For anyone who has struggled with their weight, here is a phrase that is too familiar: “I’m going on a diet”. You’ve probably said this many times while feeling motivated to change. However, what if we are saying the wrong thing at the wrong time? What if instead of going on a diet, we instead decide to change a bad habit? The reason why we do this is simple – it is easier to go on a temporary 6 week diet, rather than wrestling with changing a bad habit, which can take months. Going on a diet and changing a bad habit are challenging, but what is the difference? What drives or pushes us to make these decisions?
When you decide to lose weight, it’s a decision usually driven by motivation. For example, you can get motivated by an upcoming event which requires you to socialize. These typically include a 10-year class reunion, a friend’s wedding or a holiday party. After the event, however, the motivation stops along with the temporary healthy lifestyle. As a result, we go back to our old eating habits and end up gaining all the weight back. More often than not, we ask ourselves why we are back at square one. Why do we keep repeating this cycle of losing and gaining weight?
We rely too much on motivation
The reason why we are stuck in a weight juggling loop is that we wait for motivation. Motivation is not constant, one moment you are full of motivation, other days you don’t want to get out of bed. This come-and-go pattern that motivation creates is actually synchronized with our lose-gain weight pattern. Motivation is a great kick-starter for building healthy habits, but terrible at maintaining long-term goals. The 10-year class reunion or wedding party is a short-term goal. Many people lose momentum because once the goal is met, the motivation fades way. In reality, if you want to break away from this cycle, or make weight loss permanent in your life, you need to rely on something other than motivation. You need discipline.
Transform Motivation into Discipline
But how can you get disciplined? How can you change your thinking and habits from being reactive and emotional into one that is second nature? As with anything in life that we learn, we need to start by taking small steps. Think about how you learned to turn your body over first, then crawl, then stand, and then walk as a baby. We need to look at how to better ourselves from a different angle. For a moment, stop focusing on losing weight, and take a look at other areas of your life that need change. Are they also being driven by motivation? you’ll soon realize that motivation drives many behaviors of our life. The same up-and-down patterns are present in those behaviors as well.
Motivation is not a bad thing – I’m not saying not to get motivated. Motivation is awesome to start something, it gets us off our butts and springs us into action. But if we are serious and want to finish what we start, we need to rely on discipline. Discipline is simply the act of doing something repeatedly until it becomes part of your routine, just like brushing your teeth and combing your hair. It becomes part of our behavior, something you simply do. I know, it sounds simple written on words, but hard to actually do. So let’s talk about how having a “non-zero day” mentality can help us.
The “non-zero day” Mentality
Discipline is all about doing something, everyday, to accomplish your long term goal. Essentially, this becomes second nature, or a habit that you do, without thinking twice about it. The “non-zero day” approach is simple: no matter how unmotivated you feel, how lazy you feel, or how bad you feel, you will do something towards your long term goal, each and every day. Even if it’s a fraction of what you are supposed to do, it still accomplishes something towards that goal.
Daily exercise would be a good example here. Let’s say you’ve committed to a workout program, and you are doing great the first three days. On the fourth day, you have a headache or just aren’t “feeling it”. Without this rule, we would just say to ourselves “lets skip today, but tomorrow we will get back at it”. If we apply this rule however, we can say “let’s go walk outside for 15-20 minutes so that I get some sort of exercise and not waste a day”.
Do you see the difference with and without this way of thinking? Which do you think will help foster discipline and better habits in you life? A great way to challenge yourself is marking a calendar of non-zero days. This is a great way to keep track of your progress. Challenge yourself to have long non-zero day streaks. When a streak ends, don’t get disappointed. Unexpected events happen that can stop our ability to accomplish a task. Instead, challenge yourself to have an even longer streak when you start again.
Applying Discipline to Healthy Eating
This one is though because we eat at least 3 times a day. We are bombarded with so many bad eating choices that it becomes a very daunting task to undertake. The best place to start is by applying the “non-zero day” mentality to our eating habits. Find something that is jeopardizing your weight loss goals, and go after it.
As an example, one of my bad eating habits was drinking soda with every meal. In a day, I would typically drink about 4-5 cans of soda. After learning that soda is horrible for you, I made it a goal not to have soda after lunch. I kept a calendar in which I marked my days that I accomplished my goal. It wasn’t easy cutting my soda intake in half, but seeing all the days crossed out in the calendar gave me encouragement. I then changed my goal to only have one can of soda per day. Needless to say, after a few months, I was drinking unsweetened iced tea regularly. This is a habit that I have with me today, which is ordering iced tea or water instead of soda. It has been many years since I decided to make that change, and without thinking about it, it has helped me maintain a healthy weight.
So, instead of abruptly changing your routine or stopping cold turkey, make small, gradual changes, use the “non-zero day” rule to help you stay on track. Instead of that burger, swap it for a chicken sandwich, order things without mayo or greasy sauces, replace the fries with a salad, or replace the cola with an iced tea or water. There are many small things we can do to help change our eating habits.
Before you know it, you will be on a healthier eating lifestyle. Home-prepared meals that you can make ahead of time will be second nature to you. Be patient and focus on the discipline of healthy eating. It takes time to learn new habits so they become second nature. Pretty soon, you’ll never have to go through the gain-lose weight cycle again.
Exercise as Part of the Discipline
We all know that exercise is good for us. But if it’s easy to slide back into old eating habits, then it’s even easier to skip the exercise session. Just like deciding to go on a diet, many of us are waiting for motivation to pick up our gym bag. We need to stop relying on motivation, it leaves us faster than when it comes. Instead, we need to use it when it presents itself – to kick-start a new habit.
Use the same approach for adding exercise to your life as you used for swapping in healthier choices for your meals. Start small and work your way up. Remember that exercise doesn’t have to be going to the gym every morning at 5:00 am. Pick something that works for your lifestyle, something you enjoy to get started. Use the “non-zero day” mentality to do some sort of exercise each and every day. Even if it’s a simple walk around the block, it is still non-zero and it is still exercise. Don’t beat yourself up if you couldn’t do that scheduled intense workout your program demanded. Walking still helps towards your overall goal and towards you developing good habits.
Making Discipline Happen
It’s time for you to take action. Get yourself a calendar app, or get a cheap paper calendar from amazon or office supply store. Hang it somewhere you walk by daily, such as your kitchen. Taking some examples from this article, ask yourself what small steps you can take in order to develop discipline. Think of ways you can apply the “non-zero day” rule and start small. Weave those choices into your daily routine and be on alert for new opportunities. Remember to take it slow, and be patient with yourself and with your progress. Before you know it, you will be making better choices without hesitation. You will have maintained your ideal weight year after year, season after season. Better habits and good discipline will have become part of your lifestyle.