Flip the Script on Treats
Updated: Jul 19
For many, a healthy lifestyle sounds like a prison sentence. All the foods that you have loved since childhood, that cheer up a bad day or taste like summer holidays, are forbidden. You are doomed to a dreary life of Brussel sprouts and kale, and sometimes you think you’d rather just be sick. Getting your aching, unfit body exercising is an even more painful prospect. The willpower required to make such tough changes in the midst of a busy stressful life just seems too hard to muster.
There is another way: we can become our own coaches. Coaches don't expect instant success (they wouldn't have jobs if they did). Coaches push for growth, a little improvement every day. They push you to the very edge of your ability, celebrate when you reach you reach your goals, and strategize when you don't. Perhaps the most important thing a coach does, however, is provide positive feedback when you are progressing towards your goal. Our brains are wired for reward. Whether its the extrinsic reward of praise or material gain, or the intrinsic reward of a sense of accomplishment, behaviors that are rewarded are repeated.
Reward triggers the release of dopamine, the magic ingredient in behavior change. A surge in dopamine hits the save button on our neural pathways. Activities that end with a positive dopamine-inducing experience get written into our brains; things that don’t get pruned away. Once we have established neural pathways, behaviors that seemed impossibly hard at the outset become second nature. We can leverage reward to make giving up our worst vices something we look forward to.
The best way to create sustainable change is to have a solid strategy. These three steps are the key to plotting a route to health that you can stick to.
1. Find your WHY
Before you start a health journey, you need to ask yourself why you want to take this journey. What is it that is slowing you down and holding you back from living the life you want to live? What do you wish you could change? What do you want to achieve? What do you want to avoid? What would your life look like if you could make those things happen?
You don’t have to change because someone else says so. It has to be something that you want. If it isn’t, stop here.
2. Find your WHAT
Once you have your 'Why', you need to find a professional who can help you cut through the mountains of conflicting advice to figure out what will genuinely help you progress towards it. Are certain foods making you sick? Are your habits sabotaging you? Are there foods and habits that could vastly improve your health? What needs to change for you to start on the path to healing? If you rely on Dr Google, you will be overwhelmed with information, and may end up fighting on so many fronts that the pursuit of health itself can become unhealthy.
As you learn to identify what is helping you and hurting you, it’s important to differentiate between what is outright harmful, and what is benign in small doses. For someone with celiac disease, a pizza can trigger a health crisis. For the next person, it is just a high-carb splurge that might push the dial on the scale, but in small doses, its mostly harmless.
Items on the “harmful” list need to make a permanent exit from your life, but don’t fret. You’ll use the foods on the "benign in small doses" list to make that happen.
3. Set goals and rewards
Now its time to pair up what needs to be done with the 'benign-in-small-doses' treats you came up with above. Pick the top three actions you could take to begin your health journey. More than three, and you will probably lose steam and end up giving up. You have time, the rest can wait. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and if it was, it would have crumbled. Health is a long journey, and you’ll get further at a steady pace than a sprint.
Set goals around these actions that push you to the very edge of what you feel you are capable of. If you have smoked 5 cigarettes a day for the past decade, going cold turkey is probably going to push you too far. On the other hand, knocking off one cigarette a day might be too easy. Limiting yourself to 2 cigarettes per day might be hard, but doable. That’s the territory you’re looking for.
You don't need to aim for perfection, just progress.
Once your first goals start feeling easy, make them a little harder, or move on to the next one. If you find that the rewards are coming thick and fast, you are setting the bar too low. If they are not coming at all, you need to take it back a step and set your sights on something more achievable. You are the best judge of what is working for you.
Now comes the fun part. Choose your three top treats, and pair them with your goals as rewards for achieving them successfully. This has a double-benefit: the happy ending to your goal ‘saves’ it as a positive experience in your brain, making it easier to repeat in future; and by spacing and limiting our treats, we actually turn up the volume on the reward they offer.
This process only works if you stick to the rules. If you reward yourself before the goal is achieved, it will fail. But if you achieved your goal fair and square, enjoy that reward without an ounce of guilt. Don’t worry that its not ‘healthy’. Don’t call it a “cheat” or a “bad food”. Revel in it. If its not serving you, you can work it out of the system down the line using this very process. Your rewards don't have to be foods, and they can evolve over time. Getting a massage, watching a show on Netflix or booking off a coffee date with a friend will work just as well. As you start seeing the results of your efforts, the rewards will become intrinsic: more energy, less pain, a body you feel good in.