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How Do Tactics Change As We Learn New Habits?

Strategies and goals


In cleaning up my office recently, I found several notes to take down from older phases in my health and weight loss process. Over the last few years I’ve lost more than 50 pounds (so far), put on a good deal of muscle, and improved my general fitness and energy levels–but it has taken a lot of effort, and it surprised me to realize how many different approaches I had needed over even just the last couple of years.

And when I look the notes over, I realize they were all good tactics. It’s not that I kept trying things and failing, but really the opposite: I would struggle with a set of goals for a while, eventually make them part of my automatic behavior, and then turn my attention to the next step for me, whatever that was at the time. The notes I pulled down today were tucked in places around my desk where I was guaranteed to see them several times a day. They were each at different times a small part of my self-motivation, and when I needed to quickly remind myself exactly what I was working on at the moment, they were always there.

Generation 1
The oldest note I still had up covered six principles that helped me minimize some of my bad eating habits and improve my nutrition and health in general. They’re not so much universal wisdom as the specific things I personally needed to concentrate on. (These were just for eating: exercise was always pretty much a simple matter of “get active, and stay active!”) My note (paraphrased a little) said:

1. Plan food choices instead of choosing while you’re hungry
2. Know how many calories are in something before eating it
3. Eat only from servings*
4. Fruits and vegetables are good choices for snacks and fillers
5. Eat at regular times
6. Write down everything you eat

* For instance, instead of eating from a box of crackers, I would serve myself some crackers on a plate.

Generation 2
As these things became deeply-ingrained habits, I stopped looking at that list, and eventually I created another, this one of things I could do to not eat if I felt hungry (except for fruits and vegetables, which for me personally are always a good idea). They were things like eating a fruit or vegetable, getting involved in something absorbing, drinking tea, etc. They helped solidify my habit of eating only at particular times.

Generation 3
As that grew to be old hat and both good eating and exercise grew to be pretty ingrained habits for me, I added a new goal, task management. Now my reminder note had to do with always knowing what the next thing I wanted to do was, focusing on making good choices every time a choice was presented to me (regardless of the subject), and going out of my way to find enthusiasm for the most important items on my task list.

A Continuing Cycle of New Tactics
What I hope you’ll glean from all this isn’t so much the specifics of my reminders to myself over time as a picture of self-motivation as an ongoing process of acquiring habits. You identify some behaviors you want to change, remind yourself of them every day, and then as they become habits, you set your sights a little higher or make your goal a little larger. For this new vision, you figure out what behaviors you need to change. One goal gives way to the next, and if things go well, you gradually acquire more and more of the habits you really want to have, and lose more and more of the behaviors you don’t want.

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