Create Lasting Habits: The 4 Psychological Triggers That Catalyze Change

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“Things do not change; we change.” ~Henry David Thoreau

The world knows no joy like an evangelist with an opening. My eyes lit up as I jumped into my sermon on the incredible power of lifestyle change.

The year previous I had decided it was time to take charge of my health, and I had made some big changes.

I transitioned to a whole food diet, put plants at the center of my plate, started meditating regularly, and began attending yoga classes multiple times a week.

I was absolutely astounded at how the synergy of these three lifestyle changes completely transformed my quality of life.

So when my friends began asking me to what I owed my newfound glow, I couldn’t wait to endow them with the key to lasting health, effortless weight loss, and inner peace.

And so my lecture would begin. “It’s so simple! Just change your diet, start exercising, oh and don’t forget to meditate every day!”

Can you guess how many people I converted? Not a one. My regretful interlocutor would begin to nervously shift their weight, looking for any opportunity to end the conversation.

Finally, the realization made its way through my thick skull that everyone already knew that they should be eating right and exercising.

The last thing they wanted was to listen to someone else preach the values of diet, meditation, and exercise—what they already knew that they should be doing.

So I finally learned that knowledge isn’t enough to trigger a lifestyle change.

Despite knowing full well the value of yoga, meditation, and eating veggies, few people are able to make and sustain such changes, especially with career obligations, social engagements, and the other demands of modern life.

So I was left with a conundrum. What was it that had allowed me to make these changes? What was I missing in helping others to realize the same health benefits and increased quality of life?

I became obsessed with answering these questions, and thus a quest was born. A few months later I packed up my life and moved to Arizona to work for a holistic healing center.

I spent the next four years at the Tree of Life center in Patagonia, Arizona, where individuals are taught yoga, meditation, and a plant-based diet as a healing modality. I supported hundreds of people as they adopted the same lifestyle changes that I underwent, and the results have been powerful.

But what I was most interested in exploring was not the effects of diet, yoga, and meditation, but rather understanding what allows individuals to make and sustain these changes in their lives.

Why were some able to take these holistic health practices back into their busy everyday lives when they left the center? Why were some successful when others continued to struggle?

I devoured every book on the science of behavior change that I could get my hands on, and had the incredible opportunity of applying the principles in a real life setting.

The takeaway? Behavior change itself is a skill, and there are certain psychological triggers that we can employ to kickstart the process. Anyone can learn these triggers and cultivate the ability to make healthy changes that are sustainable and lasting.

Here are the four best ways to catalyze change:

1. Start small and celebrate success.

Healthy habits are the bedrock of lasting and sustainable health. Why? Because once established, they no longer require willpower to maintain.

But what is the best way to create a habit?

Stanford psychologist BJ Fogg has pioneered an extremely effective behavior change method that he calls Tiny Habits.

The premise? Start small and celebrate your successes.

Want to cook more plant-based meals? Start with putting a recipe book out on the counter on Sundays.

Want to start meditating? Start with just three breaths every time you sit down at the computer.

These tiny actions may seem insignificant, but by starting small we remove the biggest barrier to change—simply getting started.

Engineering (and celebrating) early success is key in reinforcing the creation of new habits and also motivates us to make bigger changes in the future.

Tiny habits transform into big habits, which cascade into big life changes.

2. Understand the motivation myth.

The key to changing behavior is motivation, right? We need to be motivated to cook healthy food, to go to the gym, to wake up early and study.

Not exactly.

Motivation naturally waxes and wanes, and psychologists have found that trying to change how motivated you are at any given moment is hard. Really hard.

The better bet is to use times of high motivation strategically.

Everyone has periods of peak productivity, and the best way to leverage these times of high motivation is to do something that helps structure future behavior.

Next time you find yourself having a super productive day, use that motivation to sign up for a weekly yoga class, invite an interested friend over to explore healthy cooking every Sunday, or plan a plant-based potluck.

These are all examples of setting up future events that will help keep you on track. Using your existing motivation to create accountability and social support increases follow through.

3. Get laser focused on one big win.

The archnemesis of healthy change is a pernicious little devil called overwhelm.

Take getting healthy for example: There are thousands of different dietary theories, conflicting health information, and more exercise programs than I can count.

Should you be fasting one day a week? Eating a low-carb or low-fat diet? Doing yoga? Jumpstarting yourself with a cleanse? Doing three hours of cardio weekly? Eating plant-based meals? Weight training?

The options are endless and analysis paralysis can easily set in.

Focusing on one big win is about identifying what is going to give you the greatest result for the least amount of effort.

For weight loss, a great “big win” is to focus on meals that are low in caloric density, i.e. plant-powered dishes which include a wide range of veggies, beans, grains, and greens.

You can eat as much of these nourishing, delicious, hearty foods as you like and make sustainable progress toward your goal weight.

Whatever your goal, find what gives you the biggest bang for your buck and ruthlessly cut back everything else.

Simplicity empowers change.

4. Learn one thing at a time.

In their book Switch: How To Change Things When Change Is Hard, authors Chip and Dan Heath share some surprising truths about change.

For me, the most interesting revelation is as follows: What looks like resistance is actually a lack of clarity.

When taking up healthy habits, there is almost always a learning curve.

We might go the gym, but we don’t really know how to work out.

We want to cook healthier meals, but the recipe is full of exotic ingredients we’ve never heard of before.

And we most often resist making these changes not because we are unmotivated, but because we don’t see a clear path forward. We don’t know the exact steps to take to begin eating better, exercising, or sitting down to meditate.

The best way to reduce the resistance and get started? Break down the task in front of you into baby steps and learn one thing at a time.

If you are interested in cooking healthier meals, first learn how to shop. Add a new-to-you ingredient to your list every time you go to the store.

Once shopping is a breeze, then devote time to learning to cook up a few quick, easy, and delectable healthy recipes.

Breaking down the learning curve into easy, manageable steps is one of the best ways to catalyze change.

The most important takeaway here is the understanding that behavior change is a skill that can be learned and cultivated.

There is no secret source of motivation, willpower, or discipline that some have and others don’t. Apply these psychological triggers and you’ll be well on your way to creating healthy habits that are sustainable and lasting.

Man with arms raised image via Shutterstock

About Matt Jager

Matt Jager helps others towards health, happiness, and their goal weight by making the process as fun, easy, and accessible as possible. He writes articles on transitioning to a plant-based diet, meditation, and more at his website www.DontLoseTheCow.com

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