Ep #84: How to break a bad habit

Strong as a Working Mom with Carrie Holland | How to break a bad habit
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If you have identified the habits that aren’t helping you reach your health goals, you might be having some difficulty changing those habits or getting rid of them altogether. The key is slowing your brain down, so you can take control of the habits that are stopping you from reaching your goals.

Slowing your brain down is a skill that doesn’t come naturally to most people. However, it’s a learnable skill, so if you take the concepts I’m sharing today and put them to use as you unravel your habits, you can create meaningful changes to how you reach your health goals.

If you currently have habits that aren’t serving you, let me help you get rid of them. Tune in this week to gain crucial awareness of your habits, learn a simple process for thinking your way through your habits, and begin interrupting them so you can create the outcomes you really want.

Are you ready to eat, move, and think in a way that gets you strong both physically and mentally? You deserve to have both no matter how busy you are, and I can help. I’m opening up my one-on-one coaching program for new clients, and I would love to work with you. Click here to learn more about working with me.

What You Will Discover:

  • Why your brain loves habits.
  • My process for interrupting your habits and really thinking them through.
  • What to do when you feel like your habits are on autopilot.
  • A habit that many of my clients struggle with, and the first step toward changing it. 
  • How to engage your brain when your habits start playing out.
  • My simple process for slowing your brain down and coaching yourself through interrupting your habits.

Listen to the Full Episode:

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Featured on the Show:

Full Episode Transcript:

You are listening to the Strong as a Working Mom podcast, Episode #84. If you have habits that aren’t helping you, how do you get rid of them? You slow down. Let me help you do that.

Welcome to the Strong as a Working Mom podcast. If you’re balancing career, family, wellness, and some days sanity, you are in the right place. This is where high-achieving, busy, working moms get the tools they need to eat, move, and think. I’m your host, physician, personal trainer, and Certified Life Coach, Carrie Holland. Let’s do this.

Hey, how are you? What’s new, what’s good? So, what’s good here, we are going to talk about something that might be tripping you up as you try to get rid of habits that aren’t helping you. Today, I’m going to help you slow down. I’m going to walk you through how you slow your brain down, so you can take control over the habits that are keeping you from reaching your goals.

I realize now, after years of coaching, that this process is most definitely a skill. This is by no means something that comes naturally to most of us. And if I can help you do this, and if you can take some of these concepts and put them to use as you unravel your own habits, then I’m doing my job.

And so, here’s what I mean by this. So much of what we do is a habit, but think about what a habit is. If you look it up, you’ll find all kinds of definitions. But the one that stuck out most to me is this one: An acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary. And that last piece “involuntary,” that’s where the work is.

When you have a hardwired habit, whether it’s a good or a bad habit, by nature, it becomes so well-worn that often you’re not even aware of it. You’re going through the motions with very little brain energy required. That’s exactly what your brain wants.

So, remember that one of your brain’s goals is to expend as little energy as possible, and habits are your brain’s best way of doing that. When behaviors are habits, there is very little, to no brain energy wasted on them. Your brain doesn’t have to do much work, because it’s not really thinking about the habits, it’s just doing them. You’re not thinking, you’re doing. And that’s the whole idea behind habits, to remove any real thinking from the equation.

Today, we’re going to talk about how to think your way through your habits, so your behaviors that are currently involuntary come off autopilot. We’re inserting thinking back into the equation, so that you can be very aware of your habits and pay attention to them. Because it’s only when you’re conscious and aware of your behaviors that you can change them. It’s hard to change what you’re not aware of, right?

I’m going to take you through a process of how to not only wake up and pay attention to your habits, but also how to think your way through and interrupt your habits. We’re also going to talk about what to do when you feel yourself going on autopilot. I want you to have tools to use from start to finish, as you start to pick apart and dismantle these habits. This is a process I have taken my clients through many times, and now I’m going to share it with you on podcast.

