselves in the world all around us, and in turn, those parts come to shape who we are. It’s a brilliant evolutionary adaptation.
The problem we face now vis-a-vis our health is that we’ve so completely manipulated our environment to enable poor health choices. Our ancestors didn’t have to deal with ubiquitous heroin, cigarettes, fast food on every corner, and lack of exercise.
When we’re mindless (or rather, operating out of the subconscious) we’re not there to realize we’re on autopilot. It’s a beautiful system in the right circumstance. In fact, it an evolutionary essential part of why we survived as a species.
Hack the environment enough though, improperly, and all bets are off. We become the most vulnerable of all species.
Note: Listen to the NPR story What Heroin Addiction Tells Us About Changing Bad Habits.
You are the environment, and the environment is YOU!
I’d like to point out a couple of studies that illustrate just how powerful a motive force environment is to not only habit change, but in creating the type of person that you want to be.
In 1978, Ellen Langer, a Harvard psychologist, conducted a now famous study of nursing home residents. In the study, she gave houseplants to two groups of the elderly residents. One group was told they were responsible for keeping their plant alive, and that they had autonomy in their daily schedule.
The other group was told that staff would care for their plant, and they were not given choices regarding their daily schedule.
After 18 months, twice as many people in the group given responsibility for their plant and schedule were still alive as in the other group.
Langer took this as evidence that the current biomedical model, which views the mind and body as separate, was wrong.
And what is the most powerful influence on the mind? As we’ve seen, it’s the environment, and the subconscious imprinting the environment has on the mind.
Three years later Langer designed the “Counterclockwise” study in which the interior of a building was decorated to reflect the styles and conditions of the year 1959. Everything within the building was altered so as to reflect a late 50s motif. Black-and-white TVs, old furniture, 50s appliances and color schemes, and magazines and books from the 1950s.
A group of eight men, all over 70, lived exclusively within this environment for five days. When the men arrived at the building, they were told they should not merely discuss this past era while living there, but act is if they actually were their younger, 1959 selves.
Langer then set expectations by telling the men “We have good reason to believe if you are successful at this, you will feel as you did in 1959”.
In fact, from that moment on, the study subjects were treated as if they were actually in their 50s. Despite a few of the gentlemen being stooped and needing canes to walk, they were not aided in taking their belongings up the building’s stairs. “Take them up one shirt at a time if you have to,” Langer told them. Hard core!
Their days were spent listening to radio shows, watching movies, and discussing sports and other “current events” from the period. They were instructed not bring up any events that had occurred after 1959, and referred to themselves, their families, and their careers as they were in 1959.
The goal of this study was not to get these men to live in the past; rather, it was to trigger their bodies mentally to exhibit the energy and biological responses of much younger persons.
By the end of the five days, these men demonstrated noticeable improvements in hearing, eyesight, memory, dexterity, and appetite. Those who had arrived using canes, and dependent on the help of their children, left the building under their own power, carrying their own suitcases.
By expecting these men to function independently, and by engaging with them as individuals rather than “old people,” Langer and her students gave these men “an opportunity to see themselves differently,” which affected them positively in a biological sense.
Roles and routines
Routines should guide, but not govern, our actions. We need routine to a certain extent, especially routine that leads to healthy outcomes. Awareness and mindfulness, though, is what keeps us from falling into unhealthy rutts.
The mindless routine that allows us to drive to work in morning traffic while having a complex conversation is the same mindlessness that can have us acting needlessly old and unhealthy.
The mind, body and environment are undoubtedly intertwined.
The roles we play in life are another environmental input into the matrix of who we are. A shocking example of this was demonstrated in Philip Zimbardo’s famous Stanford Prison Experiment.
In the experiment, test subjects were assigned to one of two roles: prison guard or inmate. In a disturbing twist, the experiment was forced to end prematurely because the subjects played their roles too well.
