When I first read James Smith’s ‘Not a Diet Book’ and took to setting out daily habits to hit my goals I decided to start pretty small. The more I thought about it, the better / easier it was to have smaller habits that I might manage. In practice, some have worked and some have completely and totally failed. But I still liked the idea and I said last week that I needed to make the cleaning one easier.

My husband Ross has wanted to stop smoking for years and he regularly does, only to start again a few days later when he has a beer or a bad day. We were walking along the beach a couple of weeks ago and he started again with the ‘right, I’m just going to get 1 more packet of tobacco and then that’s it.’ (I can feel everyone that knows Ross eye rolling as I type this.) He’s got all the motivations and reasons to stop and completely hates that he does it. I asked why he smokes and he said ‘because I really enjoy it.’ I asked if maybe it wasn’t the smoking he enjoyed but the standing outside with the cup of coffee, getting a bit of a break and some thinking time outside, and it was maybe just something to do. He agreed that maybe it was and he hadn’t really thought about it. In trying get a plan of tiny changes I knew he would do I suggested we make a plan, starting with his other habit that he does WITH the smoking (he doesn’t really do one without the other at home) – too many cups of coffee with 2 sugars and milk (8-10 cups a day wouldn’t be exaggerating.) I asked how long it usually takes for the sugar / caffeine withdrawal headaches to go away? He said from start to finish, about 5 days (he’s given up caffeine on a program before). So we made that the time each step should take on the plan, so we could test whether gradually withdrawing would stop the symptoms being so bad (makes him sound like a right junkie!) Then we picked the steps, doing each for 5 days:

  1. Go down to 1 level teaspoon of sugar a day 
  2. Go to 1 level teaspoon on every 2nd cup in the day
  3. 1 level teaspoon in just 2 cups a day
  4. No sugar in the coffee

That process would take 20 days (nearly 3 weeks). But what does that matter? All or nothing hasn’t worked before so…

The next steps would be to do the same with the milk, and then very gradually with the coffee – we planned to buy some decaffeinated coffee to switch some of the cups, then we would cut down on the actual cups. And theeeeeen we would start on the tobacco. We didn’t set up a plan for that because he’s at least 60 days away, so plenty time.
So he did it, its been 2 weeks and this week he should be about to start the no sugar in the coffee. In actual fact, he totally ditched sugar after 4 days, he had a very small can-carry-on-with-life-headache and hasn’t had any sugar in coffee since. He’s down to 2 or 3 coffees a day and smoking has become way less appealing so he’s down to around 4/5 a day without even thinking about it. He went to the wee shop to buy his tobacco and came back really disappointed in himself for buying another packet but I reminded him – you’re over 40 days away from even supposed to be cutting down, you’re so far ahead of yourself and actually over-achieving. It would be like you had 12 weeks of homework and being disappointed in week 3 that you hadn’t finished. When he realised, he was totally chuffed with himself and carried on. Feeling good about himself for finally sticking to something and me recognising how amazing he was doing at his plan was clearly working. 

Such a nice positive cycle.

A couple of weeks before we set Ross’s plan I’d written my habits blog but I published it quite a bit afterwards. My amazing friend read it and sent me a recommendation to listen to Dr Chatterjee’s podcast with BJ Fogg called ‘The Secret to Making New Habits Stick’. And wow! Turns out my thoughts on small habits have actual scientific backing! BJ Fogg is the leading scientist on behavioural science and has been teaching doctors and patients and researching teeny tiny habits for years! The way he talks about it makes so much sense and after I listened to it, I had a wee cry with total relief! I’ve been trying and failing for years to make new habits stick (healthy eating and fitness mainly) and then totally lost willpower and all motivation and then felt terrible about it, then started again the next Monday. All of these programmes I’ve tried have just beaten me down to feeling like a failure and really its not all my fault.

Such a negative vicious cycle.

The majority of these fitness and healthy eating programmes are flawed. This ‘do it for 3 weeks and it will stick’ does not work in real life. But its not repetition that creates habit. Motions create habits.
In real life, BJ Fogg explains that (I’m paraphrasing) motivation and willpower come in waves. No one person is 100% motivated, 100% of the time. 

Sunday night you set a very ambitious goal – like ‘lose 10 stone and run a marathon’. Monday you’ve got all the motivation to start your plan and you’re excited for results and feeling great because you’re doing something to better yourself, by Wednesday, regardless of what signals your body is already sending to your brain, your willpower will wane. For some people (like me) that takes 2-3 days, for others it might be a couple of weeks, whatever way you look at it, willpower will wane. And then you break and fail, feel guilty and bad about it, have to show up to Weight Watchers / Slimming World / Body Coach / nutritionist group and tell them why you failed, for it to be recorded (evidence that you’re failing) so you’re continually reminded of it, that you have to work harder next week so you too can get your certificate and YOU CAN DO THIS. 

So the next week you try again and there’s more of a desperation for it to work, to then lose motivation on Thursday this time at dinner with friends after work and then you feel even guiltier and don’t bother going to Weight Watchers that week and then there’s no point starting the next Monday and you just want comfort food because you feel so guilty that you aren’t doing anything towards your goal. So you look for a new programme and the whole thing starts again. Its how the industry makes money really but I think if doctors / nutritionists knew more about BJ Fogg and his research, they might recommend patients try all of this first, rather than wasting money, time, their health, their self worth and their life on continually failing. I think if more people understood this cycle, they would be a bit more compassionate to those that have struggled with things for years. Even Ross (who I would say is a very black and white thinking person), when I explained the podcast to him, finally understood me a little better and was less frustrated for me and still totally chuffed for his own progress. 

The feeling of success is what wires in the habit – BJ FOGG

BJ Fogg teaches everyone that tiny, achievable-on-the-lowest-willpower-day habits make the biggest and longest life changes. The brain responds to success and feeling good about sticking to plans and wants to continue that feeling. If Ross had a low willpower day and went back to 10 coffees in the day, he’d still actually be on plan so there would only ever be positive feeling, he doesn’t need to restart. Anything over and above the plan is ‘extra credit’ and him just being an overachiever. And who doesn’t want to overachieve! BJ Fogg actually advises not to increase your goal like we’ve been doing with Ross but I think I need a second listen to understand it.

So what I’m saying is, if you have a goal / habit that you’ve been trying and failing to implement- GO AND LISTEN TO THE PODCAST. Even if its just out of interest, or because you have something long and boring to do. Him and Dr Chatterjee explain it so well and I felt so relieved and inspired afterwards and I want you to feel the same.

Now I’m off to the loo, doing 2 squats after I wash my hands is my new thing!

Do you think this might work for you? 

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  1. Thanks for this insight I’m going to have a listen if I’m not too busy this afternoon. I’ll let you know what I think

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