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build your gains through habit change

Sometimes we're tempted to compartmentalize our training from our nutrition and our lifestyle habits. It's easier to focus on one area at a time and ignore the impact they have on each other. We assume we can go hard in the gym for an hour even if we're short on sleep, or we've undershot our carb intake, or we're under a lot of stress from work or life. We tell ourselves it doesn't matter or we push it aside because training is part of how we destress. But our habits and lifestyle behaviors are interconnected, and neglecting one area has a ripple effect on the others. We need a targeted approach to improve our habits.

Identify problem behaviors

There's almost always low-hanging fruit that can be picked first. Step one to improving our habits is identifying the habits that are likely easiest to change and will have the biggest impact on our wellbeing and recovery from training. For lots of us this is related to sleep or nutrition, since both of these have an enormous impact on training performance.

Once that's identified, we can decide on the plan for improving that habit.

Let's use the sleep example. Imagine I know I'm not sleeping enough and I should be aiming for another 45-60 minutes of sleep each night. I've identified this as my low-hanging fruit and I'll build a plan for how to improve that.

Recognize the driver for the unhelpful behavior

As much as we know a habit may not be good for us, we are currently behaving a certain way for a reason (even if that reason doesn't always serve us as well as a better habit would). For example, maybe the reason I'm not getting enough sleep is that I'm coming home from work late and I don't have a lot of time to myself, so I'm letting my evenings extend into the night so that I can have some "me-time." I may know perfectly well that the sleep would be better for me, but it feels like giving up something that I enjoy to turn the lights out earlier instead of reading my book or watching Netflix for an extra half hour. It's important to recognize your reasons for doing things so that you can reevaluate whether they are in line with your wider goals and desires. For me, I value being healthy and recovering from the gym, but I also value having time to spend with myself. But there are other ways I can be deliberate about finding time in my week to enjoy myself for an hour here and there and if I know I've preserved an hour on Friday for dedicated me-time, I may be able to push past the temptation to keep reading for a little longer each evening.

Break down the current behavior into its parts

We'll likely have to step back from the behavior to recognize how it comes about. For example, my staying-up habit actually begins as early as finishing dinner; instead of doom-scrolling when I finish my meal I need to get up right away, wash the dishes, and begin my wind-down routine so that I begin a more productive series of behaviors that lets me get to my real wind-down sooner. That would mean the first habit to address is actually occurring at 8:30pm when I finish eating rather than at 9:30 when I'm supposed to be going to bed. Building a new habit of standing up from the table as soon as I finish eating and moving on to the next thing (washing the dishes, prepping food for tomorrow and then going to my room) gives me what I want: more me-time in the evening. It's probably easier than focusing on fighting the temptation to keep doing what I'm doing later in the evening. This is what I mean by picking the lowest-hanging fruit. I can manipulate my perception of how hard it is to change a habit by picking apart the pieces that led to the behavior in the first place and changing them one at a time.

Chip away at each component of the behavior until you've established the new (desirable) habit

Like the example above, you can keep breaking a behavior into small actions to tweak until you arrive at a new habit. Once I've addressed the dinner doom scroll piece of my late-night habit, I can put other pieces in place to address the sleep habit: shutting off my notifications at a certain time, adopting a calming breathing practice, setting a timer for how long I can read, and setting up a sleep tracker to motivate me to "win" each sleep by seeing good stats in the morning for consistent sleep times. Those can all happen one at a time as I feel ready and motivated to change each piece.

Repeat these steps... Over and over.

There are always lifestyle habits we can continue to improve. And you'll probably find you have to revisit some of them at times as you let good habits slip when focusing on other things. It can get tougher and tougher to change things as you run out of low-hanging fruits to pick and have to work harder to change each habit. That's okay! You just might have to allow a little more time and be ready to put in more effort for the more challenging, ingrained habits.

If you're finding it hard to break down your habits into sub-components, it can be helpful to bounce off other people. If you have flatmates, family or a partner that live with you who can observe your habits, they can help bring them to your attention and identify actions that you might take to improve your overall lifestyle as you desire.

Getting help from a nutrition coach can also be beneficial when it comes to improving nutrition and lifestyle habits. Coaches can help us identify what we need to improve and where we can begin, and facilitate the things that make those changes easier. They can also help you focus on one area at a time to avoid overwhelm and stagnation.

Habit change to improve your gains and wellbeing is difficult, but almost always worth it. By identifying the low-hanging fruit, looking at the current drivers for the behaviors, and picking one behavior to work on changing, we can gradually make positive changes that will improve our overall health and well-being.


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