Those playing guards ridiculed and tortured the inmates, whereas those playing inmates became docile and hopeless. The aftermath of the experiment left several of the study’s subjects psychologically traumatized.
It’s difficult to deny that the roles you play in your life dramatically affect who you are and how you act.
Your personality is not a fixed and intrinsic entity. Rather, your personality and character are fluid and ever-changing, based on the roles you play.
Which brings us back full circle to the idea of awareness, or mindfulness, if you will. The idea of being attentive to how the environment is shaping you.
We’ll speak more about this later, but simply being in enough mental clarity to identify those aspects of the environment that are shaping you in ways you don’t want is the first step toward changing those cues.
We are all actors in the grand drama of life, fulfilling roles on various stages and in a myriad of contexts. Some of these roles are “assigned” (son, daughter, brother) and some we might wage long wage battles to win (entrepreneur, lover, athlete). These roles are doled out in accordance with circumstance, culture, and personal desire.
Most, however, have not consciously designed their circumstances, nor have they consciously determined the roles they will play.
All the world’s indeed a stage
And we are merely players
Performers and portrayers
Each another’s audience
Outside the gilded cage
~ Rush, “Limelight”
Most people fail to realize that they get to choose their stage, who they will play, and how they will act. They have not decided to write the story of their own lives, but instead have consigned the storytelling to someone or something outside of them.
And that something is the “environment” in which we find ourselves.
I’m not here to say that change is easy. It’s anything but. However, the first step toward altering our behavior is believing that our identity is indeed flexible and malleable, as opposed to the way most people think: that “this is just the way I am.” My identity is predetermined, rigid, and outside of my control.
Just because you’ve played a role in the past doesn’t mean you are wedded to that role. If your current context requires something different, dismiss who you’ve been in the past. Allow yourself to evolve.
Forming Good Habits
Kicking bad habits to the curb is one thing. But what about creating new, positive habits?
At the expense of sounding like a broken record, the first place to look, of course, is the environment. Is your current environment supportive of whatever habit it is you wish to change? If it’s not, we’ll need to begin altering your environment to be supportive of the habit you wish to develop.
It’s safe to say that adding any positive habit will require some level of environmental change for you. Because any positive change will require a subconscious acquisition of the trait.
For instance, if you want to start and maintain an exercise program you’ll have to eventually wed a subconscious drive toward whatever “reward” you’ve associated with that exercise program.
Maybe it’s recognition from the opposite sex. Maybe it’s how you imagine you’ll look, feel and perform. Whatever works for you as an anchor emotion or feeling is what we’re looking for.
This is a vitally important concept that most “habit change” programs fail to drive home. But there must be a systematic process of tying your “why”, or desired outcome, to the subconscious. We’ll get into that in just a bit, but for now just realize that this is a point that can’t be ignored.
Know this: knowledge is not power. Power is the result of the sustained application of correct knowledge through smart systems and processes that turn that knowledge into real-world action.
As I mentioned before, if mere information were the answer, we’d all be billionaires with six-pack abs. Those who succeed at any given endeavor — and changing habits is just one example — have figured out a way to apply that knowledge on the daily.
Knowledge then can be thought of as the fuel for the engine that is well-designed systems and processes. The vehicle in which that engine resides is YOU.
For instance, It’s all fine and well to have amassed an immense repository of exercise science information but unless you figure out a way to get to the gym with consistency and put that information to work, that knowledge does you little good.
Unless, of course, you want to join in the numerous, go-nowhere flamewars in any given internet forum.
The power of positive thinking? Not!
I think it’s safe to say that the “self-help” industry in this day and age is synonymous with “change your thoughts, change your life” ideology. Which is, of course, a close cousin to the willpower and moral fiber mindset.
If we’d only believe hard enough. Fake it until we make it. Exude the power of positive thinking.
And to a certain extent, this is true. A positive attitude puts one in a position to better manipulate well-established systems and processes. To remain ever the vigilant navigator, making course corrections as required.
