Anyone can engage in healthy habits on any given day, but most people struggle with making those healthy habits stick. Here’s the deal: what you think you know about habits and creating a “healthy lifestyle” is wrong. And it’s making your life very difficult.
When did you first start trying to create a “healthy lifestyle?” At what age did you start thinking about changing your body, your diet, or your exercise habits?
I’m guessing the answer is, “pretty young.” Or, “a long time ago.” Yet here you are, still unsuccessful.
What you believe about habits is unhelpful at best and destructive to your goals at worst. It’s time to change that.
First, let’s figure out what we’re trying to achieve…
Everyone talks about living a “healthy lifestyle,” but what does that mean?
At Rebooted Body, we describe a healthy lifestyle as…
The consistent execution of self-care habits, motivated by a healthy relationship with food, body, and Self.
Being a Health Nazi does not qualify as living a healthy lifestyle. There are many people who have a body they love and a life they hate (when you look beyond the surface). That’s not what we’re talking about here.
A healthy lifestyle encompasses physical, mental, emotional, and social health. It’s an all-aspects game. That’s why we talk ad nauseam about having a body and life you love and not just weight loss and fitness.
Now that we’re clear on what the end game is, let’s talk about habits – the things we need in order to be successful.
What is a healthy habit and why does it seem so hard to establish?
For the sake of clarity, we’ll define a habit as…
A regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.
That definition seems to run contrary to most people’s relationship with food, movement, and self-care, doesn’t it?
I mean, few people ever complain about how hard it is to stop themselves from getting plenty of healthy food and exercise. The healthy behaviors in their life are the easiest to give up. They’re the opposite of a habit – they’re inconsistent and never stick.
What, then, would make healthy behaviors difficult to give up? In other words, how can we take a behavior that most people resist and make it so that the resistance happens in the opposite direction?
The answer is self-love. But, I’ll be straight with you and tell you that “self-love” is a shitty answer. Very few people who are struggling can connect with that explanation.
In fact, it’s often a turnoff answer. People can feel patronized or confused by it, because those who give it as an answer talk about it in an unhelpful or unproductive context.
The reason the answer is “self-love” is because that’s the only lasting factor that drives intrinsic motivation when it comes to self-care.
Intrinsic motivation is the motivation to engage in a behavior that arises from within the individual because it is intrinsically rewarding.
Intrinsic motivation is an internal want. It’s a drive to do something that comes from within. When you want something, you engage with that thing and that engagement pattern becomes hard to give up. That’s the definition of habit, right?
A habit isn’t a behavior you repeat over and over again.
If I put a gun to your head every morning and made you eat a healthy breakfast, would you define your newfound eating pattern as a healthy habit? If I did that for 90 days and then stopped threatening you, would the habit stick because of the number of repetitions?
If you have to force yourself to do something (willpower), or hire someone to force you (a trainer), or install some other extrinsic motivator (a bet with a friend), then you’re not building habits that are going to stick for the rest of your life.
This is where so many people get lost. They think success is a matter of finding a way to put certain behaviors on repeat. While that may work for short-term projects, it’s way too flimsy of a strategy for a lifelong play. This is why I advocate for a practice-approach and not a project-approach.
Love itself is an intrinsic motivator. It also happens to be a motivator that’s linked to care and care-giving behaviors. When you love your child, you’re intrinsically motivated to engage in behaviors that have the greatest likelihood of positive outcomes for them, right?
So, what happens when you truly, authentically, love yourself? The same holds true. You’re intrinsically motivated to nourish yourself with all sorts of self-care habits. Additionally, the removal-of or neglect-of those self-care habits creates friction.
You’re hearing me right. People who love themselves and honor themselves experience friction when something prevents them from engaging in healthy habits.
The flat tire test for your healthy fitness habits.
Julie and Jillian are heading out the door to go exercise. Julie is heading to the gym and Jillian is heading to tennis practice.
As both of them step foot into their driveway, they experience an annoying inconvenience. Both of their cars have flat tires.
This is the moment of truth. What will their response be?
Both, of course, are upset that their car has a tire that needs to be repaired. Nobody wants that hassle.
The difference is that Julie feels like she’s off the hook. She has a good excuse for why she can’t make it to the gym tonight.
Jillian is in a different mindset altogether. She feels bummed. Angry, even. She was craving tennis practice and now she’s going to miss it.
Both women are trying to lead a “healthy lifestyle,” but their mindset and their relationship with exercise are very different. Julie experiences friction when it’s time to exercise. Jillian experiences friction when she can’t exercise.
