I hear it all the time:

  • “I feel so much better when I go for a walk in the instead of just staying hunkered down at my desk/watching ‘one more’ episode of [insert your latest binge-worthy show]. Why do I have so much trouble doing it?”
  • “Why can’t I stop what I’m doing to make dinner so I have a nice meal when I’m ‘normal hungry’? I keep putting it off until I’m already starving and just want to eat cheese and crackers for dinner.”
  • “I feel so much more energetic when I get a good night’s sleep. Why do I keep staying up late reading/watching Netflix/playing Words With Friends?”
When intentions don’t match actions

When we know what behaviors and habits help us feel our best, you would think it would be adequate motivation for doing those things…yet often, it’s not. What’s the deal? Why do we find it so challenging to act in our best interest, when we have actually experience in the matter (i.e., it’s not just someone telling us we “should” do it)?

This is seriously a situation I see again and again in my clients (and, heck, I’ve even seen it in myself). In no way to I see this as a failure (to err is human, to forgive, divine), but it does call for a good dose of introspection and curiosity…because, again, we’re not acting in our own best interests and we would like to remedy that.

Four factors I see frequently are:

  • Inertia
  • Competing interests
  • Weight-centric thinking
  • Memory lapses

I’ll look at each of these in turn.

Overcome inertia

Inertia is the resistance of any physical object to changes in its speed or direction. In this example, we are the physical objects, and this is how inertia might play out:

  • If you are sitting on the couch reading or watching something, it’s easier to remain sitting than it is to get up and go for a walk.
  • If you are eyeballs deep in a work or personal project, it’s easier to keep at it than it is to put things away and go make dinner.
  • If you stay up late (reading, watching Netflix, or working on a project) it can feel hard to call it a night and go to bed…especially if you’re up so late that you are tired, and the thought of brushing your teeth and putting on your PJs feels like too much work.
Claim victory over competing impulses

One example of competing impulses is wanting the benefits of a good night’s sleep but also wanting “me time” in a household that contains children or partners (sometimes both…perhaps with pets thrown in for good measure). Dinner’s cooked. The dishes are done. The kids are in bed. The dog’s asleep. The cat is…well, who knows. You finally get to curl up on the couch with the remote (or a book, or your social media apps) and have some alone time, or couple time. Your inner rebel proclaims, “How dare need for sleep interfere with Me Time!”

You’re a natural introvert who needs a lot of alone time to recharge your batteries. But other people in your life have other ideas about what you should do with your time…namely, you should spend it with them (whether alone, or in one of an endless series of Zoom/FaceTime/Skype sessions)! You want to say “No,” but you fear being perceived as rude or unsociable.

Unhook from weight-centrism

As I talked about in last week’s post, weight-centric thinking is the idea that life (or at least health) revolves around weight loss. If most of your healthy habits are in the service of trying to lose weight, and you aren’t thrilled with what the scale says or how your pants fit, it’s easy to say, “Screw it, there’s no point in exercising or eating vegetables if it’s not making me smaller. I’ll deal with those things later when I have the energy to make another weight loss push…maybe next year.”

By putting all your healthy habits in the weight loss basket, you can easily forget (or not notice to begin with) that things like eating nutritious food, lifting weights, taking a mid-afternoon walk break, and getting enough sleep helped you feel good. Maybe they also did nice things for your blood sugar and blood pressure…and those are the numbers worth paying attention to.

One way to get clear on what actions you need to take to be your best self, and which actions you can stop (or put on the back burner for now), is to look at your values. Values aren’t about what you want to get…they’re how you want to be. Two worksheets I often use with my clients are this values checklist and values worksheet. They work together to identify your values and put them in perspective. This helps with all three of the preceding obstacles: inertia, competing impulses and weight-centrism.

Remembering to…remember

Isn’t it the worst when you fully intended to meditate, do some yoga or go for a walk and you get to the end of the day and realize you totally forgot even though you totally had time to fit it in? That has happened to me more than once, and it sucks.

This is one reason why I like morning exercise (most mornings…I also like relaxing with coffee and some reading, so I reserve a few mornings for that activity), because if I have the mindset of “I’ll do it sometime today,” a combination of forgetting, inertia and competing interests usually bites me on the butt (I’m working on something engrossing, know I should get up from my desk just to get UP but I don’t, and then I forget I intended to take a yoga breaks sometime. And then it’s time to make dinner, and I don’t like to do yoga after dinner.

One of the hardest parts of developing a new habit or routine is remembering to do the new thing. It’s just not fully on your radar, because it’s not yet a habit. So, duh. This is where obvious visual reminders placed where you will see them at an opportune time can help you get over that tiny but not insignificant hurdle. For example:

  • Setting your walking shoes outside the bathroom door where you’ll see them in the morning
  • Posting a sticky note that says “meditate”
  • Placing an empty water glass next to the coffee maker
  • Creating a pop up reminder on your phone, or an audible reminder on your Alexa or other device

Of course, if you see the reminder and don’t do the thing, it’s no longer an issue of remembering. At that point, consider whether it’s inertia, competing interests or weight centrism.

The power of pleasure…and planning

You feel great after going for a walk in your pretty neighborhood, or on that nature trail, yet you don’t do it nearly as often as you would like. One helpful technique is move your experience past the fleeting “this feels great, I should do this more often” thought, and really immerse yourself into that feeling of greatness. Make the pleasure you experience BECOME an experience. Make it a vivid memory you can conjure up at will. Then, when you’re “stuck” on the couch or immersed in a project, and that little voice says “I really should go for a walk,” the memory of those good feelings can help get you out the door.

I also like the “Five Minute Rule,” which works better with things like taking a walk, doing some yoga stretches, or meditating than it does with, say, going to bed on time or cooking dinner before you’re ravenous. The “rule,” which is more of a bargaining tool, really, is that you only have to commit to doing the thing for five minutes, and then you can stop if you really want. Odds are you won’t stop, but even if you do, you still helped strengthen your habit because you did the thing!

Finally, timing matters. If life keeps getting in the way of those habits that make you feel your best, you may have to figure out when to make time and space for the habit. Are you significantly more likely to exercise in the morning than after work? How can you make that happen? Go to bed earlier so you can get up earlier? Shift your work hours slightly? Rearrange your current morning routine?

I’ll be talking about these concepts (and more) in this week’s Facebook live on “Radical Self-Care.” I hope you’ll join me!

Carrie Dennett, MPH, RDN, is a Pacific Northwest-based registered dietitian nutritionist, freelance writer, intuitive eating counselor, author, and speaker. Her superpowers include busting nutrition myths and empowering women to feel better in their bodies and make food choices that support pleasure, nutrition and health. This post is for informational purposes only and does not constitute individualized nutrition or medical advice.

Seeking 1-on-1 nutrition counseling? Carrie offers a 6-month Food & Body program (intuitive eating, body image, mindfulness, self-compassion) and a 4-month IBS management program (low-FODMAP diet coaching with an emphasis on increasing food freedom). Visit the links to learn more and book a free intro call to see if the program is a good fit, and if we’re a good fit!

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