How to change your habits: If you don’t write it down, it doesn’t happen.


{ The upcoming posts discussing ways to change our habits are all based on Charles Duhigg’s book The Power Of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business. I’ve blogged about it recently, regarding my decision to keep my computers turned off on Sundays. These posts illustrate how I am applying Duhigg’s concepts in my life, and what tools I’m using to do that. }

No photo? Then it didn’t happen. — The Internet

Make any claim online, and you’ll get asked to prove it with a photo. Despite this show-me attitude, I rarely provide a photo. Convincing the Internet masses of most things isn’t of great importance to me.

However, convincing myself of my need to change, and that change is possible, is very important indeed. I don’t want things to not happen for me.

No journal? Doesn’t happen.

Duhigg advocates writing things down in order to make changes.

I know the value of writing things down. Journals overfloweth in my apartment. And yet, I was surprised at my surprise with the suggestion that writing down seemingly minute behavior might change habits. It makes sense, though. We write things down to remember. We write to-do lists. We write things down we want to make note of so we can take action on it later. Why wouldn’t we, then, write down what we eat or what we’re doing when we crave a smoke?

If there’s anything that’s for sure about each of us, it’s that we default to autopilot and think as little as possible in order to get through the day. Without writing things down and forcing ourselves to stop and think and decide what we will and will not do, we will never figure out what sets us off. We will never understand why we do what we do when we do it. Our autopilots continues on, uninterrupted, if we don’t bring it to a screeching halt by picking up a pen and making note of our activities.

Writing, then, forces us to think. If we don’t journal, change doesn’t happen.

Don’t write it down? Change doesn’t happen. — me.

Journals can even be part of the reward.

I wanted to figure out my eating habits and weight gain, despite a fairly decent and regular workout regimen for the past year. It was confusing to me. I didn’t feel like I was hogging down food. I generally have learned to stop when I was full. I couldn’t figure out what was going on.1

Obviously, my ultimate reward is to lose weight, but I also wanted to not eat out of habit. Getting to the final goal requires small rewards along the way or I won’t stick with it. I have to find something that is as much of a reward as chowing down when I’m bored in front of the TV, or I won’t change that habit.

One of my rewards became a line graph. I was strangely motivated by a little red line.

Using an online spreadsheet to track my eating proved to be its own strange little reward.

I put my eating diary online, in a spreadsheet. I tracked the time I ate, how many calories, and what I ate. I assigned numerical values to the reasons I ate (social, routine, hungry, not hungry, craving). I used that to generate a line graph and scatter plot to visualize calories in and out, and when and why I was eating the most.

I made a scatter plot for my eating! — world’s biggest dork / me

For some reason, the entire process of it all, and the little thrill I get from spreadsheets, became part of the reward. My original intention was to use it for mere notation and tracking, but it became both the writing down and the reward. Here’s why:

  1. I was thrilled at the end of the day to be able to see success. When you’re trying to lose weight, it doesn’t happen instantly and if you’re motivated by visual results, a line graph might do the trick.
  2. It became easier to police myself and not cheat. I could see when I was headed down the wrong track early on in the day.
  3. It gave me some power (e.g. “I see I need to prepare myself ahead of time for Wednesday small group meals.”) in an ability to view my eating as a systematic pattern that I could plan ahead and work with. I had a tool to work with that took the burden off of “just say no” and onto “let’s plug it into the system and see what it says.”
  4. It allowed me to easily adjust to a gradual calorie reduction system to work my way into an optimal weight loss plan in a way where I didn’t really notice it.

I wanted the red line to work.

So, what did I discover after a few weeks?

A lot of eating when I’m not hungry. It might be social reasons, or routine, or not wanting to turn down a lunch invite. It might be boredom. I was surprised by the number of times I ate when I wasn’t even hungry. The days I started doing that showed me never being actually hungry the rest of the day, though I ate more than when I was hungry.

Keep It As Simple As Possible

I decided to chuck all the trillions of diet plans out there, and focus on the truth of mathematics: deficit2. Fewer calories in and more calories burned = weight loss. Healthy foods naturally become more attractive because I see how much more I can eat of them without affecting that caloric total. This is, essentially, what a system like Weight Watchers is doing for you.

Like I said before: we don’t follow through on anything that’s overly complicated. In keeping with my concept of three-steps-or-less, I decided I wouldn’t tell myself I could or could not eat anything. And since I started the habit of exercising regularly a year ago, I didn’t have to fight that battle now. It was already in place. So, all I had to do was remember this:

  1. Start: Know your caloric goal for weight loss.
  2. Concept: Burn more calories than you consume.
  3. Do: Write everything down to keep track, and stay within your guidelines.

That’s it. If I wanted to eat a candy bar, I can. It’s going to be a hungry day, though, and I won’t pull that stunt too often.

Write it down, or it won’t happen.

All of this, of course, is based on one very important thing: a desire to change coupled with a willingness to be honest and do the work.

You can’t cheat. You have to write it all down. You have to attempt to hit your goals. It requires some willpower.

Get Started Right Now

You certainly don’t have to use the elaborate spreadsheet I came up with, because that might not appeal to you. Use a simple notebook (I do, for times I’m not near my computer. I then transfer that data to the spreadsheet.) You simply have to determine what habit — eating, exercising, smoking, too much TV — has you whipped, and start writing. Note when you do it and be honest about why. Look for a pattern. Think of how you can disrupt that pattern and still feel good at the end of the new pattern. Stick with it for at least three weeks. And then some more.

If you do want to use the spreadsheet I made, you can have it for free, through Google Docs. I have a sample made up, with some comments inserted to tell you how to use it best. Sign up for the free Lone Prairie email list and I’ll email you a link to it to try out for yourself. Current subscribers will have access to the link in their regular weekly email.

1 In the excellent book The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer author Gretchen Reynolds debunks many health and exercise myths (e.g. forget the 8 glasses of water a day — you don’t need it. Just drink when you’re thirsty.). She has several great discussions throughout the book on why we might actually gain weight when instituting an exercise program. It has to do with homeostasis — our body’s natural desire to maintain its current state. When we exercise more, we tend to move less when we’re not exercise, and eat more after exercising, though we’re likely unaware of it. It takes a conscious decision to force our body to not do this.

2 In the above mentioned book in a chapter discussing weight loss, Reynolds interviews several doctors and physiologists who strip away all of the gimmicks and feel-good things we’ve been told (“you can walk just a little bit and lose weight!”) to this one basic concept of caloric deficit. “In general,” Reynolds writes “the mathematics of weight loss, whether achieved by exercise or by any other means, is uncomplicated, involving only subtraction. Take in fewer calories than you burn, put yourself in negative energy balance, lose weight, the end.” (page 80)

5 responses

  1. Watched a show on centenarians a few years ago. Scientists did extensive interviews with people over 100 and the only personal habit that separated them from the regular public was their much greater than average water intake, especially before noon.

  2. Possibly. I’m skeptical against “expert advice” that dictates behavior that tells me to eat based on times on the clock vs. when I’m actually hungry, and says “drink this much water” when I’m not thirsty.

    I think our body knows more than we give it credit for. It’s a matter of us knowing what it’s telling us.

  3. I can not believe you do an excel spreadsheet with scatter plots. You have too much time on your hands!


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