Healthy Habits for Life

It’s fairly obvious through the examples used in these posts that I tend towards goals and resolutions oriented around health. A commenter on Instagram mentioned to be careful what mini-resolutions you set because habits can be set in 3 weeks and those actions can become somewhat automatic, be they good or bad for you. I agree with that to a point. I think that behaviors which provide instant gratification are much more likely to become automatic than those whose benefits are not felt until later. It’s also easier to discontinue behaviors which provide instant pain than those whose detriments are not felt until later. So today is about some strategies we can use to hack those rules and turn them to our benefit – today is about Atomic Habits.

Let me admit right up front that I’m a total James Clear fan girl at this point. I read the book, I signed up for the email list and I follow him on social media. If you are into goals, habits and personal development, I recommend you do the same. I’ve previously written about this book and I have to hold myself back from reposting a lot of what he puts on Instagram, because it’s so good. (I forward a lot of it directly to my friends instead.) Here’s the one I couldn’t help but repost:

The above is not a new concept to me and put into beautiful clarity something I’d be trying to share with patients. Sustainable changes in health require sustainable changes in lifestyle. If you want a better outcome, you need better input. And none of that is a one time transaction. Blood pressure begins to drop 20 minutes after your last cigarette and carbon monoxide levels normalize 8 hours after your last cigarette, but those benefits do not persist if you start smoking again the next day.

To be honest, this has really even changed my ideas about “health” as a goal or what it means to help a patient become healthy. One of the philosophies of naturopathic medicine is that we are health focused rather than disease focused – we want to help people achieve optimal health and live healthy lives. But it’s easy to fall into the trap of becoming disease focused – treatment of symptoms and targeting normal lab values. Yes, I want your lab markers in a healthy range, but I view those markers differently.

Instead of being the answer – your labs are normal, therefore you are healthy – they are an indicator of how your lifestyle is working for your body. So many patients have come to me with symptoms or in a state where they just know their health is not optimal, but their other doctors have told them that their labs are normal so they must be ok. I’ve always said that one of my favorite parts of my job is that I never have to tell a patient there is nothing I can offer them. Lifestyle medicine mean there is always something more we can try. This might be your food, your beverages, your activities, your attitudes, your social connections or your spiritual life.

Readiness for Change

This is where the principles introduced in Atomic Habits come in. First, you have to recognize the need for change.

Whatever your results are, you current system is perfect for delivering them.

James Clear, Atomic Habits

The above statement was so powerful that I had to pause my audio book, grab my planner, rewind and write it down. I wanted to get the exact words down, so it may have even required several rewinds. Whatever your results are, your current system is perfect for delivering them. Simple and profound. To me, this is the key to recognizing the need for change. If you are not satisfied with your current results – be that your lab values, how you feel, your energy, your libido, your athletic performance, your health risks, or any other marker you can think of – you must make a change. Because what you are doing now is the system that delivered those results.

How to Make Atomic Habits

So now you recognize that you need to make some changes, but how? How you can sustainably change your diet, exercise more or stop smoking? I think the system laid out in Atomic Habits is a great place to start and recommend you read the book, but here’s a quick summary.

For habits we want to encourage – I’ll use exercise as an example. These are strategies I personally use!

Make It Obvious

I keep my exercise clothes and shoes in my bedroom so they are the first thing I see when I wake up.

I also put a reminder in my phone to ping me to remind me to exercise. “I forgot” no longer works as an excuse!

Make It Attractive

I created a basement home gym (pandemic project). Not only did I clear the physical space to exercise, but I added a dedicated meditation space, put up posters and moved all the other junk and furniture out of this room. Now when I head down to work out, I’m happy to spend my time there.

I have found some work out videos that I really enjoy. I’ve added a few with really fun music to my rotation.

Make It Easy

The barrier to my exercise has always been feeling like I don’t have enough time. So I gave myself permission to exercise for 15 minutes. This feels so simple that I always have time for that and sometimes do more.

I also find that exercising in my home makes it much easier – I don’t have to drive anywhere and it’s not weather dependent.

Finally, because I’m often exercising to YouTube videos, I’ve created a playlist where I store all my favorite work out videos so I don’t have to search for something to do each time.

Make It Satisfying

It’s embarrassing to admit how motivated I am by checking exercise off my list. My planner has a habit tracker and I LOVE marking off my exercise each day.

My spouse also exercises with me and we have talked a lot about the benefits we’ve gotten from our regular exercise routine. It’s like instant stress relief for us.

Yesterday I actually X’d off that I hadn’t exercised around 6:30pm, thinking, “I’m tired, I don’t think I’ll exercise today.” Then I changed my clothes into work out clothes, put on my shoes and went down to the basement for a 20 minute session. This wouldn’t have happened without all of those factors making this obvious (my shoes and sport clothes were right there), attractive (I knew I would feel better), easy (it’s just downstairs and it’s only 15 minutes) and satisfying (I could change that X to a full circle).

How to Change Bad Habits

For habits we want to discourage – I’ll use smoking as an example. These are actual strategies I’ve recommended to patients.

Make It Hard to Find (Less Obvious)

Keep your cigarettes, lighters and ashtrays out of sight.

Keep cessation aids like nicotine gum or patches in sight.

Make It Less Attractive

Put a note to yourself on your box of cigarettes about why you want to quit. Rewrite it and put it on every box as you open it.

Some patients have put a photo of their child or grandchild on their cigarettes to help remind them to quit.

Make a rule that before you smoke, you have to do something else first like clean the toilet.

Make It Difficult (Less Easy)

Store your cigarettes in an inconvenient location such as the trunk of your car.

Make a rule that you can only smoke outside, even if it’s raining.

Make It Less Satisfying

Change the type and brand of cigarette you smoke. You can allow yourself to smoke at some level, but it has to be that other kind.

Leaving negative behaviors behind does requires will power. You are the one setting and following any rules that you set for yourself, so you can break them too. But many bad habits like smoking are addictive and willpower alone may not be enough. I support you in engaging professional help in stopping addictive behaviors. Working with a therapist or an addiction specialist may be helpful.

For help with smoking cessation – Dial 1-800-QUIT NOW
For help with gambling cessation – 1-877-MY LIMIT
I hope that Oregon will soon have a similar helpline for those suffering from drug and alcohol dependence. In the meantime, resources are available at Alcoholic Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

How to use this in the new year

If you’ve already got some ideas about things you want to change in the new year, you can apply the method described above. Read the book for more detail about how to apply this method to your life, but the above description gives you a framework to get started with. I do recommend that you keep your goals within a level that feels achievable. And if you aren’t sure where to start, but want to work on your health, consider working with your healthcare provider to set some goals. I am accepting new patients and love working on lifestyle changes with my patients – click here to schedule.

And if all of the ideas presented in this series feel like too much, especially after 2020, tune in tomorrow for some real talk and a gentle way to move into 2021.

This is the 4th post in a 6 part series about New Year’s Resolutions. I’m posting a mini summary on Facebook and Instagram, so follow me on the platform of your choice if you’d like to ensure you don’t miss the next piece on resolutions or come back tomorrow for another idea.

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