Lazy People Healthy Habit Formation

education Sep 19, 2017

by Dr. Laurie Marbas

Okay so maybe calling out the lazy people was a bit crass but it did get your attention and there is a reason for it. Humans like other animals have an innate desire to seek pleasure (think food and sex), avoid pain and expend the least amount of energy doing it. Now I know that is a bit simplistic but it is a framework upon to build healthy habits by finding pleasure, avoiding pain, and using the least amount of energy. Hang in there with me! (An awesome book to read about this and dive deep is The Pleasure Trap, by Dr. Doug Lisle and Dr. Alan Goldhamer.)

Let's start with pleasure. What does pleasure actually mean? According to Merriam-Webster it is a state of gratification, a source of joy or delight. This could stem from many different sources including sensual experiences (sexual encounter), gratification of accomplishing a difficult goal (running a marathon, finishing a complex project at work), and sharing joyful moments with those you care for (celebrations, holidays, vacations). Kindergarten teachers have known about this for generations...who doesn't want a star for good behavior? I know I craved this when I was in school! 

However,  sometimes what we think are pleasurable activities are actually harmful to your health such as overeating, excess alcohol consumption, and drug addiction to name a few. We attempt to escape physical, emotional, or mental distress with these activities. We develop cues, routines, rewards and cravings with unhealthy activities. If one can develop damaging patterns you can also create healthy life preserving habits that not only improve your physical health but your over all well-being which we will get to in a moment. 

What do we mean by avoiding pain? Pain can also knock on your door in different forms. Maybe it is the physical pain of chronic disease, emotional agony of a divorce or death of a loved one, mental anguish of depression or anxiety, or financial strains after a job loss. The line is blurred when we attempt to silo the pain but it is there none the less. We either create ways to deal with it where it is less painful (if you get burned your first instinct is to run cold water over it) or remove it or yourself from the pain (run from the fire or numb emotional hurts with food, drugs or alcohol.)

What about those who put themselves through rigorous physical and at times painful training? It goes back to the dopamine, well-being, thoughts of success. There reward is pushing themselves to the limit. To increase their athletic prowess, abilities and hopefully success during competition either with others or themselves. For instance, I like to push myself to be faster than the me of yesterday but I don't want to necessarily want to compete on an ongoing basis. Now don't get me wrong. I am competitive during a race but I usually have realistic goals to beat the person in front of me or try not to let the 80 year-old pass me up. (Seriously, these have been my goals. I can go...but I am slow. :) )

Getting back to habit formation...Who doesn't want to be efficient? When you are using the GPS on your phone you are seeking the shortest route with the least amount of time travel. When you are at the grocery store you naturally survey the lines and typically go to the shortest or at least the quickest moving. All this is hopes of using the least amount of energy as possible to attain our goal or reach our objective.  

The solution is to create an environment where it is difficult to fail, easy to do, use little energy, receive the dopamine reward, use the routines already built into your day, use the why-what-how method to start. What is your WHY? Ask yourself the reason you want to become healthier or include a new healthy habit into your life. Then ask yourself why again. For example, Sheila wants to lose weight. If I ask her why she wants to lose weight she might answer, "so I feel better." Okay, why does Sheila want to feel better? She might say because she has no energy to play with her kids and she doesn't want to sit on the sidelines of parenting. The latter answer gets to the emotional side of the why...and that is what will keep you motivated when things get tough, life happens and you struggle with temptations of old habits and cravings.

The what is very simple...the whole foods plant based diet, exercise 30 minutes a day, start a mindfulness practice, get 7 hours of sleep per night, etc. The point here is to determine exactly what you are going to do to reach your goal. The important thing to remember is not to aim for the quick fix but the long lasting change that you will be able to sustain for a lifetime.

The how might be a little more tricky. How do you fix whole food plant based meals on a time and budget crunch? How do you get your kids to eat more vegetables when all they want is processed fast food? Well, lucky for you I have answers right here and here for you that have been used by countless patients to lose weight and find health for themselves and their families.

So now you have your why (this is your reward), you figured out what (this is the routine...the activity of what you will be doing) and the how (setting up your environment to succeed like cues). If you want to start running (Why? Because you want to run your first 5K in preparation for a dream trip to hike the Grand Canyon with your kids), you find a couch to 5K program on the internet (this is your What), and you leave your shoes and running clothes out the night before and set your alarm for 5:30 AM (this is your How because you know you do not have time later in the day).  

Now, I want to add one more step in this and that is adding even more positive into the situation. We often focus on the negative in our society but we crave the uplifting and we are drawn to heroes overcoming incredible obstacles because they are inspiring. So let's add some gratitude to your day and you will soon see a shift in your own attitude when it comes to not only your new habit but your overall daily existence.

This exercise is called the three things. Every evening take inventory of things you are grateful for and one of them must be the steps you took towards creating the healthy habit. The other two can be whatever you want...it could be as simple as being thankful for another day on earth in an upright position! Do this for at least 66 days because according to the research it takes at least 2 months to create lasting habits. The reflection and celebration of these small or big things in life can turn a curmudgeon into a contented soul.

Then as you put the work in (yes there is a little work but it is important work with lifelong consequences) you will see the ripple effects begin to take hold in other areas of your life. Your relationships improve, you are less anxious and deal with stressful circumstances more easily.

I can't wait to hear how this works for you! Please share if you think this will be helpful and leave a comment below! 

 Dr. Laurie Marbas, MD

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