The process we’re talking about today combines a number of tools. You may have heard me talk about some of these tools on the podcast before. And what I’m doing here is walking you through the process that puts a number of these key tools together. My hope is that by the end of the episode, you feel armed with a collection of tools and concepts to come back to as you work to unravel and interrupt your habits. So, take the tools that speak to you and try them out. All right?

Okay, let’s go. Let’s start with an example, because I think it will make more sense if you have a scenario in mind to work through as you go through this. I’m going to use a habit that comes up all the time, the habit of nighttime, mindless eating. This one comes up commonly for many of my clients, and it’s one that often makes their weight loss more difficult. So, let’s tackle this.

The first important thing to know is this, if you want to get rid of your nighttime, mindless eating habit, it starts before nighttime. This is key. The first piece to undoing any habit is to know your cue and be on the lookout before you’re even faced with it. So, what is the cue that triggers your habit?

This goes back to habit science. For the quick and dirty, all habits are made up of three parts. You’ll see them named differently, depending on what books or what literature you read, but to keep it simple habits are made up of a cue, a routine, and a reward.

The cue is what puts the habit in motion. So, you can think of the cue as the signal to your brain that says, “Hey, time to do your habit.” That cue can be a number of things: It can be a time of day, like right after bedtime. It can be a location, like the break room. It can be an emotion, like boredom, sadness, or frustration. It can be a person, like if you were a smoker and you have a coworker who smokes at work. All of those are cues that tell your brain is trying to do the routine. The routine is the behavior itself, it’s the habit. In this case, we’re talking about mindless eating. The routine is what you’re looking to change. And then, the reward is what you get. It’s the outcome you get from executing the habit or the routine.

For most of us, the reward of our habits is that we somehow feel better. You eat the candy, you take a sip of wine, you watch the TV show, you watch a puppy video on Facebook, all of those things give a hit of dopamine to your brain, and you feel better. You do the habit, and you get the reward of feeling better.

But here’s something important to note. In our nighttime eating example, you only feel better in the short term. The reward is not long lasting. So what this means is, in the case of your undesirable habits, the feeling of relief is short-lived and is ultimately replaced with you feeling worse. Let’s talk about what this is and what this is all about.

Remember that your brain wants what it wants, and it wanted it five minutes ago. So, when you’re operating under the influence of your habits, your primitive brain is driving the bus. And your primitive brain only sees the draw of instant, short-term gratification. That’s why habits are largely stored in the primitive part of your brain. This is important, this is huge.

This is in contrast to your developed brain, that is able to see the impact and the draw of delayed gratification. So, when I think of habit, I think of our animal, lizard, primitive brain that can only think about the immediate future. And, that is where we run into trouble.

The take home here is that habits are your brain’s way of conserving energy. Habits consist of three parts: The cue, the routine, and the reward. Habits are largely stored in the primitive part of your brain, and that’s the part of the brain that is looking for instant gratification.

Let’s go back to our nighttime eating example. So, for many of my working parents, the cue for nighttime eating is once your kids go to bed. Whether that is breastfeeding your kid to sleep, or getting through the multiple stories, songs, glasses of water, trips to the bathroom, or if it’s just making sure every kid is showered, clothes are in the laundry, and everyone’s lights are out, whatever it is, getting kids to bed tends to be a project for many of you.

Or if you don’t have kids, or if your kids are no longer in the house, it may simply be that at a certain time, once you’ve changed in your PJs, or you finished your Wordle, or you’re all caught up on your Netflix series, you may find yourself with nothing to do. And that’s when you head to the kitchen for food.

So, whatever case it is for you, the key to unraveling this habit is to be onto yourself before the trigger happens. You want to be aware enough to anticipate the cue. If you know that once you close the door of your kid’s bedroom, it’s down to the kitchen for a treat, anticipate it. Or if you know that once you put on your comfy pants, your next step is to head towards the freezer and check out your ice cream collection, there it is.

This process of interrupting your habits starts before you encounter the cue. Do you see that? It requires the foresight, and the insight, to recognize, “Okay, my pattern is, that once I get everyone to bed and have a second to breathe, I go get food. Once I’m in my comfy clothes, and I’m shutting down for the night, that’s when I go searching for ice cream.”

