Habit change is a massive topic. When it comes to nutrition, training, and life in general, all the knowledge in the world will do no good without habit change. Think about all the doctors, gym teachers, or health and fitness professionals that are out of shape. They (hopefully) know what they should be doing, but that does not mean they are actually able to do it.
As usual, I see this breakdown as an 80/20 breakdown. In regards to fitness and dieting, 20% of the results come from gathering proper information, and 80% of the results come from developing and maintaining positive habits. Well-established fitness entrepreneur Mike Vacanti just came out with a shirt that has “Consistency / Perfection” (“consistency over perfection”). The idea being that being able to consistently maintain a pretty good diet is so much more important than crashing and binging repeatedly on a “perfect” diet that will ultimately fail.
So with habit change being as important as it is, let me go over two strategies that both seem to work pretty well for different people. Both have their pros and cons, and they require an understanding of yourself to properly execute.
Strategy #1: The Lead Domino
What is it?
The “Lead Domino” strategy consists of finding a small area of change that will ultimately have reciprocal benefits. By focusing attention on this one small change, you don’t burn yourself out by having to worry about a variety of different health principles, and other areas of health ultimately fall into line naturally.
What is an example?
An example of this would be focusing all your attention on getting 8 hours of sleep per night. While this has plenty of benefits in itself, it will also likely result in less late-night binge eating, less caffeine consumption, increased energy to workout during the day, and so on.
Another lead domino could be making sure your breakfast is as great as possible. High in protein, fiber, and with a little bit of healthy fats, this breakfast could have the benefits of jumpstarting your metabolism, beginning to burn body fat right away, but then also keeping you full and satiated for a longer period of time, reducing the risk of a calorie surplus.
What are the negatives?
This process is relatively slow-moving, and is not for someone who is impatient. If you are strong-willed but impatient, this strategy may frustrate you too much in the short-term to be sustainable in the long-term. These types of people should look to the second strategy for success…
Strategy #2: The Grand Intervention
What is it?
This strategy is more or less the opposite of the first strategy. With a grand intervention, one is essentially deciding to make a whole host of changes together. This is also referred to as “piggy-back changes.” This results in many different habits changing simultaneously.
What is an example?
The examples here are endless. Sometimes I see it when people join our gym and get their introductory nutrition consultation. They realize that there is a lot they are doing that could be improved, want to make the most out of their time in the gym, and hit Whole Foods ready to completely restructure their diet.
For these highly motivated people, I like to try to limit their piggy-back changes to smaller groupings (we call them “Tiers”). For example, we’ll encourage them to try to get a lot of sleep, drink a lot of water, and have a high-quality, high-protein breakfast every day. Once those three are established, we will build upon those habits with another grouping. This seems to be pretty effective.
What are the negatives?
The biggest negative here is decision fatigue. It is difficult for many people to make such dramatic changes on the fly. Often times, the old habits begin to seep back into their daily lives, or they just burn out from the hard work involved with eating and training right. These people run the risk of getting into a “yo-yo diet” trend, where they go all-in and see great improvements, then go into a binging period where they get out of shape until they get fed-up and go all-in on a diet again.
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Choosing a Strategy
To effectively choose which of these strategies may work for yourself, you need to audit the way you typically make decisions. If you are the type of person that can patiently make one thing a habit, and then build upon that gradually over a longer period of time, then you should begin looking for a lead domino. You will likely have lots of success in the long-term, since this is a far more sustainable strategy. You will be more likely to lead a life of sustained health and well-being.
If you lack that patience, but know you are capable of practicing strong will-power, then you may want to make a grand intervention in your diet and change a few things up at once. Furthermore, if you are only interested in a short-term fix (such as looking great for a trip next month) and don’t really care about the longer-term, then this could be another effective strategy for you. You would only need to stick out the big changes for a short period of time, and likely won’t run the risk of burning out on it.
Ultimately, you may use both strategies at different periods of your life. I tend to operate this way. I can pile a handful of changes up at once, and use them to strengthen each other, but I know that I will burn out within a few months. At the point I begin to experience burnout, I default back to the basics, and search for the lead domino that will keep me healthy and functioning while other habits may begin to waiver a bit. This way, I control myself from ever going too far off the deep end. However, it took a few years of trial and error with different strategies before I was able to fully understand that this was how I operate best. And for that matter, there may still be a better way for me to go about it that I have yet to find.
The key here is to pick a strategy and hammer it for at least two weeks to see if it works for you. If it does not, it may be time to reconsider and try another one. Both strategies can be incredibly effective if done correctly.