When I was in my early 30s, I loved mocha espressos; they were an adult version of the hot chocolate I drank as a kid. A 16-ounce mocha was my go-to drink whether it was an early morning or an after-dinner treat. Mochas made me feel so warm and happy inside… I’m not sure at what point I had my first one, but it eventually became a habit, and if I went to the coffee shop, I got a mocha. Once that habit set in, making a different choice simply never occurred to me. I know now that one 16-ounce mocha includes 370 calories and 43 grams of carbohydrates from sugar. I never once considered how significant this one simple habit was or that it could have such an impact on my overall health.
Habits are involuntary behaviors controlled by the subconscious mind. Studies by neurobiologists and cognitive psychologists indicate that anywhere from 40 to 95 percent of human behavior falls into the habit category. This means that for most of us, a majority of everything we do is because it’s a habit. There are lifestyle habits like sleeping, eating, and activity level, along with cognitive habits like negative or positive thoughts. Habits are a major determining factor in how we think, what we say, and our overall actions. It seems clear that a person’s failure to regulate or change their habits largely controls the outcome of their life.
Habit stacking is stacking new habits on top of habits that you have already formed. More specifically, habit stacking is building and maintaining one habit before trying a new one. For the goal of weight loss, you obviously want to create new healthy habits and stack them on top of healthy habits that you’re already doing.
Let’s begin with addressing unhealthy habits. It has been said that you don’t just “stop” doing something that you know is bad or not good for you. It’s essential to replace that bad habit with something else. However, there may be some additional steps you can take to change a bad or negative habit. Some of them are:
On average, it takes more than 2 months to form new behaviors and have them become automatic. Because there is such an investment of time, it’s a good idea to focus on changing one thing at a time and replacing it with something that helps you to feel satisfied and that you will be able to continue doing. You never set out to change a bad habit with the idea that you’ll modify it for a while or white knuckle your way through it and then return to “normal” at some point. Healthy habits will be your new normal.
If you’ve struggled with being overweight for a long time or the pounds and inches are creeping up on you, there’s no need to go through your daily routine and overhaul everything at once. It’s important to build healthy habits that will last a lifetime and support your long-term goal of being happy, healthy and fulfilled. Dieting leads to failure because it’s typically a complete overhaul, all at once, and not sustainable.
If you never exercise, do a 30-minute walk every day. If you go to the gym occasionally, create a new habit of going at least 3 days a week. After 2 months, when 3 days a week has become your new habit, increase that to 4-5 days a week. Once you’ve mastered “level 1” of moving more in general, look toward the next goal of increasing your fitness level. Walking may be a good place to start but increasing your level of strength and fitness is the goal. If you’re already doing familiar workouts, push yourself harder by lifting heavier weights or joining a new strength training class.
Rather than completely changing your diet, make small changes like eliminating one guilty pleasure. For me, it was the mocha espresso. For you, it may be the daily donut, potato chips, or half a chocolate bar. Think about the things in your daily nutrition that are not serving you well and focus on making that one change. Eliminating a single sugary coffee drink or soda can greatly reduce your carbs and calories over a single day. Habit stacking allows for small changes, and once you have successfully mastered that change, it’s time to make another one.
Most of us routinely eat the same things. Think about how you prepare home foods, the heavy sauces, pastas, or marinades. Most Americans eat out several times a week, which can make controlling your diet incredibly difficult. Make it a goal to eat out or get takeout only once per week and introduce a new food into your diet. Try making broccoli tossed in olive oil and sprinkled with seasoning, then broiled to be brown and crispy. Many times, changing the way you prepare a vegetable can turn it into a new favorite side dish.
Some days I feel positive about giving up old habits that aren’t serving me well. Other times, I go kicking and screaming when I know what I need to change to find weight loss success. We each have a lifetime of habits that provide us comfort and familiarity, and that’s what’s most often keeping us from reaching our goals. Habit stacking gives us a more peaceful and manageable process to ultimately be successful. Once you’ve mastered this mindset change for weight loss and healthy weight maintenance, you will be digging into the other areas of your life that can benefit from this approach.