So it’s been quite a while since I’ve published here and I apologize: work has been madness. But the good news is that learning hasn’t stopped and I’ve still been able to make progress on some of my key goals, including:
- Writing in my next book (not telling anything yet)
- Getting through one new book from a philosophy heavy-hitter per month
- Getting back into shape!
I’ll confess: even I slip betimes. My previous best of 208 lbs got into trouble when the “rush” hit at the new job, and suddenly I found myself at 223 lbs.
The good news is it’s all turned around, and in the past 2.5 months I have rushed down to 195 lbs, shaving 28 lbs off the total.
Not bad. But here’s the trick: diet didn’t change. At least not formally. I’m still doing Slow-Carb and my only exercise is my commute to work.
So what changed?
There’s a great book I listened to (audiobooks are still king) called “The Power of Habit,” and the biggest key that I took away from it is that there exist concepts called “keystone habits.” I used one of these to help me get back on track with weight loss.
First, let’s discuss how they help in general (this does the book no justice and I recommend getting the book if you’re really interested):
Habits are great because they take the active thought out of doing something, and you don’t forget or give yourself excuses not to do it. When you develop habit of brushing your teeth in the morning (those with youngsters know this development isn’t easy!), you don’t have to force yourself to do it, you just do it. Compare this, for example, to deciding you’re going to start running every day–it is mentally exhausting to work up the gumption to do it.
The most effective habit “loops” come from having queues to do them. With tooth-brushing, it’s sometimes your teeth feeling icky in the morning, or simply seeing your tooth brush as you drag your tired self into the bathroom. When one sees that queue (after the habit is developed), it primes the brain into automatically executing the habit.
Keystone habits, specifically, cause us to develop other habits much more easily. Building habits is hard (the building of habits is an exercise I’ll leave to the fairly brilliant aforementioned book), but if we pick the right keystone habit to start with, the others start to flow in automatically. Finding a great keystone habit can change your life.
So let’s talk about mine.
The Keystone Habit of Losing Weight
Most of us uncomfortable with our weight really don’t like to weigh ourselves. This is natural–nobody really likes hearing bad news.
But bad news is motivating. And, of course, good news can be motivating, too.
I’d realized after much thought that my vigilance was much weakened when I didn’t have data. If my weight was this amorphous, ill-defined thing, I was much less prone to do anything about it day to day.
So I decided to start weighing in. I figured that my keystone habit might just be jumping on the scale every morning. Terrifying at first, but a much easier habit to start with than running 3 miles a day or something else equally terrifying.
And lo, I could feel the effects immediately. After first stepping on the scale at 223, my heart sank, but ho boy, did I decide it was time to do something about it. I’d lost so much progress (my previous record was 207) and wanted to reclaim it.
Now note that I hadn’t committed myself to picking up any more habits for a whole month. I told myself that if I just weighed in every day, I’d be happy, and we’d see what happened.
Cometh the Magic
Vigilance came on its own. Again, without committing to it, I started to do a whole lot:
- Control my portions and remind myself to stop eating even when I was a bit hungry (as one feels “full” generally about 10 minutes after eating enough)
- Turning down wine (a weak spot of mine) when dining with friends
- Biking to work–6 miles each way, instead of hopping on the subway
- Checking the nutritional facts on the food I was shopping for (hidden sugar is everywhere!)
All these things came as little decisions in the moment, rather than a heavy decision to make an epic push for each of these things–committing to all of them is terrifying and can be psychologically prohibitive to we mere mortals (especially those of us who love food much more than exercise).
And then I started to lose weight at a pace of 2.5 lbs/month, where before I had stagnated (even when dieting) or gained weight (when I had been a bit lazier). Holy smokes.
“Congrats, Erik, but How Does This Help Me in College?”
Besides dealing with your freshman 15, keystone habits have applications everywhere. Remember that weight loss is simply an illustrative example.
Lots of folks have trouble mustering up the state of mind to do homework, or to study (Facebook is such a great distraction as soon as we crack open our laptops). Others hit the snooze too many times, or skip morning classes.
So think about the area where you want to start developing really good habits. Is it, “study more and goof around less?” Is it, “work on problem sets and papers bit by bit rather than push them off to later?” Is it, “sleep and work out more?” Doesn’t matter what it is. Think of an easy keystone habit that will get you going.
Here are a few potential examples to start the juice flowing in your brain:
- Cut your wifi or unplug your ethernet cable during your study block
- Put on a tie when you’re writing (this “dress for success” habit has really helped some friends, as crazy as it sounds)
- Record your daily page count on a paper
- Promise yourself you’ll do one problem on problem sets every day
- Put your gym shoes by your bed and wear your gym shorts to sleep
Think about how all of these affect your brain and your level of situational awareness. Find a habit that’s going to put you in a state of mind to easily and automatically build little new habits that get you where you want to go.
Before you close this tab: decide which easy keystone habit you’re going to start today.