Have you started a fitness programme in the past only to fall foul of old habits, slip back to your old ways, and ultimately fall off the wagon? Did you know there's a simple tactic you can use to make sure that never happens again? It's time to talk to you about Triggers & Habits...
Although you may not think it, we're still simple creatures and still have behaviours that hark back to our days as apes. We're protective of our families. We're territorial and we'll fight to defend what we have. And we're also creatures of habit.
This article will look at how those ingrained behaviours and the habits you've developed over the years may be holding you back from true progress.
If you're the person that's started a fitness programme but struggles to stick to the regime, then this article is aimed squarely at you.
Maybe you've been tempted on several occasions by some delicious foods that you love, like those sugar-coated Krispy Kremes perched on the end of your desk brought in to celebrate someone's birthday (which seems to happen every damn week).
They've taken you way off plan and left you feeling guilty, demotivated, and depressed about the whole situation. It's probably even created a negative feedback loop, whereby you feel so down that you think, "Fuck it!" And end up binging for the rest of the day, which makes you feel even more depressed, and so the loop continues.
Added to that, the thought of a new fitness programme is all very exciting in the beginning. You set that New Years' Resolution at the start of the year, but now you realise sticking to that plan is more difficult than you thought. Getting to the gym 5 times a week like you promised yourself is proving to be all too much. Life's getting in the way and you're just not making the progress you thought you would.
In fact, you're actually going backwards!
As the saying goes, "Old habits die hard."
Well now's the time to get all Bruce Willis on yourself. It's time to understand what's causing you to stray off plan. And it's time to start forming good habits to replace the bad.
It's time to throw those habits out of the 34th floor of the Nakatomi Plaza.
Yippee Ki Yay Motherfucker!
Analysing your own conscious and sub-conscious actions is an aspect of your health and fitness journey that is rarely mentioned, and it's definitely something you won't find many trainers talking about.
But for me, it's vitally important.
Fitness and bodybuilding in particular is enslaved by a lot of macho bravado. Guys and girls feel the need to grunt and scream their way through every rep and every set of every workout. In between sets it's all about flexing in the mirror or telling your gym buddy that eating preworkout straight out of the tub is the next big thing. "It's awesome dude. You can feel it going straight into your muscles. Water's for pussies. Fuck hydration!"
You and I both know that this is all just bro-science and bullshit.
Motivation and phycology works in all aspects of life, especially sports. All the greatest teams in the world, across multiple sports focus on this as part of their strategy to win.
Training and nutrition are a necessity, but it's the mental toughness that can make or break success. It separates the great from the good.
So why not apply the same process to fitness and bodybuilding?
You might not want to be the next Arnie or a crossfit champion, but being the best version of you that you can be, HAS to be what you're aiming for.
Understanding YOU is critical and it's one of the keys to success. If you try and follow someone else's way of doing things and it's rigidly prescribed to you, with no room for change and adaptation. It will fail. That's guaranteed.
What works well for someone else might work for you if you're very similar characters, but there's likely to be a significant percentage of that approach that won't.
And it's that percentage that can throw you off of your plan and lead to that negative feedback loop time and time again.
On the flip side of that, you can learn a lot of others that have achieved what you want to achieve. And that's one reason why I write these blogs. I share my experiences with you, so you can use that as a start point, try the ideas out for yourself and see what works for you.
As Gary Vaynerchuk would say, "You do you."
So what's all this Triggers and Habits stuff all about and how can it help you win?
Take a moment now to reflect back on your day.
What was the first thing you did when you got out of bed? Go to the bathroom, take a leak, and wait for your brain to kick into gear?
Maybe you threw on your dressing gown on and headed straight for the kitchen to throw the switch on the kettle so you can warm up your zombie-like body with the taste of that life giving black liquid, coffee.
In this case getting out of bed was the trigger and whatever you did next was the habit.
So let's say you're the guy or girl that took a leak. When you were done there what did you do next? Hit the shower? I bet you even scrub yourself clean in the same way each and every time.
The trigger was you finishing on the toilet, and the habit was getting in the shower.
Then the shower became the trigger for you to wash yourself in that same order without you even thinking about it.
Starting to get the picture. Trigger leads to habit and so on.
Even if you think you're the most spontaneous person in the world, I guarantee these triggers and habits are littered throughout your daily life. You'll realise that there's a ton of things you do without even thinking about it. You're on autopilot. Almost oblivious to the world around you.
You probably drive the same way to work every day, sit at the same desk, go grab that 9am coffee, eat lunch at the same time, drive home the same way, get home and, and , and, and , and..... You get the picture.
But not every trigger leads to a bad habit. Quite the contrary, most of your habits will be good and have no negative consequence on you achieving your fitness goals, but the bad are out there. You've just got to hunt them down.
Research shows that the human brain has more than 50,000 conscious thoughts in a day. That in itself is mind-blowing and it's causing me to have a few thousand thoughts about that alone right now. Even more amazing is that we repeat 95% of those thoughts each day.
If that stat is true then there's no way you actively think and ponder everything you do during the day. You'd end up not doing anything. Things just happen because that's the way you're programmed to function. Years of repeat behaviour have made you do those things without even a passing thought.