But believing in yourself, believing you can accomplish whatever you set your mind to is a world apart from cramming negative thoughts and emotions into a locked closet of your mind.
A much better way is to truly examine your darker impulses. Sitting with them. Inviting them to tea, in a manner of speaking. Because if we cannot get to the root of these feelings and face them, we will never hope to correct them. In fact, we’ll forever continue to expend undue energy and willpower trying to “think our way positive” over and around them.
And in the end, we’ll end up exhausted and beaten. We’ll disavow from that part of us that “lacks the will and moral courage” to change.
Denying your true feelings is tantamount to telling yourself that you are unworthy as you are. Unmendable and unsatisfactory. Rejecting those feelings as unworthy is rejecting yourself as an unworthy vessel.
Taking the time to facing your worst fears and negative impulses removes the power those impulses have over you. It will allow you to create ever better systems and processes that account for these “negative” attributes.
The goal then is to strive for balance. Improvement rather than perfection.
We speak of being transparent in our personal and business relations. We need to be transparent with ourselves as well.
Calm determination is far from a new concept. In fact, it’s one of the central tenants of Miyamoto Musashi’s The Book of Five Rings. Musashi, an expert Japanese swordsman, wrote the book in the mid-1600s. In it, he establishes a “no-nonsense” theme and repeatedly remarks that technical flourishes are excessive, and contrasts worrying about such things with the principle that all technique is simply a method of cutting down one’s opponent.
In other words, fine-tuning systems and processes to reach a defined goal. Constantly improving upon the signal-to-noise ratio.
Musashi drives home the point that understandings expressed in the book are important for combat on any scale; internally, within one’s self, in a one-on-one duel, or a massive battle. Descriptions of principles are often followed by admonitions to “investigate this thoroughly” through practice rather than trying to learn them by merely reading.
The Book of Five Rings is one of my favorite “Eastern Thought” works. And one of the cores of eastern thought is the notion of performing all acts with the attention and care given to acts of supreme importance.
If the moment is what matters (and in eastern thought, it is), then washing dishes is as important as brain surgery, in their respective moments in time.
This idea also permeates eastern attitudes of what we in the west might call “composure”. “Both in fighting and everyday life,” writes Musashi, “you should be determined though calm.”
It’s interesting that Musashi wrote these words over 350 years ago, and that the concept of “calm determination” was just as important then as it is now.
Although we can’t speak specifically to what “noise” Musashi struggled to buffer himself against (and we might even consider it to be quaint by today’s standards), we can be sure it was considered by him to be a detraction from keeping his “eyes on the prize”.
What does calm determination look like in the 21st century? I imagine myself immunized against life’s 24/7 firehose of distractions much like Keanu Reeves’ Neo’s knack for dodging bullets in The Matrix.
Today we contend with 24/7 hyperbolic news, hyperbolic claims, and hyperbolic people. Our attention is constantly under assault from the latest Netflix series, internet distraction, and smartphone buzz. And keeping up with the “productivity Jones’” means prioritizing the short-term skirmish (daily tasks) over the long-term champaign (meaningful projects that bear fruit down the road).
Calm determination then is the ability to dial-in to the signal amidst the ocean of noise. And make no mistake: this is a skill that, not unlike fitness, requires constant attention.
And like fitness, there is no single system or process that provides the universal answer. Context and individual circumstance are what matters.
However, the following may get you going in the right direction:
- Be ruthless in eliminating noise from your life. Use the “will it matter in 3 years” rule to help determine the importance of a particular stimulus.
- Once you’ve decided to engage a stimulus, make space to respond to it thoughtfully vs knee-jerk reacting.
- Resist the temptation to go for the quick win. Chip away on “delayed gratification” projects (again, the 3-year rule).
- Don’t ignore emotions, but don’t cling to them either. Let emotions guide, but not define or control you.
- Regularly reflect on your core values and ask yourself, did you live in alignment with them? If not, how might you course-correct the next day?
