When I went through Army Basic Training, it was an extreme exercise in habit creation. All of a sudden I was shining my boots and making my bed and exercising daily when just the day before I arrived at Fort Benning I was doing none of those things. But here’s the thing… I didn’t have a choice to not do those things. Oh sure, there was the rare recruit who rebelled and refused to follow orders and caught himself an ELS (entry level separation). But most of us adhered to our new regimented life and made immediate changes to our habits and lifestyle.
Out here in the “real world”, away from the Drill Sergeants and barracks and soldiers, we have plenty of choices. The very things that we want to avoid as we start new diet and exercise habits abound. From televisions with hundreds of channels to fast food restaurants on every corner, temptation pervades and making shifts in our habits requires a large dose of a scarce resource that is intentionally eliminated from the equation during military indoctrination. That scarce resource is will power.
In Basic Training we were deliberately isolated from distractions. There were no televisions, radios, magazines, or newspapers. In fact the only reading material we were permitted was a single spiritual text (I actually had to convince a Drill Sergeant to allow me to keep my copy of the Tao Te Ching). Outside of snail mail, we were cut off from all contact with our families and friends back home. There was no choice of when or what you ate. No choice of when or where you slept. Even our time for showering and using the bathroom was dictated. With no choices to make there is no struggle of will and habit change is inevitable.
So am I suggesting that you subject yourself to military confinement anytime that you want to change your diet and exercise habits? Of course not. I tell you about my Basic Training experience to illustrate that being aware of your will power limits is crucial to creating change. Since completely eliminating choice in our modern world is not a realistic option for most people, consider the 5 tips below when it comes to sticking to your diet and exercise plan:
1. Start small.
Many people simply bite off more than they can chew. Instead, start with a simple change that is far below your perceived level of compliance. What that means is that if you think you will be able to start with 30 minutes of exercise per day, instead start with just five. If you want to completely revamp your diet, instead commit to starting by adding just a single serving of vegetables each day. These small initial changes will help build momentum and allow you to gradually increase your new diet and exercise habits without becoming overwhelmed at the onset.
2. Start big.
What is the single change that you can make that will have the most impact on your health and fitness? Is it waking up an hour earlier so that you have the time to exercise and pack a healthy lunch? Is it replacing your nightly gin and tonic with a cup of chamomile tea? Is it finally seeking counseling for that childhood trauma that holds the deep dark reason as to why you really “protect” yourself with a layer of fat? What ever it is for you, identify that one big thing that will yield the greatest results once addressed. And then instead of jumping in with both feet, start small and build momentum over time as described in tip #1 above.
3. Make it fun.
Exercise should be a part of your day that you look forward to with excitement. If you are dreading the thought of pounding the pavement as you lace up your running shoes, perhaps you need to find an exercise activity other than running. Especially if weight loss is your aim, nearly any form of exercise will help get you closer to your goal as long as your diet is dialed in. So dance, hike, swim, lift, stretch, or throw as long as it makes you smile. Eliminating choice is one way to take will power out of the equation. But having an option that is so enticing that you can’t wait to do it, is far more enjoyable.
4. Make it convenient.
Just as keeping exercise fun will help you maintain the practice, making sure your new diet and training commitments flow with your busy schedule will also help you to stay on the path. Consider working out at home instead of the gym to cut down on travel time and avoid the hassle of dealing with the crowds. Preplan, precook, and prepackage your meals ahead of time for the week so you don’t get caught without a healthy meal when your will power is shot at the end of a busy day. The more you can streamline your efforts, the more you remove the will power factor, and the more likely you will stick to the plan.
5. Create Non-negotiables.
One of the things that I admire about vegetarians, is their unwavering commitment to their chosen dietary path. There is no eating the occasional hamburger just because everyone else is eating one. There is no “cheat day” where they nibble on some bacon. Sticking to a diet free from meat is non-negotiable – there are absolutely no circumstances where the vegetarian strays from the plan. What non-negotiables can you work toward that will help solidify the “big win” addressed in #2 above? Perhaps under no circumstances will you go to a fast food drive-thru. Or under no circumstances will you drink soda. Go for the big wins and create firm rules that help you avoid the “just this once” mentality that often leads to a slippery slope away from our goals.
When we start a new diet and exercise plan, our minds and bodies naturally want to hold on to our old ways. And fighting against the old ways with nothing but will power is often a losing battle. Instead help smooth the transition to your new habits by starting small, starting big, making it fun and convenient, and creating unbending rules that help you stick to the most important aspects of your plan.
What tips do you have to stick to your diet and exercise plan? How do you leverage your will power reserves to create new healthy habits? Share your thoughts in the comments below.