What’s the difference? It most often boils down to two factors:
- Your relationship with exercise (often linked to relationship with Self). If you have an oppositional relationship with exercise, you will always experience friction and resistance when attempting to execute.
- The choice of activity. If you are passionate about the activity you’re engaging in, you’ll do it habitually. If you don’t, it’s unlikely to stick.
It’s also important to understand that an oppositional relationship with exercise can influence your choice of activity. Aside from the friction and resistance, you’re more likely to choose punishment-based activities over passion-based activities.
This brings us back to what I said before about repetition not defining a habit. Julie could use discipline and willpower to go to the gym for 365 days in a row. All that forced consistency has no bearing on whether she’ll continue to go in the future. It has no bearing on whether going to the gym will become a habit or not.
Jillian’s relationship with exercise is healthy and she loves the activity she’s chosen. In fact, she has multiple activities she loves that are on a rotation. She’s going to take part in these activities without willpower, discipline, or friction.
This fitness example applies to other self-care habits like nutrition and sleep, by the way. At the end of the day, if you want things to be sustainable, there has to be a large degree of intrinsic motivation.
Are you saying that people who are struggling don’t love themselves?
That’s a tricky fucking question. It’s also based on a false premise–that there’s one “self.” Once we sort that out, it might get a little easier to answer.
As I introduced in “How The Kids Movie “Inside Out” Can Help You Change Your Relationship With Food, Body, And Self”, we’re not one “self.” It’s more helpful to think of yourself as a collection of selves.
These selves are often referred to as internal personas or sub-personalities. This concept is huge, because it allows you to engage more realistically with your experiences.
The most accurate statement for most people is, “I love some parts of me, but I don’t love others.”
There’s a disintegration happening among the internal personas. These sub-personalities have competing interests. They drive competing and confusing internal dialogues. And sometimes they promote destructive behaviors.
Things get even more complicated when there is a history of trauma. Or the erosion of self-esteem or self-worth. Or subjection to gaslighting. Or all the above.
For this reason, it’s unhelpful to look at self-love as a binary concept. It’s not on or off, yes or no. If you’re struggling, it usually means that the factors causing friction are overpowering whatever degree of self-love you harbor.
How do you remove the friction and cultivate more self-love?
Whenever I hear someone talk about self-love and its importance in this process, I rarely ever hear them talk about how to get more of it.
Do they hope you’ll just happen across more of it? Manifest it with crystals and affirmations a la The Secret? Simply decide to have more of it?
This is why the “self-love” answer annoys people. It feels intangible and impractical.
There is a specific, practical process you can use to cultivate more self-love, though. It starts by understanding momentum.
There’s three ways life can be happening for you in a macro sense. You can be in negative momentum (moving toward worse outcomes), in stillness, or in positive momentum (moving toward better outcomes)
There are two forms of stillness: contented stillness and discontented stillness. You can be still and content, or you can be stagnant. Most people who are in a holding pattern, it seems, are in a discontented state.
There are three forms of forward momentum: contented forward momentum (you’re happy with where you’re at but always striving to better yourself), discontented forward momentum (you’re unhappy with where you’re at and are actively trying to better your lot), and manic forward momentum (no matter how much you have, you’re never happy or satisfied).
The latter is often also driven by a lack of self-love, self-esteem, or self-worth. Not all achievement is healthy, so it’s important to make sure that the forward momentum you’re experiencing is a healthy forward momentum.
Here’s the deal: you’re very unlikely to “feel the love” for Self when you’re heading backwards in life or when you’re stagnant and discontented. You’re unlikely to feel the love when you’re dealing with embattled Internal Personas. You’re unlikely to feel the love when your core human cravings are going unfulfilled and you’re being subjected to significant micro-stressors day-in and day-out.
When you start working on these deeper areas of your life and your Self, you begin to create a healthy forward momentum. As you pick up small wins and reap the benefits of those wins, you’ll start to experience an internal shift. Self-love often comes from this positive momentum and brings with it an intrinsically motivated shift in behavior.
Incentives matter, too.
Whether intrinsic or extrinsic, incentive drives all motivation.
Human beings do what they’re incentivized to do. Adding an additional layer to that, human beings do what they’re incentivized to do sooner rather than later.
In behavioral economics, this is called time preference, or hyperbolic discounting. By and large, people tend to prefer immediate payoffs relative to future payoffs.
Let’s take a look at how this affects food choices.
Your most common option is to “eat clean” or eat processed foods. Both options have many incentives. For example, you’re incentivized to eat clean if you want to lose weight. You’re incentivized to eat processed foods if you’re looking for a dopamine hit.
