When Self-Control Won’t Sustain You, Good Habits Will!

The billiards balls are always racked up and ready for me!

The billiards balls are always racked up and ready for me to shoot after my weight-lifting session!

Every morning after my run, I lift weights and then reward myself with a solo game of pool. This combo of activities is based on the habit-forming notion of pairing. Pairing is when you take an activity you love, like watching an indulgent TV show, eating something “bad,” or in my case, playing pool, and couple it with something good for you, such as thirty minutes on the stair climber, a two-mile run to the bakery, or for me, lifting weights. This has become part of my new self-improvement program.

Like many of you, I’ve had some bad habits I’ve wanted to clean up and some good habits I’ve been hoping to adopt. The first on my list is healthy eating and fitness. I’ve always found myself unable to stick with any program. In addition to trying and failing on Atkins, South Beach, Get In Shape for Women, and Weight Watchers, I also failed on my own painful invention, The Tourniquet Diet, which required me to wear a pair of too-small jeans in order to control my eating.

Two years ago, I started working with Amy Cox, of Omstead, a health coach in my town. She has helped me to improve my cooking skills and my family and I eat much better now. One drawback to cooking was that I found myself having a glass of wine or two while making my lovely meals. I also indulged in bread and desserts on weekends. My exercise habits were nearly non-existent now, owing to some injuries and inertia. My goal has always been to lose weight and look better but that has never kept me motivated. I didn’t have the willpower. It never occurred to me that another tactic might do the trick until I discovered Gretchen Rubin, the author of The Happiness Project.

I was listening to an interview with her where she was discussing the idea that if you put good habits and rules into your life, then you won’t need willpower. I found this intriguing and bought her book, Better Than Before. In it she talks about how to form good habits based on your personality. For example, if you are a night owl, don’t plan on exercising in the morning, instead carve out time in the afternoon or evening. To form good habits you need to know yourself and work with who you are–no personality change required.

Ms. Rubin begins by saying you need to clean up your eating, start exercising, and get adequate sleep before you can move onto forming other habits. Good eating and exercise were my main goals, so I was intrigued by what other habits might follow. After reading it, I immediately emailed her asking if she had a worksheet to go with the book. She didn’t, so I created my own series of four Habits Worksheet based on the ideas in her book.

I figured these would help me to discover my strengths and weaknesses, and give me the data to form an action plan. Armed with my worksheets, I got started. I am a morning person so I enlisted my very reliable and fit husband to help me get up and exercise, which he agreed to do. I cleaned up my diet, not because I want to look better but because my mom has Alzheimer’s disease and I want to take care of my brain. Recent studies show that getting exercise, eating a low-carbohydrate, high fat diet, getting enough sleep, and practicing meditation are the best things for the brain. So where vanity has failed me, my desire to keep my brain healthy has sustained me!

Three and a half months into my new habits regimen, I am eating healthy and exercising every day. While cooking great meals I have my cocktail of mineral water with a garnish instead of a glass of wine. I discovered that I am most productive in the mornings, so I convinced my husband to get up with me at four-thirty a.m. during the week. In return, I cook him a hot, healthy breakfast. I’ve carved out the time to create a bi-weekly newsletter, which has been on my things-to-do list for ten years. My early morning start time has also allowed me to pair walking my elderly dog while having a cup of coffee. It’s a nice way to start the day!

If you’re looking to clean up your life, I highly recommend Gretchen Rubin’s book. If you’d like to get copies of my worksheets inspired by Better than Before, you can find them on my  Habits Pinterest Board!