Beating Yourself at Your Own Game: Restructuring Your Habits

Recently, Elizabeth Benton ( asked a question at the end of a podcast about what really made a difference in my weight loss journey. (FYI: she is hosting a women’s transformation weekend in person this November. Info is on her website if you want to go!) It was an interesting question and I thought about it all day: what made the biggest change for me? I came to the obvious conclusion that changing my habits was the most important factor, but how did I make those changes? I realized that it was three little but critical things that made all the difference.

Priority has to come first!

Really, it does! You have to decide what is important to you and what needs to come first in your life. Is it your health? Your job? Your family? What comes first on that list needs to go first in your life. It’s easier said than done, because if you really want to prioritize anything, be it work, family, fitness, whatever, it’s not actually a “priority” until you take action and make it so. You can tell your priorities because you choose them over other things. For example, if you value time with your friends, it shows in your scheduling. You make time for them and reschedule things around time with them. If your job is a priority, you work late, you work through lunch, you show up early, because this is what’s important to you. If you value your health and nutrition, you make time to put it first before other things. When I used to eat out a lot (I think Jack in the Box stock dropped when I gave it up!), I was making my tv time a priority over my health. I chose to get fast food, eat it in front of the tv and go to bed. On weekends, I thought I was choosing time with my pets and sleeping over nutrition, because I missed the opportunity every weekend to plan healthy meals. I didn’t realize how my physical misery was impacting my pets’ lives: I was not a fun person to be around because my physical health made me miserable.

Now that I make my health and nutrition a priority, I spend a few hours every weekend getting healthy groceries and prepping healthy meals I can take with me or prepare at home with little fuss. I spend a couple hours a week going to the gym and because I feel so much better physically, I am able to engage with my pets in fun ways (as well as friends and family)! We actually enjoy spending time together and have way more fun, despite that time doing other things. We have quality time that matters instead of “quantity” time that stinks. When you look at my schedule, you can see that I make time for the things that are important to me: my family, friends and pets, my health and nutrition, and my job. It’s pretty much in that order, (although I lump “family, friends and pets” as one.) The ones I love come first and in order to do the best for them, I need to take care of myself. I can’t take care of anyone if I’m a wreck! So when you look at your regular schedule, whether you mean to or not, you can see what you make your priorities and if you don’t think they are in the right order, you can always change them. It’s your schedule and you are in charge!

Objective: Study Yourself!

Restructuring your priorities is just the start. Of course, sometimes it’s hard to know what your priorities are if you don’t pay attention. Elizabeth Benton is a strong advocate of tracking (journaling) and she has also told listeners to “observe yourself like a scientist,” and in this area, my sister and I kind of have a leg up. For whatever reason, both of us grew up looking at ourselves and others the way a scientist would (maybe it was too much Star Trek as a kid?) Observing with a logical Spock POV was kind of the norm for us, so when it came to illogical or counterproductive behavior, we were usually aware of it, even if we didn’t know how to, or even want, to change said behavior. For most of us, keeping a journal is the easiest way of getting an objective look at your behavior. So if you want to make changes to your priorities and/ or behavior but don’t know what to change, start by keeping a journal. Don’t worry about making changes other than keeping a journal. Write down what you eat, when you eat, how you feel during the day, and your activity. If you keep a regular schedule, then you’ve got a good start. Write down everything- it only takes a few minutes a day, and after about a week, take a look at it. For me, I used to have a big cup of coffee and a snack every weekday about 10:30 a.m., and every day, about 10:30 a.m. at work if I hadn’t had my snack, I’d get “hungry.” It wasn’t that I was really hungry; it was a “snack memory.” On days when I felt really tired, I could see it was because I had short-changed my carbs. When I had more carbs, I felt less fatigued. On days after I worked out, I’d wake up really hungry. Instead of wondering what I was doing wrong, I could look at my behavior and eating & exercise habits and make informed changes. Unless you know where you’ve been, you really don’t know where you’re going. What’s the point in making changes if you don’t analyze the results? It might have been that really low carbs had nothing to do with my being tired; it might have been that I had just been staying up too late, but unless I took a look at what I was doing and what I had changed, I would be floundering and exhausted and not know how to fix it.

Be a Part of the Solution: Solving Problems!

