Why Trying to Make a “Lifestyle” Change Is a Recipe For Failure

by | Apr 5, 2016
Photo by Darnosaur

Photo by Darnosaur

When I first made the decision to stop dieting and focus on eating for health and happiness, more changed than just my body. As I explored new foods and new habits I met an entirely new group of people.

Instead of talking about calories, carbs and cardio, these people spoke about balance, acceptance and a “healthy lifestyle.”

I hated it.

I agreed with these principles in theory––of course you should balance your nutrition; of course you shouldn’t think worse of yourself because of the shape of your body; of course health is a lifestyle and not a short-term goal––but there were no concrete instructions for actually making change.

It felt like a fluffy echo chamber, all philosophy and no action. Maybe there’d be some laughable tips like “eat everything in moderation” (what does that even mean?) or “get plenty of sleep” (pffffff, I wish).

But I wanted to know how to stop when I’d eaten enough and how to pry my eyes away from my computer screen so I could actually get ready for bed.

One of the nice things about the dieting world (putting the pure evil thing aside for a second) is the specific, actionable advice you’re given.

“Eat no more than 50 grams of carbs a day” is a horrible recommendation, but at least I knew how to do it. Count the carbs in your food, add it up, and stop at 50. Easy.

Compare that to “you need to make lifestyle changes.” Where do you even start?

This is one of the main reasons I started Summer Tomato, to create a resource for people who were ready to embrace a more enlightened approach to health and weight loss with strategies that actually work.

I wanted results, not just a feel good pow wow. Because while the first step to success is having the right mindset, if you don’t have a concrete plan of action nothing will ever change.

In the dieting world the concrete actions typically surround specific micro- and macronutrients (e.g. protein, carbs, calcium) and calories. You have numbers to work with, so success is unambiguous. Yes these regimens require willpower, but as long as you have the strength the system works.

What I learned from both personal experience and studying the psychology of behavior change is that for long-term results the concrete actions you must focus on are NOT specific numbers, but specific recurring behaviors. Habits.

Changing habits feels harder than altering the ratios of macronutrients that you eat, because it is more nuanced and requires more thinking and cognitive processing. But in the long-run it is actually less difficult, since once the habits are developed they require hardly any extra effort.

Changing habits is also the only thing that really works. So there’s that.

Focusing on behaviors instead of numbers is by far the best strategy. Yet at the same time, it is easier to get stuck along the way. When this happens, take a page from the dieter’s playbook and get more specific.

Ask yourself things like:

  • What exactly is the desired outcome of the behavior I’m trying to change? Is there another way to achieve it?
  • When will I be able to take this action? What day? What time? Is there a better time?
  • Where do I need to be for this behavior to happen? Could I do it somewhere else? How will I get there?
  • What will I need to do this behavior? Is there a preceding behavior that I should focus on first?
  • What might stop me from doing this action? What can I do to eliminate this barrier?

The more specific you can be, the easier the action will be for you. The easier it is, the more likely you’ll do it. The more likely you’ll do it, the more likely you’ll do it again.

All habits are different, so this process needs to be repeated for each behavior you want to change. But getting specific about making the change can get you out of excuse mode and into action mode.

Have you been stuck trying to make a vague “lifestyle change”?

Originally published Feb 4, 2015.

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30 Responses to “Why Trying to Make a “Lifestyle” Change Is a Recipe For Failure”

  1. Michael says:

    Great perspective. As for sleep, telling someone to “get more sleep” or “get 7.5 hours of sleep” is a recipe for disaster. I think a better approach is to teach someone to learn the physical and mental signs of true sleepiness (head drop, heavy eyelids, rereading sentences in a book, etc). This is more likely to lead to better sleep health with less worry, which leads to less dependency on hypnotic sedatives.

  2. amy says:

    thanks for the wisdom. I think the other thing that’s hard about changing habits is that it takes time to recognize the next habit that needs work. I’ve fixed a few habits one at a time, and then when my weight loss stalls, I have to wait (and observe) for the next habit to make itself known. With dieting, you either do it or you don’t do it. There’s no waiting (except waiting for the pounds to fall off). But with this process of changing my habits one at a time, I don’t feel guilty. I feel empowered. Foodist changed my life. The change is taking time, but I feel like at each new step I know it will work itself out if I keep working on my habits.

    • Tania says:

      Thanks for your comment Amy. I found it really helpful to hear someone else’s strategy about changing their habits.

  3. Rebecca says:

    This. “Changing habits feels harder than altering the ratios of macronutrients that you eat, because it is more nuanced and requires more thinking and cognitive processing. But in the long-run it is actually less difficult, since once the habits are developed they require hardly any extra effort.”

    It sounds so obvious, like such common sense (and it is), yet it’s like a little light bulb just went off in my head. Duh, yes, it’s uncomfortable to change a habit, but once you’ve successfully done it–boom, autopilot! This works for so many areas of life. Thank you for the food for thought (pun intended).

