Coaching Healthy Habits

As a wellness coach, one of the most important things for which clients will look to you for help is in developing positive new habits or permanently closing the door on negative old habits.  Many individuals (and unfortunately some wellness coaches) believe this is similar to swimming upstream.  However, with the right strategy, almost any habit can be reshaped.

Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit provides a 4 step framework for making the desired change (I’ve added a 5th critical aspect down at the bottom, but let’s start with the 4 he identifies)…

  1. Identify the routine
  2. Experiment with rewards
  3. Isolate the cue
  4. Have (Design) a plan

Identifying the routine is the critical first step.  MIT researchers discovered a straight-forward neurological loop at the core of EVERY habit:  Cue…Routine…Reward.  So, as you examine the habit you’d like to change, think through the routine.  If I find myself leaving my desk every afternoon at 3:30 to go to the break room for a donut – then that is the routine that I’m looking to adjust.

Step two then involves experimenting with rewards.  What exactly am I gaining ( the reward) by implementing that routine each afternoon?  Is it the social component of visiting with co-workers while getting the donut?  Stretching my legs and getting away from the computer for a few minutes? Actual hunger? Junk food habit?  You can test each of these by trading out one each day.  For example, today I could get up when I feel the urge, walk to the break room, visit with others, eat an apple (instead of donut) and then return to my desk.

Then set an alarm for 15 minutes later.  When it goes off, consciously think whether I still feel the urge to return to the break room.  If I do, then whatever I replaced in the routine that day didn’t provide the same reward.  However, if I slide back into work generally ready to go with the “craving” satisfied, then we know the reward was effectively met by one of the aspects that was not replaced (socializing for a few minutes, stretching my legs, getting away from the computer for a few minutes, or satisfying huger with apple without needing the donut).  If the craving is still there, then something else needs to be replaced.  The goal is to isolate what you are actually craving rather than assuming that the donut “is” the craving.  On the other hand, if you were to stand up at your desk for a few minutes, eat a donut and then sit back down, you’d be eliminating the socialization aspect.  15 minutes later, is the craving still there?  You get the idea – this process is repeated until you isolate the reward you’re really seeking.

Once you have identified the routine and the reward, it’s now important to identify the cue.  Almost ALL habitual cues fit into one of five categories:

  1. Location
  2. Time
  3. Emotional State
  4. Other People
  5. Immediately preceding action

In order to identify your own cue, you’ll write down your answers to these 5 items when you feel the urge to go get a donut from the breakroom.  It might look something like this:

  • Location – sitting at desk
  • Time – 3:25
  • Emotional state – bored with project
  • Other people around me – none
  • Immediately preceding action – responded to an email

Repeat this each day when the urge hits.  If you will actually write it down, the pattern will likely become obvious.  In this case, it may be the time of day that is the pattern (yes, you may be sitting at your desk all 3 days by yourself, but the urge only hits between 3:00-4:00 and not at other times when you’re at your desk – so it’s the time of day that would stand out as the cue in this case rather than the fact that you’re at your desk).

Once these three components are identified, then it’s time to develop your plan to shift your behavior.  By planning for the cue and choosing a positive behavior that delivers the desired reward you are craving, you will move toward successful change.  Remember, a habit is something that we do unconsciously.  So the plan brings the activity to light.  Rather than automatically moving from CUE to ROUTINE to REWARD, we now are able to consciously change the formula!

Try it yourself – and then enjoy working through these steps with your wellness coaching clients.  You’re likely to be amazed by the sustainability of the outcomes.

One additional element that isn’t addressed in the book but is critical to success – sleep. When we’ve had adequate sleep, we are MUCH more likely to care about making the change, and caring about making the positive change is paramount to success.  There’s an old saying in athletics that “fatigue makes cowards of us all.” That is absolutely as true in life as it is on the field of competition.  Making changes to our habits takes courage, and when we’re worn out, that courage fades and we drift right back into our unconscious actions – or habits.

Let’s help change the world wellness coaches – one habit at a time.  And what better place to start than with a look in the mirror?

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