You have to know your cue, and you have to be aware, before the cue presents itself. This is so essential. And I want to beat this dead horse, because too often this step gets overlooked all together.

To change your habits, you have to be onto yourself. I say it all the time, and when I say that, I mean that you’re onto yourself in a kind way. Because you know yourself better than anyone. If you know yourself well enough to recognize that when you finally have a minute of peace and quiet in your house you go looking for food, then you have information. You know that your kids’ bedtime or putting on your pajamas, you know that’s a trigger for you. So, you anticipate it and you prepare for it.

The process of undoing that snacking habit starts before you walk into the kitchen. This is key. So, if you know the cue for your mindless eating is your kids’ bedtime, the next step in the process is to turn on your brain and start the self-talk. I want you to talk to yourself, okay? So, go with me on this for a minute.

You are going to talk yourself through your habits. You’re going to coach yourself through interrupting your habit. To be clear, your self-talk does not need to be elaborate. It could be something as simple as, “I’m leaving my kid’s room, and normally I would go eat. But I’m not going to do that. I put my comfy clothes on, and normally I would celebrate the end of my day with some spoonfuls of mint chocolate chip ice cream. But I don’t do that anymore.”

It can also be as simple as saying to yourself, “Hey, timeout. Hang on a second.” I’ve used all these sentences myself. You can borrow any or all of them, just use something. The goal is to wake up and start talking to yourself. Okay?

And the purpose of this self-talk is multifold. One, it is taking you off autopilot. So, remember what we know about habits, they’re involuntary, you don’t have to think about them. But now, when you start talking to yourself about your habit, you’re shaking that all up. And using your brain energy to think very deliberately about your habit. I think of it as shaking yourself out of it. We’re bringing your habit to a high level of consciousness.

The other reason for your self-talk is this, I’m asking you to take a pause. So, let’s dive into this for just one second. Let’s talk about the power in that pause. Often, when I talk through habits with my client, she will describe a feeling of urgency. She will say that things start to move really fast. Her brain is firing quickly, her thoughts are darting all over the place like a pinball, and it feels as if she’s starting to lose control.

That’s when things get challenging. Maybe you know exactly what that feels like. So, when things start to speed up, as is often the case with our habits, that’s where the pause comes in. When you are onto yourself enough to know what your trigger is, you can anticipate it. And when you anticipate it, you start the self-talk to slow yourself down.

You don’t need a ton of time here; we’re talking just a few seconds. But you do need that pause. I cannot stress how important this is, to have even just that little bit of time to get in there, to get into your head, get into your brain, and slow things down. That self-talk, that pause, is creating space. It’s creating space between you and the habit.

In my own life, I’ve told you before, I have a problem with peanut butter. I’m working on it. And in my own life, when I slow down enough, while I’m making my kid’s lunches, to say, “Hey, Carrie, this is when you normally scoop out a huge spoonful of peanut butter for yourself. But you don’t do that anymore.” When I do that, when I talk to myself and call myself out, I am creating space. I’m putting just a little bit of a pause between me and the peanut butter so I can wake up and come off autopilot.

That pause helps my brain to slow down. I’m calming down the urgency. I’m holding my horses; however you want to see it. I am taking control over my primitive brain that is speeding up and saying, “Hey, hurry up, and let’s get some Jiff in here already.” No, instead, I’m telling myself, “Hey, you don’t need that extra peanut butter today, you’ve already had plenty.”

Often, that pause and that self-talk is enough to keep me grounded and focused, so I’m not shoveling in peanut butter when I’m not even hungry. And the point here is, don’t underestimate this. Do not underestimate the power in taking a pause. Wake yourself up. Talk to yourself. Turn off the autopilot. Give yourself that space. Because it’s in that space, that the possibility of a different outcome exists. In that space is where you are rewriting your habits.

Alright, so the next piece of this, to interrupting your habit, is to go inside. Meaning, you are going inside your brain. You are going to stay in the game here. I’ve gone over this concept before, and if you need a more detailed review, you can go back to Episode 66, where I give all the details on this, because this is a really useful tool.

