Dear Dr. Norquist:
There are some things I would like to do to be healthier but I can’t seem to get myself to do them. I’d love to cook healthy meals, instead of getting takeout after work. I’d like to stop having wine with dinner (I need to lose weight and I can tell I’m really starting to look forward to that glass of wine at the end of the day) and I also need to start exercising regularly. I have a gym membership but I don’t use it. I know these are common sense things to do – eat healthier, drink less alcohol and exercise regularly – but I just keep avoiding them. How can I get myself to make these changes?
Dr. Norquist responds:
I’m glad that you are asking this question, as most people have struggled with this to one degree or another in their lives. Most of our lives are governed by habits. The nature of habits is that they have a life of their own. For example, you have a habit of stopping for takeout instead of making a healthy home-cooked meal. There are habitual thoughts, feelings, memories, and associations connected with this habit that create a neural network that is well greased for action. Perhaps earlier in the day you thought of your favorite takeout place and pictured yourself going there tonight for your favorite meals. That may have triggered a craving for that taste and texture, and memories of enjoying that meal – perhaps with someone whose company you really enjoyed. Perhaps this meal also reminds you of your mom’s cooking or good times with friends, and/or a more carefree time in your life. Do you see how in this instance you could be unconsciously setting yourself up for stopping in for takeout this evening? This well-greased habit was already in motion, long before you actually walked into your favorite takeout restaurant. Habits are compelling. However, you are the one who has created and fed these habits, therefore you also can change them.
Start with a conscious, feasible plan for initiating a new habit. For example, ahead of time, plan out a dinner you can easily make for yourself and make sure you have the ingredients on hand. Next, see yourself coming straight home, without any stops for takeout and see yourself enjoying the creation of a healthy meal for yourself. Consciously create positive associations around this activity, for example, listening to your favorite music while you are cooking and feeling relaxed and happy that you are taking good care of yourself and following through with your plan. During the day, intercept any arising thoughts that tempt you to stop for takeout and replace them with uplifting thoughts, feelings and a mental picture of the meal you will be creating for yourself that evening.
Your thoughts influence your will, your feeling state, how your brain organizes this experience, and the ensuing actions that you take. Habits grow from repetition. Currently your old habit is strong due to many repetitions. Every time you consciously refuse to engage in your old habit, it loses power over you. Every time you engage in your new desired habit, it gains in power. With practice, your new good habit will become automatic, no longer requiring extra willpower or effort from you. By consciously applying this technique in your life, you will be able to rid yourself of negative habits and empower yourself to create the life that you desire.
(Dr. Sallie Norquist is a licensed psychologist (NJ #2371) in private practice and is director of Chaitanya Counseling Services, a center for upliftment and enlivenment, in Hoboken.) Dr. Norquist and the staff of Chaitanya invite you to write them at Chaitanya Counseling Services, 51 Newark St., Suite 202, Hoboken, NJ 07030 or www.chaitanya.com or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by fax at (201) 656-4700. Questions can address various topics, including relationships, life’s stresses, difficulties, mysteries and dilemmas, as well as questions related to managing stress or alternative ways of understanding health-related concerns. 2012 Chaitanya Counseling Services