There’s a lot of talk now about doing really small food habits: Only one habit at a time, only at an amount that you know you can be successful at, until you master it.
I realize I played a part in spreading that. Mea culpa.
I started promoting doing smaller habits and fewer habits seven years ago. It made sense — it was a reaction to people doing too much.
Essentially, taking on a diet is taking on a dozen or more habits and skills, without properly ramping up. I was trying to go the opposite direction of that. It made sense, and, it actually did work a lot better than doing too much.
It isn’t wrong, it just isn’t optimal.
Doing Too Much
The issues with doing too much are known to anyone who has dieted before:
- It’s exciting at first, then you get crushed under the pressure of white knuckling it all of the time
- You’re successful at first, then everything comes crashing down. You create a repeated cycle of failure.
- In actuality, it was probably always more than you even ever needed to hit your goals, it was just too much.
Most people who’ve dieted or taken on too much are really sick of the repeated cycles of failure they’ve had in the past.
If you think about a diet, it requires already being good at: Shopping, cooking, navigating social situations, handling emotional eating, handling stress eating, managing cravings, figuring out travel and holidays, sticking to rules. It’s a lot of stuff, and most people aren’t good at all of those skills right out of the gate.
Worse, it might be significantly more skills than they’ll ever need. It sets up a weird superstition about having to do everything. It’s a gateway to really unhealthy and ineffective perfectionism.
They want something they can do well at.
Doing Too Little
This is a new problem, created by the current push to doing smaller and smaller habits:
- It’s boring
- Progress is slow to the point that you can’t tell if you’re making any
- You actually are less successful, because you have an incomplete system.
Most people who’ve dieted or taken on too much are really sick of the repeated cycles of failure they’ve had in the past. They want something they can do well at.
You can take one of my favorite habits/skills: Eating slowly
Working on eating slowly is an amazing skill, and it can be totally game changing for people — it can help people eat less at meals and it can help reduce snacking. That being said, it works significantly better when combined with other complimentary skills.
Worse, working on one skill at a time can also set up perfectionism. People feel like they have to “master” one habit at a time, before they can add more or move on. It’s often way more effective to get a skill going 50-70% of the time, while having other effective skills going 50-70% of the time.
Just The Right Amount
First off, getting the right amount is more engaging.
It’s fun. It’s challenging. You’re actually growing.
A rule of thumb to shoot for is about 85% success with a skill.
You actually don’t want 100% success. You want something to be new and challenging, such that you’re actually growing. Also, you want to realize that doing something 100% of the time isn’t necessary.
If you’re doing a challenging amount of skill practice, it’s pretty normal to lose about 2 pounds per month. This isn’t the screaming downward trajectory of The Biggest Loser, where people were losing 40 pounds per month. But it also isn’t the snails pace of the scale never moving. It’s ok to want, and get, regular measurable progress.
I make every effort to steer our focus away from the scale, or from measurements, or any of that stuff — it’s simply less effective to focus on. People get much, much better results by focusing on habit/skill frequency. It’s about focusing on doing things that work. You’ll get great results by practicing skills.
That being said, if you aren’t getting any results, then something is missing.
A Complete System
Going back to the example of one of my favorite skills: Eating slowly. It’s even more effective when it’s combined with other skills.
I might have a client start off with:
- Putting the fork down between bites (eating slowly)
- Eating protein at meals
- Noticing when full, and stopping
You’ll notice that the three skills above are actually a complete system for noticing when full.
Everyone feels more full when they add protein. Similarly, everyone feels more full when they eat more slowly. Both of those skills can help people notice when they are full, and stop, all by themselves. But then, we add on the skill of noticing in your body — checking in with your stomach — and paying attention to getting full, and actually stopping eating.
A client starting off with those three skills together will be significantly more successful than a client who started off with only one.
The other, totally unintended benefit, of practicing multiple skills together, is that you don’t have to hit all of them at every meal, or even every day. You can feel successful if you check off some of them.
People learn really, really well, by practice some of the skills most of the time. Some meals they might get one of the three, other meals they might get three out of three. Some days they might get all three at two meals and none of them at one meal. It’s ok, because we just track frequency, and they can always check one off.
On a day when they end up having their lunch break compressed, they can still add protein. Or the meal that they eat at their friends house, they can still eat slowly, even if it doesn’t have protein.
It sets them up where they always have at least one thing they can work on, regardless of the situation.
Find a Spot in the Middle
You may find that your “middle” is different from other people’s. You may find that it’s different on different weeks. You may find that it expands over time.
All of those things are normal. They game you want to play, is to pay attention to what that middle looks like each week.
Skills Instead of Habits
You’ll find it’s much more effect to relate to these things like skills (in the gym) than habits (like brushing your teeth).
This article is titled about habits, because that’s become the way we’ve started to talk about it. And, I think the diet perspective is less effective than a habit perspective, so that’s awesome.
That being said, food skills — like noticing you are full and stopping — are more like learning skills in the gym. It’s like learning to do a kettlebell swing.
You can practice a kettlebell swing three times per week, and get better at it. It doesn’t have to be every day. Skills get better with practice. Food skills are like that.
It isn’t like brushing your teeth. There’s no skill required in brushing your teeth. Adding protein is a habit like that — you just get in the habit of adding protein to meals.
Eating slowly, checking in with your stomach, distinguishing between hunger and cravings — these kinds of things are all skills. They get better with practice. They even get better with intermittent practice. Practice just adds up over time, you get better and better.
by Josh Hillis