But here, for today’s purposes, when you stay in the game, you’re staying inside yourself. You are keeping the part of your planning brain or prefrontal cortex, you’re keeping that part of your brain awake, alert, and very much engaged. You’re focused, you’re grounded, you are zoned in, you’re paying attention and practicing awareness of what you’re doing in real time. In real time. You’re in the game.

This is in contrast to not being in the game, where you let your brain get to that fuzzy place where it feels as if you are no longer in control. You’re not letting your brain wander. You’re not letting your primitive lizard brain take over. You’re not letting your thoughts get outside of you. Do not turn off. Because when that happens, that’s when you revert to what you know and go on autopilot.

Instead, you work on staying engaged. You stay in it. You’re dialed in, and you don’t let your brain get carried away. This is subtle, but for any of you who have tried to give up nighttime, or really anytime, mindless snacking, you know what I’m talking about. When you’re snacking is a habit, you may find yourself in front of the pantry, eating handfuls of M&M’s, almost as if it’s against your will.

It feels as if you’re outside yourself. You don’t even remember getting up and walking to the kitchen, turning on the light, and opening the pantry door. But somehow, those M&M’s ended up in your mouth. That? That is not staying in the game. If you want that habit to stop being a habit, you have to get back inside. Get inside your brain and pay attention to what you’re doing. Talk to yourself and don’t let your brain drift.

All right, next. The next piece of this is to name what you’re feeling. Give it a name. When you’re headed to the kitchen for a snack after your kids are finally asleep, what are you feeling? Is it exhausted, relieved, frustrated, bored? Whatever you’re feeling, identify it.

You don’t have to announce it. You don’t have to tell anyone, “I’m having a feeling right now.” Instead, you’re simply naming it for yourself. “I feel stressed. I feel irritated. I feel an urge,” whatever it is, give it a name and call it out.

So, here’s why this matters. You know I’m all about feeling your feelings, right? Think about it this way. Many of the habits that do not serve you, those habits are there as buffers. Things like nighttime, mindless eating, instead of feeling bored. Cracking open a bottle of wine as soon as you get home from work instead of feeling stressed. Flipping on social media instead of talking to your partner, because you’re irritated.

Those habits are often created and reinforced because they buffer your negative emotions. And now, I’m asking you to get rid of that buffer. I’m asking you to feel whatever it is you’re feeling, instead of buffering it. That means you feel bored at bedtime, instead of going to the kitchen to numb your boredom with food. Name it: I feel frustrated. I feel depleted. I feel bored. I feel sad. It does not have to be a big ordeal, you’re simply asking yourself, “Hey, what am I feeling right now?” And then answer the question, that’s it.

Then, be ready, be ready for it to stink. I know that’s a hard sell. But again, I’m not here to sugarcoat. When you take on the work of feeling instead of numbing, when you take on the work of practicing awareness instead of operating on autopilot, it’s probably not going to feel great. In fact, it might be really hard.

My answer to that is, let it, let it be hard. Allow the negative emotion to sit with you. Get inside your body and let the frustration of the day be there with you. Let it feel heavy and tense. Let it feel like it’s dragging you down. Walk through it. Walk right through it and let the negative emotion be there with you.

I’ve described this before using a number of different visuals. My coach described allowing a negative emotion as ‘carrying it around with you in a heavy bag. Eventually, that heavy bag gets lighter as the negative emotion goes through you.’ I like that analogy.

But I also read, in one of the many self-help books I’ve gone through, that you can think of allowing an emotion as if you’re carrying a box of molecules darting around in a box. You leave the top off that box, and let those molecules race all over the place until they find their way out. That’s your negative emotion. You keep it with you in that heavy bag, or in a box with a lid off, for as long as it takes to dissipate. You allow it.

Here’s the other thing, here’s something I want to make really clear. As this happens, and as you’re feeling the negative emotion, you’re still going about your business, okay? You’re not at a standstill in front of the pantry letting a cloud of frustration sit over you.