Few things are more important when the going gets tough than remaining calm, cool, collected and determined. It is from this space that meaningful decisions can be made; decisions that you can be proud of years down the road.
A not-so-quick diet segue
Because, well, any talk of habit change inevitably drifts to a discussion of what to eat, when to eat and how much to eat. Even if we get there via an extended side trip through workout city.
We’re a smart and observant lot, and though we might not want to admit it, we can readily see that, even though they live in much more harsh conditions than us, Eskimos are healthy. Kitavans are healthy, too (even though they smoke like chimneys). In fact, every indigenous culture we can name is fitter, healthier, and longer lived than we are. What gives?
If you answered “environment”, move to the head of the class. These people are still living (mostly) in the same environmental crucible that their ancestors inhabited thousands of years ago.
In fact (and sadly so) we can now witness, in real time, the health degradation in those societies that are quickly adopting Western diet and lifestyle norms. In the name of perceived “progress”, these societies are sacrificing their once stellar health.
Developing countries crave our abundance, novelty, and ease. And who can blame them? We are all hardwired to strive for these things. The acquisition thereof being a sign that we’ve “made it”.
The problem is of course, that we’ve developed one hell of a turbocharged environment here in the west. And that environment comes with absolutely no brakes.
In fact, our modern environment is so turbocharged that, in a twist so ironic it boggles the mind, it’s completely possible to become fat, sick and out-of-shape in our culture by eating “good” foods and living a quite normal (by relative standards) lifestyle.
In addition, most of us possess, at best, a murky genetic lineage. In other words, most of us aren’t pure Kitavan or Eskimo, or anything for that matter, so knowing what proportion of fat/carb/protein is best for us is difficult to know. So we have to n=1 test that within certain parameters.
And what are those “certain parameters”? Well, we do know what no one within any genetic lineage ate: highly processed food-like things. So we can at least start from that base.
What we have to do is figure out a way to make a bewilderingly complex mechanism easy to navigate. A complex environment that works against our overall health in addition to a bewildering biochemical process that no one can easily wrap their mind around. That’s a recipe for confusion. And we all know now what animals (including us) do when we’re confused: (a) nothing, or (b) we revert to bad habits.
For instance, the following is just a fraction of what’s going on in your body, right now, independent of your thinking about it:
Let’s say you have a fasting blood sugar of 85 mg/dL. What does that mean to you in a practical sense? Nothing. Nada. ZILCH. In fact, no human on this planet can think intuitively about that number, much less try to manage it minute to minute. Imagine explaining that number to a Kitavan.
My good friend, Dr. Ben House has pointed out that 85mg/dL equals 0.85 grams of glucose per liter of blood, and the average human walks around toting about 5 liters of blood.
So… if your fasting blood sugar is sitting at 85 mg/dL you have about 4.25 grams of glucose coursing your veins. If my math is right, that is about a half of an ounce of white rice. But here’s the real kicker: only 15% of that number comes from food; the vast majority is regulated endogenously by the liver.
In other words, Insulin’s main function (in a healthy body) is not to put sugar away, but to halt hepatic glucose production by squelching glucagon.
That insulin functions as a sugar storage mediator in an unhealthy body is simply a survival mechanism. Insulin’s action then, depends on context, situation, and internal environment.
The difference between diabetes and a fasting blood sugar of 85 is 2.05 grams of glucose. Or about one-fourth of an ounce of that white rice we mentioned earlier. That’s how amazing this self-healing, self-regulating your body is. Don’t ever forget that.
But also don’t ever forget the conditions under which this body evolved. When you think of it this way you begin to understand just how radically we’ve changed our entire epigenetic landscape.
Your body is regulating and responding to a mind-bending array of input before you even conscientiously have an idea of what is going on. I can hoover an entire pizza and see my blood sugar not surpass 120 mg/dL. That means with well over 100 grams of carbohydrate in my system, my blood glucose elevates less than 2 grams. Some people look at a plum though, and their blood sugar screams through the stratosphere at supersonic speed.
