How to Instill Good Habits into your Life (and Eliminate the Bad Ones)

“Starting tomorrow, I am implementing all your recommendations in one go – you’ll be amazed,” beams an enthusiastic Jenny as I am handing her the customized health plan. A week earlier, I had been working closely with her to determine the reason behind her deteriorating condition. Mental fogginess, dwindling energy and digestive discomfort were the main symptoms with which she had been battling. Several hours of discussions and a comprehensive blood test later, I determined the root cause of her problem. Patience and commitment to the solution are imperative in tackling the root cause behind any health condition, and Jenny was well aware of it. Nevertheless, her mistake was one that all of us commit (especially when making New Year’s resolutions.) We simply fail to consider our flawed nature in terms of handling fear that arises from taking on new challenges. And so when it comes to discarding bad habits and replacing those with good ones, humans have a discouraging record.

The Kaizen effect

“I want you to go as slow as humanly possible in terms of implementing my recommendations,” I respond to a bewildered Jenny, who was probably expecting an applause for her statement. “Choose a single recommendation; work on it daily and for several days up until you start doing it with ease. Only then should you move on to the next recommendation and so forth.” This advice stems from a principle I learned a while back; one that the Japanese used to resurrect a devastated economy after their defeat in World War II. Although this principle was created by the Americans, the Japanese utilized it to their favor and with impressive results. A couple of decades later, Japan emerged as an industrial heavyweight. The principle is called Kaizen. And in simple terms, it advocates the implementation of “baby steps” towards achieving a specific objective. Descriptive quotes that come to my mind are, “We must learn to walk before we can run” and “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step.”
So for example, if your aim is to quit smoking then stopping the habit entirely in one fell swoop is bound to fail as a strategy. And even if it does succeed, the possibility of a regression is very likely to occur on the long run. A better approach would be to reduce gradually the number of cigarettes you smoke (one less cigarette each week) until one day you are able to quit entirely. And instead of cutting your sugar intake completely (sugar is more addictive than cocaine by the way), you can start by reducing the amounts slowly. Eat half a bowl of ice cream instead of a full one and steadily decrease the portion over the coming days/weeks until you are able to eat minimal amounts. Such small steps would accumulate into a larger change eventually. This approach is very commonsensical but rarely implemented, since most of us are eager to change our lives around quickly. Kaizen as a principle works because it simply bypasses the “flight-or-fight” center in the brain or the Amygdala, according to Robert Maurer, associate clinical professor at the UCLA School of Medicine.

Overcoming the “fear factor”

You see humans in prehistoric times relied on this small part of the brain to survive a harsh environment. The amygdala was triggered every time danger was sensed – be it through the presence of a predator or a life-threatening change in the environment. And guess what happens when you try to impose drastic changes to your life rather quickly? Yes, you trigger the amygdala, which will in turn sabotage your attempt to stay the course. This part of your brain is designed to resist change and does not understand your intentions or goals. The fear of change is very real; any new challenge, opportunity or desire triggers a certain level of apprehension. Kaizen works as a system because the changes you implement daily are so minute and gradual that the amygdala remains silent. And your brain has enough time to accept and embrace the change that you wish to introduce into your life.

Nowadays, I still find myself reminding Jenny to take things slowly. But overall, she has been doing great. Instead of eliminating altogether the bad food choices and eating only “clean” stuff, she now tries to add one healthy food item to her diet each week. And every now and then, one bad dietary choice is either substituted with a cleaner version (coconut sugar instead of white sugar, for example) or only consumed during her once-a-week cheat day. Jenny is finally coming to the realization that success in achieving any goal needs to be built upon a solid foundation of healthy and enduring habits – erected one stone at a time!

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