Now you know the principle behind triggers and habits you can start to zero in on what triggers within your daily life are resulting in a negative habit. Then you can target them and torpedo them into oblivion.
Understanding the the habit loop
The biggest mistake you could make when trying to adopt the Trigger and Habit approach is to focus too much on the habits.
Yes. It's an important part of the process, but there's a little more you need to think about. The habits are the start point. What you need to do is work backwards from here and get under the skin of what's triggering that habit and why.
As Charles Duhigg describes it in his book, 'The Power of Habit', it's all about understanding the habit loop.
He describes 3 elements to the habit loop, which are the Cue, the Routine, and the Reward.
The cue is effectively the thing that sparks the particular habit, ie the trigger. That can take the form of a particular time of day, a location, or anything like that. It can even take the form of a group of people you socialise with or an emotional state. A classic example of the latter would be comfort eating. When you're feeling slightly down and depressed about something, do you reach for that tub of Ben & Jerry's that's lurking in the bottom of the freezer. After all you did put it there for emergencies just like this.
Or maybe your cues are driven by a particular time of day. Are you the type of person that drifts towards the vending machine at work at 3pm in the afternoon? You grab a coffee, a quick chat with some colleagues, and you sneak a Cadbury's Twirl into your pocket at the same time.
And it's the cue that results in the brain going on autopilot. The fact that it's becoming so ingrained in your sub-conscious means it's gonna take some effort to work against it. That process is made easier by the things we're covering in this article.
The routine is the most obvious part of the habit loop. This is the part of the process that you're currently fixated on and are desperate to change. This is the action. The grabbing of the Twirl at 3pm, or the stuffing your face with food the minute you get home from work (that's one I've had to work on).
On a slight tangent, it's also important to note that you don't just want to focus on picking out your bad routines. It's highly likely that you've got some triggers that are resulting in some great habits.
Recognise these. There's something you could learn about yourself and your behaviour that would translate well into replacing some of your bad habits. You could also work on reinforcing these habits. So if you have a routine of grabbing water instead of snacking throughout the day, then remind yourself of that. Remind yourself that you are doing these things well. And make sure you find strategies that enable you to maintain that habit on a long-term basis.
Once you understand the cue and the routine, you should look to the final step. The rewards.
The last element of the feedback loop is the reward. It's the reward that tells the brain this 'thing' is worth remembering for next time. That can take the form of that juicy, frosted donut, or it could be something intangible like vegging out and watching an the latest episode of House of Cards on Netflix. Although, when the latest series of House of Cards comes around it's rare you stick to just one episode, right?
Now we understand triggers and habits and the concept of the habit loop, let's figure out how you actually make some positive changes.
Analysing the Habit Loop
The start point is always the habit itself. Whether that's a habit you want to change or one that you want to reinforce and keep doing, it's the thing to zero in on right away.
After you know what habit you want to work on, you then look at the reward, before finally analysing the cue.
To talk you through this, I'm going to use an example of my own that I worked through using this exact technique.
I used to come home from work every evening around 5:30pm and immediately dump my bag on the floor and head to the kitchen. Once I got to the kitchen, I'd rifle through the drawers looking for something to snack on. I'd always end up grabbing some sultanas and some nuts. Both required no preparation whatsoever and were quick and easy.
Now you might think that these aren't super "bad" foods, but if you've ever read my article on making good food choices you'll know the concept of 'good' and 'bad' foods is not reality. It all comes back to calories in vs calories out.
And on that principle, I was able to do enough damage to my calorie intake that my cut would go off track, my progress would be slow, ultimately leaving me frustrated and pissed off with myself. Until I discovered the triggers and habits concept I also had no idea where I was going wrong either.
Looking back on that scenario, rummaging through the drawers and tucking into those easy to grab snacks was the habit. That was the easy bit to identify.
The reward might not be the obvious thing in all scenarios. It could've been that I really wanted the taste of nuts (that sounds bad) and sultanas. Or it could've been that I was lacking energy and needed a bit of a boost. Was it too long since my last meal?
So before you jump straight into solution mode, take a little bit of time to figure out what the reward ACTUALLY is. It can take a little bit of time, but it's worth it in the long run. For me, it wasn't the fact that I was craving those exact foods and it wasn't that I was even hungry. I found that out by switching up the foods and also having an extra meal towards the end of my work day. Those strategies didn't really work and I found that I'd always come back to those snacks when I walked through the door.
What it actually turned out to be was boredom. I would come home from work and have nothing to do before sitting down for dinner in about hour's time. My craving was not food. It was to fill the time.
So you can see from this example alone that switching up the food type or adding an extra meal in would have no impact on the habit. The trigger would still result in the same old habit.
This habit was certainly dying hard! I needed to go all John McClean on this bad boy.
In my case the cue was reasonably obvious. Walking through the front door after a long day at work was the cue. Or was it?
Cues can sometimes be really obvious, but it's always worth taking a little bit more time to study the situation to make sure you've covered all the bases and not left an aspect unresolved that will eventually allow you habits to reform further down the road.