  4. Jules says:

    loving wisdom Wednesday Darya!

  5. La says:

    “The more specific you can be, the easier the action will be for you. The easier it is, the more likely you’ll do it. The more likely you’ll do it, the more likely you’ll do it again.”
    This is KEY. I like to follow an approach called Plan-Do-Check-Adjust:
    Plan: The what/when/how of the changes I want to make (basically all the questions you posted to ask yourself)
    Do: Execute the plan! Do it!
    Check: How did it work for me? Did I like the changes I made? Did it yield the desired result?
    Adjust: Update your plan based on that feedback, and then go through the PDCA cycle again!

  6. Where most people fail when they attempt to change (or completely stop) a set behavior is that they fail to put a reward system in place for that behavior change. To give a bit of insight into this process, let’s say you were a pack-a-day smoker and you made the New Year’s resolution to quit cigarettes. Well, aside from a cleaner set of lungs and fresher breath, there’s really no short term reward given to the person who stops smoking –– which helps to explain why more than 70% of those who attempt to quit cigarettes will be back at it within six months. On the other hand, when very specific reward systems are put in place for a behavior change –– or an absence of an old behavior –– compliance rates skyrocket.

    With our cigarette smoking friend as an example, let’s use a twelve ounce cinnamon latté as the reward for a 24 hour period of NOT smoking, and all of the sudden, quitting becomes much, much easier. Of course –– with daily lattés as the reward –– one long term result will be a somewhat overweight non-smoker, but that’s an entirely different challenge to overcome.

    This technique –– behavior change in combination with a reward –– is the key to habit creation, modification, or elimination.

  7. Sherry A. says:

    Hi, Darya…

    What if you’ve developed better habits, but no weight loss occurs. How can you stay focused and avoid disappointment? Thanks!

    • Darya Rose says:

      Hi Sherry,

      The first step is patting yourself on the back for making progress. Weight loss isn’t the only goal, if you’re eating better or exercising more than you ARE healthier. Congrats!

      Disappointment is just a perspective. If you have additional goals beyond health, like weight loss you just need to figure it out. You can––it’s certainly not impossible––but it will take some trial and error.

      When I’m stuck I go back to food journals, step counting, etc. Back to the basics. Try to find a high impact habit that could make a difference, then test it.

      • Sherry A. says:

        Thank you, Darya:)

        Having your site has been a tremendous help! Sorry for a second question, but what do you mean by ‘high impact habit?’ Happy to learn and implement…..

        Thank you!!

      • Juli R says:

        Hi Darya, I really enjoy reading all you write and I learn so much! Thanks!
        Could you explain me what you mean about “disappointment is just a perspective…. ” and “if you have additional goals beyond health like weight loss you just need to figure it out”…. I am not sure I understood what you mean…. Thanks so much

      • Darya Rose says:

        Hi Juli,

        My point to Sherry was that switching to healthier habits IS a success. If she wasn’t losing weight, that is a different problem that required further experimentation. I was trying to tell her she should be happy with what she has achieved (building better habits), and continue experimenting if she wants further results like weight loss.

        I happen to know that she has succeeded in figuring this one out. Stay tuned to the podcast for more details 🙂

    • Darya Rose says:

      No prob!

      High impact habits are those that can make a difference of thousands of calories a week. e.g. cooking dinner instead of going out, eating fruit instead of a muffin as a snack, ditching soda, walking 10000 steps, etc.

      These are in contrast to switching from coffee to tea, buying lowfat instead of regular yogurt, or switching from regular to whole wheat pasta. All these are pointless, since the difference is negligible. Make sense?

      • Sherry A. says:

        Makes perfect sense!

        I feel excited and more in control with this information.

        Thank you so much, Darya…

      • You make an excellent point about high impact habits. I, too, am guilty of focusing on the small, “busy work” type of habits instead of the ones that will create lasting change.

      • Cynthia says:

        Thank you to Sherry for asking for the clarification. At first I read it to mean high impact aerobic exercise, but this makes more sense!

        I think it would help a lot of people to think of behavior change with regard to weight loss in this way. If I’m going to give something up or do something new I can easily assess if it’s going to be worth it.

        For example, one change I’ve made in the past year is to aim to keep breakfast around 300 calories. I used to eat a 400 or 500 calorie breakfast, but it’s not that difficult to make a few tweaks to keep it under 300 and makes a big difference to me later in the day to be able to stick to my daily calorie goal. To me this change is really worth it.

  8. Deborah says:

    I like the point that Matthew made about using a reward. When I first joined a gym, my reward for going 3xw for 1 month was a new exercise outfit. At the end of 3 months I got new tennis shoes.

    Darya I really didn’t like reading that switching to whole wheat pasta is pointless. I read the label and pick the higher fiber and higher protein pasta.

