Making lifestyle changes can be the most rewarding experience when done properly. Whether you are trying to get more organized, get fitter or make more money, we all reach a point in which we realize we have to change something to live a better life. Although these changes can feel daunting, there are tons of resources out there to help us do it.
Helping people make healthy changes is part of what I do, but I also use all the techniques first and foremost on myself to A) see if they actually work, and B) get a sense of what's out there. I've read a lot of books on psychology and how to change our habits, and the following three are my personal favourite.
Here is a quick summary of them along with my favourite quotes/takeaways.
Book 1: Atomic Habits, James Clear
This book gives you clear and actionable steps to make long lasting changes. It spends just enough time on the science aspect of changing for you to understand how things work, and spends a lot of time giving practical advice.
The author states that we are a product of our habits, which are our solutions to our day to day problems. Our habits shape who we are, and who we are reinforces our habits. It's a feedback system to ensure we go through life as easily as possible. We all know that the easy way is not the always the best way, and thankfully this feedback system can be modified. First we need to understand what is a habit.
A habit is a four step process:
The cue is what triggers your brain to think "oh hey I have to do this"
The craving is whether or not you want to do that action
The response is the actual action performed
The reward is the satisfaction we get out of doing the action
The whole book explains different strategies to impact each of these steps. I will use going to the gym as an example but you can use the following strategies with any habit you are starting.
To influence the cueing, make it obvious. If the new habit your want to develop is going to the gym, put your gym shoes in front of your front door or somewhere else where you see them easily. The more your brain sees your shoes (or whatever else reminds you of the gym) the more it'll normalize going there.
You can also set implementation of intentions at the beginning of each week. This is basically putting down in writing what you plan on doing. Being as precise as possible leads to more adherence. "I will go to the gym on Tuesday at 6pm after work" is much cleared than "I will workout this week"
To influence the craving, make the habit attractive. Why would you want to go to the gym? You can use a strategy called temptation bundling which means that you use your current habits to reinforce the new one. For example you could combine watching a Netflix show with doing a quick home workout.
To make a habit more attractive you can also modify your environment. Joining a gym, or a fitness studio where you are surrounded by people who workout makes working out easier because it is this environment's norm.
To influence the response make it as easy as possible. You want to eliminate as much friction between you and the desired action. Feeling too tired to go workout? Just go there a do the warm up. Too anxious to step in the gym? Just drive there and go home. Feeling too tired to workout at home? Just do 10 squats on the spot. Don't want to do 10 squat? Just do one. The toughest part of the response step is to actually start it. By "making is so easy that you feel silly saying no" you increase the odds of you actually doing the action
To influence the reward, make it satisfying. One of the most gratifying feeling is noticing that we are making progress towards our goals. To make habits more satisfying, the author recommends using a habit score card so you can visualize your progress. I can already hear people think "Why can't I just reward myself with a nice snack after a workout". The problem with that is that we don't actually want a rewarding snack, we want comfort food after a tough time and it is just a short term reward. A habit scorecard nurtures a desire for delayed gratification, which is essential in all long term goals.
Favourite ideas from the book:
- It is the accumulation of small 1% improvements which result over time in significant improvement.
- There is a critical threshold to cross before your new behaviour yields any results. Before that threshold is what the author calls a "Valley of disappointment" in which you are doing all the right things but not seeing results. You could be in this valley for months, even years. In my experience this is where 99% of people who want to lose weight give up.
- Goals are for setting a direction but it is your processes that will help you make progress
- You identity is a result of your habits
- When you are about to do (or not do) something, ask yourself "Does this behaviour help me become the type of person I want to be?"
- It is the anticipation of rewards, not the fulfillment that gets us to take action
- The best is the enemy of the good. If you are always looking for the best way to do things you will never get started because there is always something better out there.
- Peak motivation happens when we are working on tasks that are just outside our current abilities.
- What differentiates the best athletes from everyone is the ability to handle the boredom of training every day.
- Pros stick to a schedule, amateurs let life get in the way.
You can check out many more tips from the book at https://jamesclear.com/articles
The war of art by Steven Pressfield
This book talks about an intangible force called Resistance that goes against you when you try to change your status quo for the better. It's a short read, each page contains a paragraph or two, which can be read all in a day. This book is much more about the philosophy of change, and even though I agree with most the ideas presented, there are some that I don't agree with. Nonetheless I find it pretty fun to re-read this from time to time because of it's size and I do get a kick of motivation each time.
Because this book has a more philosophical message, it is much more susceptible to personal preferences and beliefs.
The book is divided into three parts:
Part one talks about what defines resistance, what are its characteristics and in which situations it can materialize. Resistance is impersonal and universal, it happens to everyone. It only opposes you in one direction, the one of growth. You will never feel resistance when you do something that is easy.
