If you were asked, I’m betting you could pretty easily design a plan for eating healthier or getting more activity or improving your wellbeing. We are inundated with information about what we “should” be doing if we want to be healthier or happier, or thrive more.
Problem is, gathering all that information and simply knowing what you want to do doesn’t pave the path for creating success.
There’s a psychology of change, and all sorts of fascinating research on what motivates us, what keeps us in action, and how successful people create habits that stick.
Change also happens on a biological level. It turns out that we can train and even rewire our brain to be healthier. Imagine if some of the changes you’d like to experience were as automatic as brushing your teeth or turning towards home out of your office parking lot (something you probably do without even thinking about it). It happens. The problem is, the path to creating these habits isn’t exactly the one most busy, success-focused people embark upon when they decide to drop ten pounds, lose some stress, or get more fit. Unfortunately, we tend to approach change the hard, ineffective way. We overwhelm ourselves with newness and then we burn out or get to busy or realize we have other important things to focus on.
My friend Maria Brilaki gets it. She’s a Stanford engineering graduate who made a major career change to become an expert in engineering healthy habits and she’s the author of a new book, Surprisingly…Unstuck: The Power of Small Healthy Habits, In a World Addicted to Instant Results in which she explores why making healthy changes can be so difficult, how we get stuck, and what science tells us about what actually works. She breaks down the process of effective change, shows you how it’s entirely do-able, and also gives you some great examples of real people putting this stuff into action. It’s great stuff and an easy read that can be very helpful (keep reading to see how her tips and information got me to start doing core work on a regular basis).
Maria was gracious enough to answer a few questions about her book and what she learned about making changes that last. She is singing my song! It’s true – we don’t (and shouldn’t) always choose the hard way, and making changes doesn’t have to be unpleasant.
A short interview with Maria Brilaki:
Maria, what inspired you to write the book?
Most people spend literally decades complaining about losing those 10 or 20 pounds. Others feel guilty – daily. They feel guilty every time they eat chocolate, guilty for not exercising enough, yet feel unable to change…when I have questions, I investigate. I wanted to understand why it is so hard for people to do the right thing (eat better and exercise more). Well, “Surprisingly…Unstuck” puts an end to all of that!
What’s the most surprising thing you learned about getting unstuck?
If you’re just starting out, and you kick your butt to eat healthy and exercise…then you’re doing it wrong! It’s actually just a matter of time before you’ll quit your health endeavors. And even if you get results, those results will soon be gone once you stop.
The way to create better habits is not by forcing ourselves, but by choosing ease, and comfort. Our brain responds to ease and gets busy wiring those habits. It might sound unbelievable, but it works beautifully! If you read the book, then all the pieces will click together.
If you could only share one tip for people seeking to create a new habit that lasts–what would it be?
Celebrate every win – even the tiniest ones!
When you find yourself thinking you didn’t do “enough”, celebrate that you showed up. When you compare yourself against other fitter people and find yourself falling short, say “thank you” to your body for supporting you and for responding to the new healthier actions that you’re taking today!
When you celebrate, your brain is having a feast, and it’s gonna make sure you’ll exercise again, you’ll eat vegetables again, just so that you get to celebrate again!
Guilt, high expectations, falling off track and frustration with not being successful – I can certainly relate. And even though I know better, after reading Maria’s book, I realized that there are definitely places in my life where I could be applying these strategies.
How to make doing core work an automatic habit
For weeks (okay, months—probably years), I have been telling myself I need to do more exercises to strengthen my core. Not only do exercises like planks make me look better, they also do important things for my posture and my comfort. When my core is weak I feel it in my sore lower back.
I know exactly what exercise routine would whip things back into shape. When I’m driving, or even when I’m out for a run, I’ve frequently told myself exactly how I’m going to start doing all those exercises again consistently – but it hasn’t happened.
So, after reading Maria’s book, I noticed my husband and me both complaining about our (sore) lower backs. And in less than five minutes, we decided to apply the science I had just been reading.
- We defined a new habit – regular consistent core work with an important goal (no more back aches and more ease).
- We chose what Maria calls a “ridiculously small step.” This is something that was so easy to do, it was practically a no-brainer. We decided that committing to one minute (yes, 60 seconds) of core work, every single day, was something we could absolutely do with confidence. Given my current fitness, I committed to doing a 60 second plank every single day.
High achiever warning: This ridiculously small step thing is harder than it sounds. If you try this at home, you may very likely find yourself tempted to “add on” to make your effort “worthwhile.” Before the sentence was even out of my mouth, my husband and I both started thinking of how we could do more (“We could do side planks too!” “I could add in some stretches!” “I know some pilates moves that would be good!”) Don’t let this happen to you. Maria makes an excellent point. Don’t overwhelm yourself. If you want to trick your brain into creating a habit, aim for ease over effort.
- We made it a ritual by deciding when and where it would happen (every morning, first thing, right outside the bedroom, before going downstairs).
- We connected the new habit to ones that were solid and almost automatic for us. (We’ll do our 60 second plank in the morning, immediately after we brush our teeth, and before we have our first mug of coffee).
Note: This step has been incredibly important. Brushing my teeth has now started to trigger me to think of my “next” habit. Also, both of us have separately had the experience of starting to drink our morning coffee and realizing, “Shoot! Need to do a plank!” It sounds crazy, but it has really happened. And here’s the lovely thing. Because our new habit is so simple, it isn’t a big deal to drop down on the kitchen floor and throw in that plank. A minute isn’t even long enough for the coffee to get cold.
The verdict? We both agree that we are surprisingly unstuck. Since December 13 – through vacation and holidays, sleeping in, visitors, and routine changes, we’ve only missed two days. Our backs are stronger, stomachs a bit flatter, and the pain is gone. The planks have gotten easier and doing them is pretty automatic now. Even more interesting, I’ve found myself throwing in little one-minute stretches and core exercises at other times of day. We’ll see where this leads…..
Go here to learn more about Surprisingly…Unstuck: The Power of Small Healthy Habits, In a World Addicted to Instant Results.