    • Darya Rose says:

      I’m sorry to disappoint you, Deborah. You would have to be eating a tremendous amount of pasta each week for the small differences in fiber and protein to make a measurable difference in your life. And if that were the case, you would be MUCH better off reducing the overall amount of pasta and replacing it with unprocessed foods like beans or brown rice, rather than switching from regular to whole grain.

      Of course if you like whole grain pasta that’s fine, but it’s only “better” the way $1.01 is better than $1.00. This is exactly how nutritionism tricks people.

      • Noel says:

        Loving this high impact habit theory! It is something I implement successfully all the time, but have trouble sharing with my hubby. Now I have language to deliver the message more clearly. That said, I’m guilty of trying to implement low impact habits like whole wheat pasta on my family because I prefer the option … But if it is backfiring on me, and keeping them from joining me on the more important choices, maybe I can take a step back here. Pick my battles more wisely! As always, your thoughtful approach helps put everything in perspective.

  9. Jordan says:

    Thanks for the post! It’s so easy to get caught up in numbers and tables and charts that we forget the bigger picture of what can make us healthier or live fuller lives. This is some great advice.

  10. Madrat says:

    I think counting calories works. However, I think I’ve found something that works with a different kind of discipline. Intermittent Fasting. I’ve steadily been cutting weight without thinking about it too much. I’ve worked up to a 18 hour fast / with 6 hour eating window. I feel energized and can perform moderate to semi intense workouts before eating. Some days its easier to fast than others. But overall Im really liking the concept. Now if I were to really think about my calorie / protein intake I’d probably cut even more weight, but honestly I just like the simplicity of it. I would suggest that anyone considering the concept read up on it thoroughly to understand the benefits and potential caveats.

    • Wendy Laubach says:

      I’ve been reading about intermittent fasting, too. I haven’t tried it, but I can report that since I’ve changed my eating habits in the last six months, I noticed how helpful it is to have large parts of my day set aside for “doing just about anything but eat.” Otherwise I tended to graze and nosh continuously. Now I’ve got a whole new set of habits for entertaining myself and using my time well that don’t involve food. If food is stuck under my nose, like donuts in a parish hall after services, they’re not part of my expectations for how to pass that time, and I just ignore them. It works much better than constantly telling myself “You have to deny yourself that treat.” It’s not a treat any more, it’s an irrelevancy.

  11. Dayna says:

    First off, just want to say thank you so much. I listened to the audiobook of Foodist as I squeezed in little walks throughout my day at work. 10,000 steps never felt so easy. Too many times I find myself tracking and planning out my day to squeeze in the last gram of allotted carbs… Then when the weekend arrives I’m a horse at the gates about to sprint into a large Papa Johns pizza and dozen cookies. It’s silly how much time I spend studying and comparing nutrition labels. Your idea of high impact habits is refreshing. It’s so obvious yet somehow goes so unnoticed when I am caught “in the moment”. I’m excited and motivated to realize that I can be more relaxed with my everyday choices if I just quit the big things that often leave me feeling unhappy and regretful in the end.

  12. Nick says:

    this is great! Awesome read 🙂

  13. Sherrill says:

    Three years ago I had to give up gluten when I found out I had a sensitivity to it. I’m Italian, I love to make bread, and this changed my life tremendously. Honestly, it’s not much fun to eat any more, and that’s what my friends do: eat out. I live alone, but my extended family has never accepted this or made any accommodations for me, so I usually bring my own food or just eat salad. This has never gotten easier.

    I have a serious Coke habit and I have just given that up because I am so afraid of becoming diabetic. This is so hard because honestly I drink soda all day long. But I really can’t get motivated to give up all sugar or make any of the other changes I am constantly bombarded with: vegetarian, vegan, eat 70% veggies, none of this. In my mind I already can’t eat anything I like, I’ve made enough sacrifices, and food should give me some pleasure.

    I need to lose at least 60 lbs, but I can’t get motivated to change my diet. My son told me he totally understands because already I can’t eat anything fun. I’m in a bad place with this.

    • Shannon says:

      I’m sorry to hear about your struggles! Have you looked into any of the gluten-free options available? Honestly, if you did a blind taste test, I would not be able to tell the difference between wheat-based and gluten-free spaghetti. You do not need to give up bread and pasta for good.

    • Wendy Laubach says:

      It’s terrible to have to give up an intense pleasure like bread. The only thing I know that helps is to get focused on a new pleasure–not a bad substitute for the same thing, but a completely different one. For me, it’s likely to be a vegetable or legume dish, especially some kind of soup, or maybe a wonderful grilled fish. Sure, it’s not fresh-baked bread, but it’s its own thing and a pleasure in its own right. After enough repetitions, you’re looking forward to a different intense pleasure rather than grieving the one you’re having to avoid. When we’re focused on pasta and bread, we tend to forget an entire range of other kinds of food. “The grass is always greener,” and so on.

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