My point here is not to trumpet my metabolic acumen (I’m not doing anything other than creating the right atmosphere for my body to naturally do its thing), but to make a point: maybe the idea is not to go crazy trying to minimize carb intake, but to greatly expand the body’s capacity to deal with it. I’m talking about metabolic flexibility. Optimized exercise, sleep, mitochondrial health, muscle mass, and stress reduction.
Because it could be that insulin resistance is a protective mechanism to keep more sugar in the bloodstream so that the brain and immune system have access to fuel in times of acute and/or sustained emergency. The kind of “emergency” that our body senses on the daily as a result of modern life: 24/7 stress, lack of sleep, shitty food, non-existent relationships and little tribal connection.
Far from being a utopia, our modern lifestyle looks, to our primal selves, as a state of dire emergency. That being the case, our body’s only evolutionary option is to mortgage our long-term health for the right now. It’s as if our evolutionary selves are bellied up to the blackjack table, requesting a hit as we already sit at 19. We either win big now (mate), or it’s all over anyway.
Again, all of this is to further illuminate the power of environment. If you’re the guy whose blood sugar is off to the races from looking at a plum, you’d better keep to an environment supportive of that fact.
For someone like me, food is not an issue. But in another atmosphere, I’m liable to crash and burn.
For instance, I’m a perfectionist when it comes to competition or mastering skills, especially of the sporting variety. As such, I know to stay away from golf. Why? Because I’d let all else slide so as to spend time perfecting a game that, by nature, cannot be perfected. And at this stage in my life, I simply do not have the time to devote to that.
The answer? For me, it’s simple — stay away from the damn golf course!
Creating a model of your “new world” (wired for dopamine)
Why would someone go through the pain and suffering of football camp, or special forces training? Or law school, for that matter. The short answer is dopamine reward. Or more specifically, the thought of the dopamine reward to come.
We are not simply limbic operators. Our psychology allows us to consciously choose a greater dopamine burst later (delayed gratification) vs your garden-variety dopamine hit now.
In fact, science has shown that kids who are able to do just that wind up being more successful in life that those who opt for the series of right now, frequent “hits”. Precisely because everything in our modern world is directed toward that immediate response. Eat NOW, spend money NOW, feel loved, wanted and needed NOW.
The reason I harp on dopamine so much is because dopamine IS subconscious behavior. It’s not a bad thing, per se — it’s hardwired into our DNA as a survival imperative. We’ve just created a human zoo for ourselves that serves to undermine that natural response. The same elegant biochemical cascade that enabled us to rise to the top of the food chain 30 thousand years ago is the same elegant cascade that’s killing us now.
And it’s not the system that’s to blame. It’s the environment we’ve put that system in.
When someone selects pancakes with the works over a couple of eggs from pasture-raised hens it’s not because they are an immoral human. They’re simply wired to make that choice, and it requires cognitive effort and work to break that pattern.
Everything in their internal and external environment is telling them that pancakes are the superior choice, hands down. In other words, pancakes equate to more dopamine, right now. The choice is made, the limbic areas of the brain are awash in the good stuff and the action is reinforced.
Now, unenlightened habit change would have the cognitive regions of the brain constantly attempt to dampen the limbic regions (more willpower! More morality!), however:
- you never evolved to make decisions that way because it’s much too slow, and
- you have to be consciously aware that eggs are a viable (and more nutrient-dense) option. Then you have to consciously choose to seek them out over pancakes. And this better decision must be made, not just once, but throughout the entire minefield of our environment and culture.
Feel like everything is stacked against you? It is. No one is genetically wired to naturally bypass that big pancake with the works AKA mega dopamine wallop. NO ONE. Because that type of natural response would have led to zero reproductive success even 200 years ago. We evolved in a crucible of relative carbohydrate scarcity, and so our ancestors gouged at every scarce opportunity.