No, you’re getting on with your life. You’re putting the laundry away. You’re getting your work bag ready for tomorrow. You’re laying out your gym clothes. You’re doing all the things, and going about your life even while the negative emotion is still sitting with you. So, there’s duality here. You can feel a negative emotion, you feel the junk, and still get on with your life.

My own business coach says it all the time, and I think it’s worth repeating here, “You can feel like garbage, and still show up and get your work done.” And that’s the truth. Let it feel uncomfortable, but do the work anyway. The world is not standing still because you’re not eating Oreos at the end of the day like you normally would. No.

You can feel the negative emotion, and you will because it’s going to be there, but you can do that and still get on with your life. So, be prepared for it. Let it feel uncomfortable. This is walking through it. Keep going about your business.

As I’m asking you to sit and feel all the negative emotions that come up when you interrupt your habit, you can imagine that your brain is not going to be on board. Your brain, when confronted with the discomfort of doing something different than your usual, is going to wake out.

Remember, your brain sees change as a threat, as something that needs to be corrected. So, in response, when you interrupt your habit, your brain is going to start messing with you. Because your brain is going to want you to go back to what you normally do, stat.

So, let’s go back to your nighttime routine. Imagine you’ve gone through the process of getting everyone to bed. Normally, after, you would head straight to the kitchen. But this time, you anticipated the cue and you started the self-talk. You take a pause and tell yourself, “Hang on. I’m not going to the pantry for cookies.” And then, you feel the urge. You feel the discomfort of boredom or exhaustion or stress, you feel it settle in.

But you decide to sit with it. You allow it and it starts to feel icky. And then, this is when your brain goes to town. Your brain is going to fight dirty, and it will show up in the form of justifications; like all kinds of justifications. Things like, “You’ve earned this, it’s been a rough day. Just one handful of M&M’s, no big deal. You were good all day long. You deserve this. You won’t eat any M&M’s tomorrow.” You get the idea.

So, if you go looking for justifications, rest assured you will find them, guaranteed. And often, if you’re not prepared, that’s where it ends. It ends at the justification. And this is a key place where you have an opportunity to troubleshoot.

Too often, when your brain offers you a justification, you stop there. You take the justification and you agree with it. You accept it as fact. And when you accept that justification, that’s generally the end of it. That’s game over. That’s when you revert, go back to your habit, and instant gratification wins out.

Here is where you can change the outcome. Here’s where you can rewrite the ending to your usual story. When your brain offers you a justification, instead of accepting it, counter it. Offer yourself a counter argument. I’m asking you to have a little back and forth in your brain. Take that justification and debate it.

Go back to our nighttime eating example. When you interrupt your habit and feel the discomfort of the urge instead of snacking, that’s when your brain gets feisty. Your brain, as expected, will revolt and offer you a justification. “But it’s been a long day, you’ve earned this.”

If you stop there, if you stop at that justification, you could very easily save yourself. “You know, yeah, it has been a really long day. I did earn this. This will take the edge off. This will make this long day a little better.” And before you know it, the chocolate is in your mouth.

But now, imagine instead, what would happen if you countered your justification? What would happen when your brain tells you, ‘it’s been a long day’ and you debate it? You reason with yourself and say, “Yes, it has been a long day. But I don’t need to finish my day with food. I don’t buffer my bad days with food anymore.”

Then what? So, a few things are going on here. First, by countering your justification, you’re creating space. You’re creating that pause. And remember, there is power in the pause because you’re giving yourself time to think before you act. And that’s all we need. You need just a little time so you can slow yourself down. So you can think, instead of just do. Remember, this is what takes your habit off autopilot, thinking.

Second, you’re calling on your rational thinking brain to help you through your decision. And that’s exactly what we’re aiming for. When it comes to changing your habits, your primitive lizard brain is not capable of offering you all the reasons you should say no to ice cream at the end of the rough day. Your primitive brain is not able to reason in this way.