“Fixing it” is the next part of this equation and it is a little bit more of a mindset.  Organizing your priorities and writing things down are a part of the mindset, but being a problem solver can be a bit tricky if it’s not your natural perspective. As I said above, my sister and I grew up with a Star Trek mentality (I think I was 8 before I realized Mr. Spock wasn’t a real person and, boy, was I devastated!) So looking at things and people and society the way a futuristic explorer really helps you keep your distance, which is part of the “objectivity” mindset in journaling.  But problem-solving is a real mindset and it sometimes means you have to think differently.  For some people, when they see a problem, they focus on the problem: “I can’t go any further because of X.” For other people, they focus not on the problem, but what options are available to them: “X is in my way, but if I do Y, I can bypass X.” Again, I was lucky as a kid, because both of my parents have a problem-solving outlook (maybe that’s why Mr. Spock appealed to me so much!). For example, I recently went a friend’s birthday party at a restaurant I had never been to and their menu was not available online (what’s up with that? It’s 2016!) All I knew was “they have great pizza!” but pizza isn’t something I wanted to do, so instead of thinking:”Crap! I’m going to have to eat something awful that won’t be in line with my goals!,” I looked at the menu and I made the best choices I could.  They had sandwiches and I could get a steak roll or sourdough and I could get a salad instead of fries.  These were part of the regular menu options, so I didn’t have to ask for substitutions.  I don’t do a lot of sandwiches, but I do them on occasion and I’d rather have sourdough than a steak roll anyway, so I made those choices.  My friends ordered a lot of appetizers but I chose not to have any (mainly because I chose to split a brownie dessert with a friend, which was really good!) The restaurant screwed up and gave me fries in addition to my salad, so my friends got have my fries as an appetizer too! I ended up having a little more to eat than I usually do, but it wasn’t a disaster, I had a good time and no one thought I was being difficult or fussy, and I got to take home part of my sandwich for my pets.

Instead of thinking that the restaurant and the party were problems, I chose to look at the options I had available to me rather than just seeing the potential problems.  When you come up against a problem (damn, I forgot my lunch!), getting upset or worried or frustrated are natural, but they don’t help the situation much.  Admittedly, sometimes I have a mini-tantrum for a few minutes, then I tell myself “tantrum’s over- now fix this; what can I do?” Let’s see: I can stop at McDonald’s and get a couple sausage biscuits and just eat the sausage.  I can run down the street to the corner market and get a couple of lunchables and leave the crackers.  Do I have any nuts in my desk drawer?” I actually keep nuts in my desk drawer now and an applesauce in the office fridge because I forgot my lunch a few times.  That’s a problem solving perspective.

Putting It Together and Making New Habits

Once you get all of these put together, it’s easier to start making new healthy habits. It takes a bit of restructuring and some trial and error, but it pays off eventually.  You have to accept that there is a learning curve and all new habits take time.

One of the biggest problems I had with my poor eating habits was that I always wanted to eat when I watched tv.  I’d sit down in the evening and even if I had just had dinner, my natural inclination was to eat something: watch tv and eat.  It was really hard to fight that.  I’d sit there and think “don’t eat. don’t eat. don’t eat” until I’d go to bed and then I’d lie there thinking “am I hungry? I didn’t eat” until I fell asleep.  Obviously these were not good practices! I knew from my journaling that after dinner was a likely time for me to want to eat and my priorities were to not stuff myself silly, so I looked for things to occupy my time when I was most likely to stuff myself full of calories.  I started doing my nails in the evenings, because as I told myself repeatedly “I can’t raid the fridge with wet nails!”  On nights when I didn’t do my nails (because they were already done!), I’d get on My Fitness Pal and post in the forums or respond to friends, because not only was I not eating while I was doing this, it was also keeping me focused on my goals! After a few months, I realized that eating after dinner wasn’t a problem for me anymore, even if I wasn’t manicuring the heck out of my nails (they actually look kinda raggedy now!) or cruising my app.  In fact it took me a while to realize that I no longer felt the urge to stare into the fridge thinking about what I could eat.  My habits had changed and now I spend time doing other things and not fighting the boredom eating urge, even if I am watching tv.

Progress and change happen when you make them happen, and they don’t require massive restructuring of your lifestyle.  It starts with getting your priorities in order and then reinforcing your priorities with your choices.  It moves further along when you track your activities, food and feelings so you can analyze your behavior and see where you need to make changes to keep you in line with your priorities (there’s that Spockspeak again!).  If you aren’t used to doing either of these things, it could take a little time getting used to them, but again, there’s that learning curve!  Be patient with yourself!  Continue reinforcing your priorities with your choices.  Continue your journaling, and when you do run into a problem, focus on your options.  It’s okay to throw a little tantrum- I personally think it helps to relieve the tension! But once it’s done, look at what’s in your way and how to get around it.  This problem solving mindset has benefits outside the weight loss/ fitness world too.  As a legal assistant, sometimes my attorney gets stressed about submitting paperwork to the court or opposing counsel, and I remind him to just do the best he can and if we need to, we can do an amended.  It gives him an option so he’s not focusing on “THE DEADLINE” and he (and I) can focus on what needs to be done!

Obviously, when it comes to changing your habits, these techniques have to work in your real world.  Too many times people fail because they don’t integrate their new habits and lifestyle changes into their whole world; they try to keep the changes part of the “weight loss/ diet/ fitness” box in their lives, but we don’t live that way.  Eating Paleo is easy when I’m at home, but I don’t always stay at home; I hang out with others and if I can’t eat the same way when I am with friends, then that eating style isn’t going to be a success for me.  In order to stay on track, I have to be able to solve problems, see where my problems are and make beating those problems a priority!  It took some time to be successful at it, but the payoff is priceless!  Don’t give up when you come face to face with a problem- just do your best and if you need to, you can do an amended!


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