This is just another example of the environmental mismatch we’ve created for ourselves in the name of bending our surroundings to fit our desires.
And that environmental mismatch is killing us precisely because we’re genetically wired to:
- Be lazy. Because to needlessly expend energy in an environment of uncertain energetic needs would be a rather shitty evolutionary track. The ease of today could turn into tomorrow’s all-day physical beat-down. Or worse.
- Gorge on fat, salt, and carbohydrate. Because we are built to survive and, well… scarcity happens in the natural world. This is why periodic fasts are so healthy for us.
And if wrestling dopamine weren’t already enough…
We have to deal, as well, with the physical withdrawal of weaning from a high carbohydrate / high sugar diet. This condition is commonly referred to as “carb flu”. A general sluggish, blah, malaise that can last for up to 2 weeks.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that a high carbohydrate diet — and specifically, sugar — can act upon the body’s pleasure pathways (via dopamine release) in the same manner as opioids.
Again, this is an evolutionarily / hard-wired response that served our species well in an environment of scant carbohydrates. But in our current environment of ubiquitous carbohydrates and sugar, it leads to addiction.
Addiction, even in light of overwhelming evidence that consumption of these foods contributes to a high incidence of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.
We know what we ought to do. But we don’t follow through consistently. Let’s fix that.
I think it’s hugely important to keep this in mind: you are not broken. It’s just that your wonderfully designed survival and response mechanisms have been put in an environment that is completely alien. An environment designed specifically to prey upon those responses.
Recognition of the problem is a massive first step toward adequately addressing the problem. It’s much like the addict’s first step in admitting that, in fact, he has an addiction. We cannot hope to fix what we do not first confront openly and honestly.
And so, coming back around full circle to the beginning of this piece, once we’ve identified that we have a problem, we have to then alter the environment to support the change we want to make.
Archilochos recognized over 2,500 years ago that the subconscious was the true guidance system of the human entity. Training, like one’s environment, being just another epigenetic constant. He saw that no matter how a warrior might hope to perform in battle was inconsequential compared to how he was trained to react. The warrior did not willfully act as he wished, he reacted as he was trained to react.
And we do the same in response to our surroundings.
Which is why (unless we’ve established a complete environmental overhaul) it’s difficult to change more than one habit at a time. Specifically, we have to expend willpower to correct course until we get the proper reaction (or lack thereof) to solidify in the subconscious. And that brandishing of willpower comes at a tremendous cost to our energy reserves.
But just as with any endeavor, we can come at this problem smarter rather than harder. We have limited resources, yes — but we can leverage those resources to their maximum benefit.
Creating a system
So we’ve identified the habit change (action to drop or adopt) that will affect the biggest outcome for our overall health. And now we’ve altered the environment as best we can to support our desired habit change.
Let’s remember that any behavior or action is the end result of motivation + ability + a triggering (internal or external) cue. And this sequence is reinforced via positive feedback. Biochemically, that reinforcement is the product of a surge in one or a combination of:
Quite simply, if we’re trying to break a bad habit, we’ve got to sever the feedback link between reinforcement and motivation. And to create a new habit, we have to establish that feedback link between reinforcement and motivation, supported by the environment, and having solidified it in the subconscious.
We know, though, that we are great planners, and horrible doers. We have the best of intentions… yet lack follow through.
It’s not YOU, it’s the human condition.
That said, we can manipulate the odds of successful change in our favor if we create simple systems to enforce the desired change during the 7 to 66 day (depending on what research you cite) “iffy” period. That period where we haven’t yet fully formed the reinforcement to motivation bridge.
And we have to remember that simplicity always wins. A complex system will look sexy, but (same as with the paradox of choice), result in “deer in the headlights” inaction. Or worse, a reversion to old habits.
The exact system you create really doesn’t matter, so long as it’s stupid simple and:
- Alters the environment to support the desired change
- Supports the pinpointed, behavior(s) that will positively affect the desired outcome.