But your evolved, planning, prefrontal brain is capable of reasoning. And that’s exactly what we want. We want the part of your brain that cares about consequences and cares about delayed gratification. We want that part involved in this process. So, when you use your evolved brain and go to bat for yourself and argue your justification, you’re doing some higher order thinking here.

And the whole idea is to use that higher thinking to guide a different outcome. This entire process is meant to help you interrupt your habit in real time, so that you don’t make a decision you regret later. So, you tell yourself very directly, “I don’t buffer my emotions with food,” and you don’t go into the kitchen, you don’t go to the pantry or the freezer. You’ve interrupted your habit. That’s it.

What you get from this, well, you get a lot of things. First, with time, you will start to rewire the well-worn habits that are no longer serving you. The more you interrupt your habit, the more you change your wiring to affect a different outcome. You are showing and telling your brain that ‘this is how it’s going to be around here from now on, and I don’t mindlessly eat at bedtime anymore.’ Second, you’re using your evolved thinking brain to create a setting of delayed gratification, which feels so much better than the instant gratification of a bunch of Oreos at the end of a stressful day.

Third, you’re proving yourself to yourself. You’re proving that you can make a decision ahead of time, you can decide that you will no longer snack mindlessly at night, and then you take it the extra step of following through. That builds discipline, self-trust, and it builds up your relationship with yourself. And that? That feels pretty awesome.

All right, there it is. I’ve just given you a number of tools and concepts, as I’ve walked you through how to interrupt habits that do not help you. To review: You anticipate the cue, then you are onto yourself in a kind way. This is practicing awareness of what triggers your habit. When you find the habit, you find power in the pause. This is where the self-talk begins. “I’m not going to buffer with food.”

Name what you’re feeling and let it be uncomfortable. Expect it to feel yucky. And then, stay in the game. Do not let your brain get to that fuzzy place where you no longer feel in control. Stay inside yourself. And look for justifications, because your brain will most definitely offer them up to you. Do not stop there. Do not accept the justification. Instead, counter it, and practice a different ending to your usual routine. You walk away.

So, to be clear, this is a process. This is a practice. I would love to be able to tell you that if you do this a few times, your unhelpful habits will go away. But the truth is, this takes time. It takes patience. It takes messing up repeatedly, and coming back to it. But most importantly, interrupting your habits requires that you have the self-belief that it is absolutely possible for you to change. This is the work right here.

This is what changing your life and changing your habits is made of. And this work is legit, it is not for the faint of heart. This work is not for people who want a quick, temporary fix. Because in order to change your actions, in order to change your habits and make it last, you’ve got to change your thoughts first; Always, always. It always goes back to your thoughts. While this work is hard, I will say that it is entirely worth it. Whatever habit you want to change, whatever pattern you want to interrupt, that is entirely available to you. And the more times you take yourself through this process, the more you will reinforce just how strong you are. Strong mind, strong habits, in that order.

If you want help with this, let’s talk. Changing your habits, yeah, it’s hard, but I will help you make it easier. When you coach with me, you will have the support and guidance you need to break habits and create new ones that help you feel better, lose weight, and get stronger. I will teach you the tools and the concepts to make your habits a lifestyle.

So, check out my website, send me a message at www.CarrieHollandMD.com/contact, tell me where you struggle with habits, and let’s get to work. All right?

Thank you again for hanging out with me. I’ll catch you again next week. If you like what you’ve been hearing, please review the show. I would love to get your feedback and ideas. Your suggestions have inspired episodes and will help me make the show better for you. Share this podcast with a friend, text a show link, share a screenshot, or post a link to the show on your social media. Be sure to tag me @CarrieHollandMD on either Instagram or Facebook so I can follow along and engage with you.

This is how we get the word out to other working moms who want to feel strong inside and out. If you know someone who wants to feel better or eat and move differently but she is too tired or too busy, it is time to change things up. You know making that change starts with how you think, and that is what we do here on the Strong as a Working Mom podcast. I’ll see you next week.

Thanks for listening to Strong as a Working Mom. If you want more information on how to eat, move, and think, so you can live in the body you want, with the mind to match, visit me at CarrieHollandMD.com.

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