To find your cue there's some questions you can ask yourself. It helps to write your answers down, so you can come back to them at a later date if needed.
- Where are you? Does the habit get triggered in a particular location each time?
- What time of day is it? Can you set your watch by it? Does it happen at a particular time of day and / or day of the week regularly?
- How are you feeling? Are you happy, sad, or some other emotional state?
- Who's around you? You could be seeking social interaction. Are you having that chocolate bar by the vending machine because that's where people hand out at 3pm every day?
- What preceded the compulsion? Was there are particular action or activity just prior to your urge that triggered the habit?
As you can see, there's lots of factors that make up the cue. Ask yourself all of these questions, find out what makes up your cue and then you can start to take action.
I touched on it earlier, my cue was a mix of 3 of those 5 bullet points. My habit was triggered by me coming home at 5:30pm, and being in an emotional state of boredom.
Quick summary then. My habit was snacking on nuts and sultanas that were taking me over my daily calorie target and affecting my cut. My reward was filling time and relieving boredom. My cue was walking through the front door at the same time every weekday, knowing that I had pretty much nothing to do of the next hour or so.
Ok, so what know. How did I, and more importantly, how do you make a change?
Breaking the Habit Loop
This is the bit that I'm sure you're most interested in. How do you break those habits?
Now you know all the component parts of the habit loop, this is actually easier than you might think. Don't get me wrong it's still tough to break a long standing habit, but now you know the reasons why you're doing what your doing and the circumstances around it. It gives you the best opportunity to finally break that habit, because let's face it, willpower alone just doesn't work.
What you need to do is make adjustments within the habit loop that will still satisfy what you crave but at the same time not throw you off track with your goals.
In my example, I needed to fill the gap in time with something so I wouldn't be tempted by the snack drawer.
What did I do?
I knew that I couldn't change the cue. I needed to go home. I couldn't stay at work all night and just wait for the time to pass.
What I did was set myself up with a new routine when I walked through the door. I'd empty my gym bag and pack it for the next day. I'd wash up all the containers I used for my meals that day and prepare my post workout shake for after the next day's workout and get all of my other bits and pieces together. Then I'd get changed and get myself ready to chill out for the rest of the evening (or in reality sit and keep working). By the time all of that was done, I was ready for my main meal and had avoided the desire to snack.
It takes a while for that new habit to form and for it to stick. But because you understand the habit loop it becomes easier to stick to on a regular basis.
In essence you need to make sure you have a plan. And more importantly than that you need to make sure you execute on that plan. Not just once, but time and time again. Day in, day out. Week in, week out. After a little while it flips into that autopilot category and you won't even think about it.
How Do You Apply This to Your Training and Nutrition?
If it's not already smacking you in the face how this technique can help you then just look at all the bad habits in your day, or the things that are preventing you from succeeding.
Are you struggling to stick to that meal plan? If so, why?
Are you sticking to the meal plan most of the time, but get tempted too often? If so, why?
Are you missing gym sessions in the evenings and not hitting your weekly training volume? If so, why?
There are probably a myriad of different things that could be affecting your progress, and certainly too many to cover here and and now. The best advice I can give is to take some time to sit back, reflect and think.
It might sound all a bit hippie and 'zen', but hey, like I said at the beginning of the article, we need to change this macho bravado and actually do intelligent and positive things for positive results. There's more to fitness and bodybuilding than beating our chests like silverbacks and grunting.
The final thing I'll say on the subject is that you shouldn't try to make too many changes at once. It can be tough to change a well-established habit, so go easy on yourself and take it once step at a time.
If you've got any questions about the content of the article feel free to leave me a comment or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Iron Paradise Fitness Habit Approach
As you might have guessed, I'm a big fan of the Trigger & Habit approach, so much so that I use it in my 1:1 coaching programmes.
Adherence is key. As a coach it's probably THE most important facet to consider. Helping a client to keep to their training and nutrition programme has the biggest effect on making goals a reality.
And this comes in multiple forms. Making sure the training plan suits how the client likes to train is important. Making sure the nutrition plan suits the client's lifestyle and incorporates the foods they like is important. And lastly, helping the client form positive habits is the long-term game changer. It's the one element that will make the difference between short and long-term change.
With Iron Paradise Fitness programmes, I map out those habits by asking questions during the initial consultation period and asking for additional information, such as a 3 day food diary. This helps me understand behaviour. Without realising it the client is giving me a wealth of information that I can use to make their fitness journey easier.
Once I have this information and have tailored the plan to their specific needs, I develop a habit tracker that looks a little bit like this...
After talking through all the triggers and habits with the client and understanding the habit loop, the key habits are tracked on a daily basis via the tracker.
Now I'm not looking for perfection on this. It's more about consistency.
85% or above is perfect and will make sure that those positive habits start to stick.
If you're interested in learning more about how I approach online fitness coaching and how it is different to what you see from other coaches, the head over to the online coaching section of the website to find out more.
You'll find out about the motivation side of things as well as how that works hand in hand with the other 2 key aspects of the Aesthetics Through Strength programme. Training and nutrition.
The ATS programme is my personalised, uniquely tailored complete fitness programme that is built on the foundation of strength-based training.
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