- Supports the Kaizen approach. That is, the Japanese philosophy of constant and continual improvement. Remembering that we overestimate what we can do in a week, and underestimate what we can do in a year.
- Supports reinforcement of the desired subconscious habit. That is to say, we’re not going to rely on willpower or the moral high road to see us through.
Each target behavior on the way toward the desired habit change has to be small and manageable enough to ensure compliance, but substantial enough to provide for a genuine sense of accomplishment. Otherwise, our internal editor, or negative self-talk (what I call the “shitty roommate”) will call bullshit, thereby sabotaging the effort.
Our system is going to need to incorporate a simple cue to help either create or break the reinforcement / motivation feedback link. Toward that end, here are a few of my favorite tools:
The rubber band snap
Oldest trick in the book. Cheap, easy, and gets directly to the point. And unfortunately, it’s roundly dismissed precisely because it’s cheap, easy, and gets directly to the point.
On a personal note, I used this trick to help me quit biting my nails when I was 11 years old. I never thought twice about it (other than my mom chiding me to quit), until one day a friend’s older sister (who I had a mad crush on) made an ewwwww comment about my rat-gnawed fingers. After pulling the dagger from my still beating heart, I vowed then and there to quit.
I can’t remember now how I learned about the rubber band trick, but after using it for a while, I never again bit my nails. And although it didn’t save my relationship with that friend’s older sister, it did cement my fascination with this thing called habit change.
All you need to do for this trick is:
1. Find a nice, thick rubber band that fits loosely around your wrist. You’ll want it beefy enough to impart a good sting on the snap
2. Decide on the thoughts, words, behavior, action, etc. that you want to change. Remember: small steps here; the Kaizen method.
3. Decide what positive thoughts, words, behavior, or action you are going to replace for the negative behavior.
4. Each time you catch yourself engaging in the negative behavior, action, etc., snap the rubber band 3 times on the soft underside of your wrist and remind yourself of the new behavior and/or action. Immediately replace the old behavior with the new behavior. Even if the new behavior is nothing. As in my example above of me biting my nails.
The key here is that people are motivated moreso by fear of loss than by prospect of gain. This is why social media is so damn addictive. FOMO, or fear of missing out, keeps us coming back time and time again for the latest “update”. But we’re smarter than that. At least we know our weakness, and can use that to our advantage.
Did I do my best to… (tracking)
This is a trick I learned from the book Triggers (linked below). What we’re looking to do here is reward effort rather than unbroken success. Together with the Kaizen principle of continual improvement, this process help keep us on track toward bigger end results.
For instance, the rubber band trick might be used to keep us from picking up a lighter, or loitering in the smoking area, but the “did I do my best” tracker will help keep the bigger goal (stopping smoking) in mind, without the feeling of being overwhelmed by that goal.
The tracker is simply an Excel spreadsheet populated with questions related to the breaking or adoption of whatever habit I choose. Then I rate, daily, from 0 – 10, my effort toward achieving those statements.
Those statements might be things like, did I do my best today to…:
- “did I tell my wife I love her”
- “avoid the smoking area”
- “stop biting my nails”
- “eliminate self-defeating, undermining, self-talk”
- “subdue the need to be right in a conversation or discussion”
- “remember names of people upon introduction”
This trick acts as constant reminder of what (and why!) we’re doing what we do, and acts as a positive feedback loop as we see our day-to-day effort numbers on the rise.
Text reminders and trackers
Depending on what research you look at (and the complexity of the habit), it can take from between 7 and 66 days to form a new groove. We need multiple cues during the day, especially in creating new habits, to help in solidifying the new wiring. These cues are hard to generate from within ourselves because we’re simply not yet primed to do so. Our phones have become an extension of ourselves. We might as well leverage that. My favorite in class here is Habit Bull.
The Mastery Method
If you’ve ever felt yourself mindlessly revert, as if drawn by some sort of magnetism, to a bad habit when your mind is preoccupied, racing and under stress, you’re not alone.