These are competing incentives. And in this scenario, hyperbolic discounting says that you’re more likely to choose the dopamine hit than the weight loss incentive. Why? Because the dopamine payoff comes sooner and the choice requires less resources (efficiency is an incentive).
Are these the only incentives, though? In truth, no. In practicality, maybe.
Here are some additional incentives of eating clean: You might feel better, have more energy, have fewer nagging ailments, think more clearly, not get an eczema breakout, and so on.
But if all you associate clean eating with is weight loss, then that’s the only real incentive you’ll recognize. The others don’t exist because you don’t see them or lend any value to them.
Remember, you’re programmed to prefer incentives that pay out sooner rather than later. This is why “weight loss” is a poor incentive.
If weight loss is your biggest incentive for engaging in healthy habits, you’re creating a negative incentive mismatch. You’re using a long-term incentive (weight loss happens in the future) to compete with the short-term incentives linked to unhealthy habits (like the dopamine hit and the preservation of resources).
The only way to win consistently is to create an incentive situation that’s competitive. Or even better, one that’s tipped toward healthy habits – a positive incentive mismatch.
Wanting to do something doesn’t mean you can or will. Friction is draining.
Self-love, intrinsic motivation, and incentives are gigantic pieces of the healthy habit puzzle. But they’re not the only pieces.
Wanting something is fantastic, but it fails to create a guarantee. And a guarantee would be a very useful thing to have, wouldn’t it?
If you want to execute on something, but fail to, then you have to look at what’s stopping you. For a lot of people it’s a lack of resources. Three specific resources, to be exact. Physical resources, mental resources, and/or emotional resources (PME).
You can think of these resources as currency in a bank account. As you make healthy deposits, your balance grows. As you encounter stress, you’re balance decreases.
Your emotional metabolism attenuates the flow. If you have a healthier emotional metabolism, stress has less of an impact on your account balance.
In our Decode Your Cravings program, we refer to stressors as “biopsychosocial manipulators.” This term brings much more clarity to stress. It describes each stressor as biological, psychological, or social. And it demonstrates the effect on your behavior (manipulation).
We’ve identified over 50 biopsychosocial manipulators and over 100 sub-manipulators. These findings are based on the common experiences in the men and women we work with. By assessing exactly which manipulators are impacting you, we can begin to attack these specific stressors to remove or disarm them.
Think about starting each day with $1000 in your bank account. However, 12 other people have access to your account and they drain your resources down to $50 every day. You don’t have what you need to invest in the things you want to invest in because these other people keep raiding your account.
That’s what BioPsychoSocial manipulators are doing to your PME resources. If you can start to identify these stressors and cut off their access, you can protect your resources. That’s one part of our approach.
Another important thing to understand is how environment affects resources. Our modern environment often makes destructive habits “cheaper” and healthy habits more “expensive.”
Think about eating fast food versus cooking a healthy meal. Stopping at the drive through requires less physical, mental, and emotional resources than cooking.
Think about getting from place to place. Driving requires less physical, mental, and emotional resources than walking or biking.
Our modern environment creates mismatches like this all the time. And because these mismatches make life faster or easier, we’re incentivized to choose them.
You can learn to navigate the environment so that you experience all the benefits without the negatives, though. You can also remove the things raiding your account (biopsychosocial manipulators). And if you can’t remove them, you can attenuate them by improving your emotional metabolism.
These are three things that winners do.
Here are the main takeaways that you should consider if you’re interested in making healthy habits stick for the the rest of your life. And if you want to avoid the need for willpower, discipline, and extrinsic motivators.
- A habit is not just something you do consistently, it’s something that’s hard to give up.
- Rote repetition does not create real habits.
- Intrinsic motivation drives real habits.
- An intrinsic desire for Self-care drives real habits.
- Incentives matter.
- Failure is more probable if you create negative incentive mismatches.
- Success is more probable if you create positive incentive mismatches.
- Extrinsic motivators create favorable incentives, but may not be sustainable or reliable.
- Our modern environment often makes destructive habits “cheaper” and potentially more desirable.
- Willpower & discipline are a drain on resources.
You might look at this list with a blank stare. Have no fear, though. These are takeaways that every single man and woman on this planet can implement. You just need a little guidance.
If you want to look great and feel great for the rest of your life without being miserable in the process, join the Rebooted Body All Access academy. We’ll walk you through this process step-by-step and empower you to achieve more success than you’ve ever experienced.
Kevin Geary is the founder of RebootedBody.com and a respected expert on cravings, eating psychology, and long-term habit change. He’s worked with thousands of men and women in over 35 countries around the world through his online academy and programs like Shut Down Your Sugar Cravings.