Simple But Not Easy
Have you ever heard the saying, “Simple but not easy”?
… Does that truism make you just want to punch the person in the face who said it?
So many aspects of behavior change – getting in shape, losing weight, changing your eating habits – fit into that category of “easier said than done.”
- Want to get in more exercise? Wake up earlier in the morning!
- Want to eat healthier? Cook more of your meals and eat out less!
- Want to lose weight? Just eat less and exercise more!
The difficult part of behavior change isn’t necessarily recognizing what needs to be done. It’s doing it. And then doing it over and over and over again.
For most people, the key is making it not just simple, but also easy. How do we target which behaviors most need to change (which will yield the biggest results for the least amount of effort), and then just do it, even when times get tough?
Sure, most life-changing positive behaviors do take a certain amount of willpower, as well as a healthy dose of repetition to become a habit.
But we can make things easier along the way.
I have four suggestions that have worked for clients again and again.
Have a Plan
One of the biggest mistakes I see people make is being too vague. They want to…
- “Eat better”
- “Exercise more”
These phrases are so incredibly non-descriptive that they don’t even give you a place to start.
Aggressively re-write your goals so that they’re unmistakably clear.
- “Use MyFitnessPal to track protein intake and eat 100+ grams of protein per day without going over my calorie limit.”
- “Get on the treadmill for a 30-minute interval run, alternating one minute of walking at 3 mph with one minute of running at 6 mph.”
Especially when it comes to weight training, it’s absolutely essential that people have a concrete plan that they know they’re going to do before they get started. For example, each month, I write out my clients’ exercise plans (which have a timer they can follow along with), and I do the same for myself. My workouts are called “Tuesday,” “Thursday,” and “Saturday.” Even my runs on my non-strength-training days are planned out in writing – how far I will run, how fast, and in what format (intervals, sprints, straight through, etc.).
This clarity gives you something to do, and takes the cognitive burden off of the moment. Most of us exercise in the morning when we wake up – this is not the best time to be making big-picture decisions about exercise. Already knowing what you’re going to do takes so much of the willpower struggle off the table automatically. With the app that I use for myself and my clients, the plans that I create pop right up in the “dashboard” when you log in for the day – it literally says, “What To Do Today.” Making things this painfully clear is ideal.
On the other hand, when it comes to food, having a concrete plan protects you from perfectionism. The problem with the vagueness of phrases like “eat better” or “eat clean” is that they practically require you to overhaul your entire diet. They tend to operate more on subtraction instead of addition. Having a very clear goal does not mean you have to eat “perfectly” (whatever that is!) and frees you up to focus on a behavior that’s going to have impact.
Pair Up Activities
Next up, let’s talk about “pairing.”
This is a strategy articulated in Gretchen Rubin’s Book “Better Than Before.” You’re probably intuitively familiar with this idea, but maybe you haven’t intentionally applied it.
It simply means that you “hook” something that’s less agreeable to you (i.e., exercise or cooking or meal prepping big batches of food) with an activity that you do enjoy immensely. Need to give yourself a “carrot” to get on the treadmill? Watch your favorite episodes of Real Housewives or The Bachelor while you push yourself through the miles. Need to give yourself incentive to batch cook a few meals and then clean the kitchen afterward? Listen to your favorite podcast or watch your favorite comedian on YouTube.
This doesn’t just help the time pass more quickly – it helps to cement a positive relationship in your brain with the healthy habit. You actually begin to look forward to your exercise or other healthy habits, because you associate it with something fun. Exercise, especially, becomes a “me time” when you can indulge in a guilty pleasure.
Go with the Flow
Next, when it comes to making simple (i.e., “hard”) things easy, I recommend not fighting yourself and setting up routines that move naturally with the flow of your life.
What are your daily rhythms? When does it make the most sense to do certain healthy habits?
For example, it makes the most sense for me to exercise early in the morning. I have a six-month-old baby, and my workouts really only get done if I do it before she gets up and before my workday starts. This is a pretty classic one for most people with kids (or without kids, for that matter).
But here’s a less traditional idea: for me, what makes the most sense for meal prep is that I shop on Wednesday nights and cook on Thursday afternoons or evenings. For me, it doesn’t work to shop and cook on weekends – I would be fighting my natural tendency to want to relax and do nothing on the weekend.
The key here is that you don’t set yourself up to fail. Don’t plan exercise during a time when it would really make the most sense for you to be doing something else. Similarly, don’t plan shopping and meal prep at times when you know it’s going to cut into your day and be extremely hectic.
Set yourself up for success by taking a good, hard look at your daily and weekly rhythms, and figure out where you can insert your healthy habit changes in natural spots.
Go with the flow – don’t work against yourself.
Fall Back on Grit
Finally, when all three of the previous requirements are met, then – and only then – should you fall back on grit to make it happen.
For example, my exercise is mapped out, it’s paired with an enjoyable activity, and it’s in a natural, achievable zone of my daily schedule. But when my alarm goes off at 5:00 AM, I want to be clear that I am not thrilled to get out of bed most mornings. Sometimes I pop right out. But most of the time, it’s a little begrudging.
But because I have removed so much friction from the path to my healthy behaviors, using willpower to get myself out of bed is a pretty easy thing to do.
But the goal is that healthy habits require an ounce of force of will – not a ton.
It’s true that simple things are not always easy. But you can craft your life so that they’re pretty darn close.