Train your brain to stick to any diet. Part 1: Habits

Train your brain to stick to any diet

We train for sports, we train before we take an exam and we train to give a killer presentation. But when it comes to making healthy changes, we often don’t realise we need to train for that too. Train your brain to learn new healthier habits so you can make positive health changes and reach your health goals.

As this is a such a huge topic I have split the content into three sections. This post covers Section 1: Habits.

1: Habits

So you are ready to make changes in your life to become healthier? We all do!

I was once a massive sugar monster – seriously. I would devour yoghurt heaped with honey and dried fruit for breakfast, chocolate for morning tea, a bar of chocolate before I left work and always, always something sweet before bed.

Yes, I was a healthy weight, exercised every day, ate all my veg, didn’t have fast food but I ate SO much sugar. I realised when my energy levels and moods were always up and down that I needed to cut it out.  Now I have chocolate in the cupboard at home that’s been there for weeks and I don’t even want it.

So my habit was sugar, and it was a habit I wanted to change. Maybe yours is going to the gym or cutting down on coffee, fast food or alcohol.  Whatever your goal: you are attempting to re-train your brain into creating a new habit.

What is a habit?
  • A habit is a routine behaviour, thought or emotion performed automatically.
  • Habits tend to occur subconsciously and automatically and are triggered by a cue, situation or event.
  • Habits allow our brain to work on autopilot, to reserve brainpower for larger decisions and thoughts.

For example, when you get into the car, what’s the first thing you do? You put your seat belt on (hopefully). This is an automatic habit. You don’t even think about it, you just do it.

The situation:  Getting into the car
The habit: Putting the seat belt on.

Habits can be positive and helpful; things like washing your hands, putting seatbelts belt on, or brushing your teeth. They can also be negative and unhelpful: poor self-talk, wanting dessert after dinner or logging on to social media at every possibility.

We start developing habits almost as soon as we are born. A habit develops over time by being repeated again and again. It can be difficult to change a behaviour that has had many years embedded in our life. Neuroscientists agree, telling us it’s very difficult to break habits.

So what can we do?
  1. Learn a new healthier habit to override the habit you want to get rid of.
  2. Maintain the new habit. Being able to maintain new healthy habits is the key to success when making long-term health changes.  If you can’t stick to new habits, chances are you will struggle to make long-term changes.

So let’s look at how to create a new habit, and how to keep up that new habit.

5 steps to a new habit

I’d highly recommend using a notebook, word document or journal for this. Not only are you more likely to reach your goals when they are written down, but referring to your notes during your journey can help maintain motivation and can be used to review your progress. I’ll use myself and my sugar habit as an example.

  1. Create your vision.

    This is the fun part. Get yourself settled in an area free of distractions, pour yourself a drink and let your mind wander. What is it you want? What does your ideal life look like? How is your day different to how it is now? Use all your senses to bring the vision to life, what do you hear, see, smell, taste and feel?

    Get excited about your vision and take 10 or so minutes to jot everything down in your notebook. I still read my vision to myself several times a week – it brings back the excitement I have about the life I want and the goals I have.

    See my journals and notepads I use almost daily to note my vision, goals and progress #analoggirl.

  2. Choose what habit you want to change.

    Figure out the main habit that is stopping you from reaching your vision. For me, it was the sugar. I knew when I ate so much sweet stuff it affected my mood and my energy. If I had low energy after a sugar crash I didn’t go to the gym. I felt tired, I didn’t want to be social. So I knew if I cut out chocolate and sweets it would improve my physical activity, my energy, my moods and so on.

  3. Importance and confidence. 

    Now you have chosen the habit you want to change; ask yourself the following two questions.

    1. Out of 10, how important is it that I make this change, given everything going on in my life?

    2. Out of 10, how confident am I that I can make this change?

    Importance score

    6 or below
    Find a new habit that scores at least 7 for your best chance of success.

    Scoring a 6 or less is a sign that perhaps now is not the best time to work on this habit. I have clients come and tell me they want to lose weight because their wife told them to, or they were trying to cut back on drinking but it was a busy time at work and the beers helped them relax. In both cases, they knew they should change their behaviours, but it just wasn’t important enough at the time given everything else going on. Plus, making changes because someone else wants you to is bound to end in failure. Make sure you are making changes because you want to.

    7 or above
    Proceed to question 2, about confidence.

    Confidence score 

    6 or below.
    A lower score shows there are barriers or obstacles that might prevent you from being successful. Chances of success will increase your confidence. To increase your confidence, list of all the possible barriers or obstacles that will affect you and come up with a few solutions for each – planning can help improve confidence levels.

    7 or higher.
    Fantastic. This shows you have plenty of confidence in making positive changes.

  4. What is the cue or situation that triggers the habit?

    Remember earlier when we said that getting into the car triggers us to put on the seatbelt without thinking about it? Getting into the car is the cue to trigger the habit (putting on the seatbelt). Now it’s time to play detective.

    What is the cue, situation or event that triggers your habit?

    Don’t worry if you are not sure right away. Take some time to think about it and consider what is going on around you when you next feel your unhealthy habit take hold. Some ideas might be:



    Do you notice something all the habits have in common? They are enjoyable. The reason why habits are so powerful is that they deliver rewards.

    Sweets, sleeping in, alcohol: these all make us feel good. So we need to find something just as enjoyable to replace these unhealthier habits with.

  5. What will you replace your habit with?

    Now you know what triggers your habit, you can be prepared. Come up with a list of a few things to replace the unhealthy habit with. They must be enjoyable, rewarding and something you want to do. When I gave up my afternoon chocolate I had cocoa tea instead. I loved the cocoa tea and looked forward to it. It made it easier to give up chocolate because I genuinely was excited to have my tea. Some examples might be:

Be very clear about your goals and use as much detail as possible. For example, when I decided to change this habit my goal could have just been “I want to quit chocolate”. Instead, I gave as much detail as possible “On at least 4 days of the week, I will have a cup of cocoa tea straight after lunch and vegetables and dips later on if I want”.

This gave me clear precise instructions about what exactly I was going to do. I could also measure my success each week by counting the days I didn’t eat chocolate. You might notice that I decided to do this on just 4 of the 5 workdays to allow myself one day of having something sweet if I wanted. I also made the goal positively framed; telling your brain you can’t have something only makes you want it more, allow yourself to enjoy treats now and again.

Hello, new habits!

After I quit being such a sugar monster I had more energy, felt better and dropped some weight. Just cutting out the unnecessary calories and sugar made a huge difference.

What if I keep messing up?

Failing is normal, and expected. Don’t worry if you don’t manage to make changes the first, or even second try. Remember it takes on average 84 days to create a new habit, and many habits people want to change have been in their life for years. Try a new habit behaviour, enlist support from a friend, write your goal on a post-it note to review for encouragement. Keep at it and try new strategies until you find one that sticks.

Putting it all together.

Now you know what a habit is, how to build a new habit and how to reach your goals. Building new habits can be hard and do require some work – but the payoff is huge. Not only do you have positive health change, a sense of confidence in reaching your goals, but also the skills to make further life changes if needed.

Check out Part 2 here to find out more about willpower and how it can affect your goals.


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