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Why Beginners Fail Part 3
Author: Jim Gray
Publish Date: 3/29/2009 3:56:35 PM

This is, the third part of a series of articles meant to explore possible reasons some of us fail at attaining our fitness or dieting goals, I will focus mostly on fitness but the fundamental lessons can be applied to dieting as well. In this article we'll explore the breaking of old bad habits. This can be the hardest thing to do when trying to change. Habits are closely garnered by our psyche and used as default behaviors when responding to various situations. For instance an old habit of mine was to get a few donuts and a soda for breakfast each morning. I was able to break that habit with some time and positive reinforcement. Eventually, I was able to get to the point where the thought of eating like that not only didn't occur to me but it disgusted me.

First lets talk about habits and understand what they are. First of all a habit is the mind's response to a certain stimulus such as someone giving you a task and you do the task without thinking about it based on how they asked you to do it. In the same sense a person could say "lets get lunch"- then your mind associates lunch with foods you are acquainted with such as pizza, pastries, and soda drinks. You automatically, may have just allowed your subconscious to habitually chose your lunch for you if you don't intervene on yourself. The problem is we as humans often don't analyze our decisions when they are habitually made because we understand that, as the habit goes- this course of action is right and easy to maintain. You won't naturally wonder if the habitually made choice is a good choice because its been a good choice in the past; or at least your current mind would lead you to think.

Habits are choices you make without you actually having to think about them. Choices in food can be habits- or lack of interest in working out. Some habits are good but if you are having trouble reaching your fitness or dieting goals then you might want to take a look at your habits. Sometimes its hard to recognize when we are making bad habitual choices. Keeping a log of food you eat and/or when you exercise is key to recognizing these bad habits. When you can look through the text and find things you might have done but didn't think about you will have a clearer understanding of what is going on with your habitual choices.

Start by sectioning off a piece of paper and making a list of choices made under each day. A spreadsheet is great for this. Every time you buy food or workout- list what you did but also list you mood and how you felt after executing your choice. At one time I would drive to the store a few hours after lunch and get another soda and some chocolate. When I read my logs for the week I noticed that although I figured I was only doing it a few times a week- I was actually doing everyday. By the end of each day I would have consumed two to three donuts, three cans of soda, and some chocolate, not to mention the greasy sandwich I had for lunch and who knows what else. Its was no wonder I went from 210lbs, solid, to 350lbs in only 6 months. I had no idea the bad choices I was making each and every day. Habits had taken over and I couldn't figure out why. So I thought about it.

I started to look at everything I was doing to understand habits. I found out I was a creature of habit. I could quickly make new bad habits that where then very hard to break. I had so many habits it was dizzying to think of them all. Some even conflicted with each other which was the only way- at the time I was breaking habits- but it wasn't by my choice. This is where I came up with the idea of replacement habits (of course this isn't really a new idea). I remembered them from psychology class in college and I understood very well how they worked. I then set out to list each of may bad habits and then find counter habits that made good choices for me. Revisiting the morning donut and soda habit:

It was difficult to drive by the gas station for about a month and not get donuts. Sometimes I would give in but it was rare. Each and every morning I would drive by and the temptation was great. I couldn't figure out a substitute for this bad habit. In fact- I was addicted to this behavior of stopping for a donut and soda. I went out and tried a few protein shakes on the market that had little to no fat but great taste. When I found a shake that worked for me I started having it for breakfast- drinking it each time I drove by the gas station satisfying that need for chocolate early in the morning. My urge was for the chocolate- having a soda with it was another habit. Without the chocolate donut I had no urge for the soda. My problem was solved.

This is just one way I was able to get rid of some of my habits. There are many ways to do so including "re-association". Re-association is where you take the habit and using repetition (going over it every time you encounter the stimulus) associate the behavior with either a better behavior or assert that the current behavior is bad. One example I have is with getting up early to workout:

"Get up now? Its like 5am!?" is what ran through my mind each and every morning as my alarm clock woke me up to go to the gym before work. I would then associate getting up early with work. In this example the habit was going back to sleep and waking up late to go to work because I had no other alarm set. I didn't want to set a second alarm clock because then it would be too easy to just stay in bed and wait for the second alarm. I was hoping the threat of being late to work would inspire me to get up when the alarm first sound; it didn't.

I had a problem: cardio is best done in the morning and I would prefer to work smarter and not harder in this case. Instead of getting up I would just lay there and flounder until I had to get up to go to work. I knew I wasn't getting good sleep just lying there checking the clock every 15 minutes for an hour or so, but it was a habit now to just stay in bed. I needed to re-associate getting up early with something else- something I could be proud of. I had spent time in both the Active Air Force and the Army National Guard and I had a sense of honor associated with that. I remembered the early morning reveille and started thinking maybe this is what I needed. So I associated early morning workouts with early morning military training. Now I had the new association of getting up early with the honor associated with early morning training; but this isn't the habit- this is merely the trigger for the habit.

There are things called triggers, in psychology. Triggers are something that causes you to respond to one stimuli and not another. Don't confuse the association with habits- its not the same thing. You will have a stimulus that triggers a behavior- the behavior via association. The behavior may or may not be habitual. If you make the behavior habitual and you re-associate the new trigger with the same old stimulus then you have a new habit for the same old stimulus. That is the power of re-association. In our case above I had a stimulus (the alarm) that triggered the behavior, which was habitual, with staying in bed. When I created a new-stronger association of "military mornings" I now had a new habit to default to instead of staying in bed. This change did take a great deal of work and time. If I could have changed my alarm sound to reveille then it would have been easier, instead I had to think about it often and I even hung a poster of the F16 Weapons System just above the clock so I could see it first thing when I woke up. With a little preparation, I broke a bad old habit and replaced it with a more correct response to my alarm clock.

Re-association, and replacement are two very effective ways of combating bad habits. Making a list of your habits and formulating a plan to combat these bad habits will help you overcome their adverse effects. If you need to make a log that maps out your choices during the day or not the topics discussed in this article should help you succeed where you may have once failed. With a good understanding of your habits and these ways of combating the bad ones you should be able to move forward and accomplish, more easily, your fitness and/or dieting goals.

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