Our species is wired to fall back on subconscious actions at times like this. It’s a survival mechanism. And it worked beautifully during the first 99.9% of our evolution. The problem, of course, is the environment we now inhabit exploits our weak underbellies and encourages the adoption of all the bad habits we struggle so hard to shake.
Trying to change a habit in the midst of a chaotic mental and emotional firestorm is next to impossible. The best way to extinguish that firestorm? Mindfulness training.
Meditation, yoga, tai chi. There are numerous routes here, with the only “right” answer being the one that works for you.
My personal favorite is a program created by my good friend, Scott Jeffrey, called The Mastery Method. It’s quick, effective, portable, and easy to do.
But whatever method you choose, stick with it. In fact, utilize HabitBull to help set that habit in the “stone” of your subconscious.
Remember: a frazzled mind will revert immediately to subconscious actions. The first step the personal improvement, then, is to work on unfrazzling our minds so that we can then reprogram the subconscious with positive actions (and reactions).
One of the best books on habit change I’ve ever read is Triggers, by Marshall Goldsmith. It’s well worth the get, not to mention the time investment to read. Hell, I’d advise you read it twice. The 15 points below are taken directly from Marshall’s work. They are salient and specific belief triggers that stop behavioral change in its tracks. Comments on those points are my own.
Don’t allow yourself, or your ability to change, to be derailed by these common beliefs.
- If I understand, I will do
- We are excellent planners, and horrible doers. You, me… all of us.
- I have willpower and won’t give in to temptation
- Relying on willpower and moral imperative? Let me know how that works after a long, stressful day on the job. The short of it? You’ll crack. If there were a most common fallacy in the realm of habit change, this would be it.
- Today is a special day
- It’s your birthday. Your anniversary. Your kid’s bar mitzvah. Get over it. To your body, it’s just another day.
- “At least I’m better than…”
- Don’t even go there. It’s a slippery slope that begets a race to the bottom.
- I shouldn’t need help and structure
- Even professional athletes seek out help and structure. It’s called coaching, and we’d all be better off with it.
- I will not get tired and my enthusiasm will not fade
- First-day motivation inevitably ebbs to 2nd-week doldrums. That’s just the reality.
- I have all the time in the world
- Maybe. But do you really want to spend another day of it with the crappy albatross of a bad habit around your neck? Or spend another day lacking a good habit?
- I won’t get distracted and nothing unexpected will occur
- The only constant in life is change. Which is why the Five Ts of Fitness is so important in one’s training life.
- An epiphany will suddenly change my life
- The Pollyanna version of “I have all the time in the world”. The Vegas/lottery plan for building a retirement nest egg.
- My change will be permanent and I will never have to worry again
- Consider your life thus far. I’d be willing to bet that the only thing that’s been permanent is change. There will always be new obstacles to overcome. It’s the very fabric of life.
- My elimination of old problems will not bring on new problems
- “Success” is a double-edged sword. This isn’t negative, but rather rational, thinking. In the words of The Notorious B.I.G., “Mo Money, Mo Problems”.
- My efforts will be fairly rewarded
- No one is paying attention to me
- Fact of life: slow and steady progress is rarely noted or noticed, but even a small stumble, fall from grace or backslide is noticed by all. Others’ foibles make us feel better about ourselves.
- If I change I am “inauthentic”
- I would counter by saying that if you don’t change, people will regard you as (1) uncaring, (2) weak, or (3) selfish
- I have the wisdom to assess my own behavior
- We have a saying in the strength and conditioning community that “he who coaches himself has a fool for a coach.” This is not to say that you can’t (or shouldn’t) be self-reflective. It is to say, though, that you ought to strive to receive credible outside opinion.
Environment. Systems and tools. A quiet mind. These are the simple things you’ll need to leverage to affect any manner of positive change.
Heal thyself, harden thyself, change the world –