Part two explains how you can beat resistance. The author calls it turning pro at whatever it is you are trying to achieve, committing to it full time. For me, this part is was great source of inspiration for how I wanted to shape my identity and which habits to develop for that reason.
Part three is more about how you can find a routine that you can stick to. The author talks a lot about finding your "territory" that you can excel in. An athlete's territory is the field or the weight room, an artist's territory is a studio, my territory is the gym etc
Favourite ideas from the book:
- Resistance can be many things: procrastination, self sabotage, laziness, hyperactivity, the relationships you chose to be in, your environment
- You have to distinguish what is urgent and what is important. Then do the important thing first, because that matters more.
- We are all pros at our jobs already. Why not use the way we behave at work (showing every day, sticking to a schedule, being there even though we don't always want to) with the things that we really want to do in life
- We have two lives: the one we live and the un-lived life. I found the concept of the un-lived life eye opening. It's the life of the "what if" situations. What really helped me here is realizing that we do have the power to merge those two lives together when we take action.
- Resistance mainly feeds on our fear of change. If we can understand why we are afraid and overcome that, we can change more easily.
- Being in motion and being in action are two different things. Sometimes we get stuck in "setting up a plan" and never getting around to doing it. Overly obsessing over finding the perfect plan is a form of resistance because it keeps you from actually starting the plan
Start with Why by Simon Sinek
This book has helped me a lot in my business life but also has a very strong application to any project we undertake.
Whether it's starting a new hobby, a new habit or a new lifestyle, knowing deep down why we do it is important.
The main takeaway from this book is what the author calls the golden circle.
This image refers to organizations and businesses but here's how I see it from a fitness perspective:
The "what" layer is your outcome goals. Losing weight, putting on muscle, increasing your cardio, moving pain free...
The "how" layer is your processes, your habits you develop. It can also be the workout routine you chose.
The "why" layer is your true desires. I never wanted to put on muscle for the sake of putting on muscles. At first I wanted to get bigger so I would get picked for the rugby team, then I wanted to look more muscular to be more attractive and have more dates, then I worked out to forget some heart aches, and now I workout to keep improving myself. Obviously I also work out because I enjoy it, but when a workout gets tough, do you really think tell myself "I am about to lift 200 pounds over my head because I enjoy it"? No, the reasoning is a little bit more like "I am going to lift 200 pounds over my head because last month I couldn't do it so if I do it this month it'll prove to myself I am indeed getting stronger"
The bigger the goal, the clearer the why has to be. When someone tells me they want to lose weight I always try to know why. Losing weight, like putting on muscle is hard. If you are doing it just because you feel peer pressured or manipulated to do it, you wont last long. When you know your "why" eating healthier becomes easier, going to bed earlier makes more sense, adopting a new lifestyle seems natural.
Favourite ideas from the book:
- "Better or best is a relative comparison"
- There are always many right options to choose from. Ask ten different knowledgeable trainers what the best way to get fit is and you will get 10 different answers. Chances are they are all correct. But some of the advice might not be the right fit for you and that's ok.
- Knowing your why allows you to give yourself some slack when your motivation is low. When you know why you want to lose weight, it's easier to have a better relationship with food and more importantly be ok with eating foods you enjoy from time to time. You know that these foods aren't aligned with your beliefs and that the short term enjoyment you get from them doesn't happen often.
- "There's always a price to pay for the money you make"
- "Being successful and feeling successful are two very different things." This can also apply to being fit and feeling fit. You can go ask anyone who just completed a marathon if they feel fit. Even though they just ran for hours on end, most of them will tell you they don't feel fit.
- "Success (or in our case being fit) is a state of being." Our achievements or outcomes are a result of our "what". Feeling fit is more about the continuous process of following our "why".
How I use these three books together.
These books complement each other pretty well in my opinion.
"Start with why" always reminds me it's important to have a clear understanding of why I want to do certain things. The book is a little repetitive but the good thing is the author makes it clear that finding your why takes a little bit of work and reflection. It's a good reminder that we can take our time to understand what motivates us deep down.
"The war of art" gives me a good motivation burst at the beginning of the changes, or whenever I feel like I'm slumping. Due do it bite sized chapters, it's an easy read and I like to read it all at once and then go over some notes I made. I found that each time I read it I found something new in the message of the book which shows me that every situation we find ourselves in are going to have different solutions.
"Atomic habits" gives me a clear frame work of how to make these changes last long term. When the time comes for me to put my plan into action, this is the book I read. Every chapter is a gold mine and if there is one book out of the three I would recommend it's this one.
All three books have similar ideas, worded differently and that's one of the reason why I usually read them together.
Enjoy the read, and let me know if you have other favourite books that help you change!