This presentation was by Dr. Anthony Lim, and discusses 10 common mistakes made when approaching behavior change. This presentation, and hopefully the notes from them, are incredibly useful if you are starting (or restarting) a transition to a plant-based diet or having difficulty maintaining one. If you struggle with moderation, balance, motivation, addiction, or other cognitive blocks then these notes may help you with some of the problems you encounter on a daily basis.
Dr. Lim leads a Plant-based support group class in Northern California, and this presentation is all about knowledge gained from helping people in the support group. One important first note Dr. Lim made was the people attempting the behavior change have to believe that whole-foods plant based diet is healthier than other diets, such as Atkins, Paleo, or Keto. Then, even those individuals who have subscribed to eating WFPB (whole foods plant based) have to believe that this way of eating is the truth and the way everyone else should be eating as well. However, there is also the aspect of behavioral change: knowing something is true does not translate into doing.
The goal of Dr. Lim’s discussion is to talk about behavioral change mistakes and pitfalls and what people can do to rectify them and move forward. In the opinion of the editor here (me!), it was one of the most useful “hands-on” presentations at the Advanced Study Weekend for adopting, transitioning, and maintaining a plant based diet.
Notes from a presentation “10 common mistakes in behavior change” by Dr. Anthony Lim
These are notes taken during a presentation given at the McDougall Program’s Advanced Study Weekend.
What does that mean?
- Because these notes were typed during a presentation by the noted doctor, and are being written by a “lay person”. While I did my best to make notes about what they said, these notes may not be entirely accurate. However, I will link resources (such as the peer-reviewed studies referenced within the presentation) whenever possible within the text.
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10 common mistakes in (diet-related) behavior change
You can think about behavior change as a “boulder up a mountain”. It is extremely difficult. You can think of Oprah as an example (all the weight changes over the years). Change is difficult, and we all probably have some area of our life (exercise, eating, work, etc) where we have struggled at some point.
1. Jumping in without planning
You might clear out the cupboards of all foods that do not follow your new eating plan, and while you are ready to get started on Monday… the fridge is empty. Therefore, one of the pivotal planning people do is weekly planning.
Plan out weeks meals, actually, go and buy the food you need so you are set up and the fridge is stocked. If you have a stressful day at work, you are ready when you get home (and don’t stop by the drive through or make a bad choice at the grocery store). Franklin “Failing to plan is planning to fail”. Churchill “Plans are of little importance, but planning is essential.”
Solution for planning problems:
Invest in the beginning, when you’re just starting out on the new plan.
Think about the following things:
- What is important to you?
- What are resources you need?
- What are the 3 important things you need to do?
Even if your plans change, and what you actually do is different, at least you are partially there.
2. Getting bogged down in “Analysis Paralysis”
We tend to love information, however “the jam experiment” demonstrates how people tend to not make a decision when too many options are presented to them. An example of this was when a company selling jams and jellies set up a booth. They only had a couple jams, and there was not enough variety for people to find something they wanted. Then they returned with dozens of types, and there were too many options and people were “paralyzed” and didn’t make a decision. When the company was offering way more options, people purchased less.
So, there is a magical number that sits right with people. Perhaps 3 to 5 options to decide from. Remember that more information and more decisions to make does not lead to more “sales”. People are more likely to not make a decision at all with more options and choices available.
Solution for analysis paralysis:
Think about the application. Wisdom without application is worthless. Always think about “how will I apply this” to just one or two things in your life, not everything all at once.
3. Setting unrealistic expectations
There are three types of unrealistic expectations:
- Expected difficulty
The success rate on meeting your expectations is really low, usually because we have so many resolutions. Because we have so many resolutions of things we want to change, they are unrealistic because we are spread so thin. Instead of making progress on one or two things, we don’t do any of them at all.
Solution for setting expectations:
Setting up good habits is key. Figure out the expected difficulty of what you want to achieve, and accommodate that. Remember that success in our minds is a nice, easy straight line but the actual path towards success is often messy.
Take baby steps towards what you want to achieve. AA is an example, where they say “one day at a time.” This mindset is not too intimidating or overwhelming and you can take a huge goal and break it down into small pieces so you can accomplish it with confidence.
4. Underestimating impact of our environment (willpower)
Willpower is a finite resource.
The good news is we now have a deeper understanding of willpower. Willpower is like a gas tank: we wake up with it full, but over the course of the day it can be depleted. What depletes it? The stresses of a typical day: traffic, boss, conversations, etc. So by end of the day, your willpower is on empty.
This is the reason why binge eating happens at night most often. You deplete your willpower over the course of a day, so by the end of the day you feel like you don’t care anymore and you deserve whatever it is your trying to avoid, and so on.
Solution for adjusting the environment:
Make bad behavior harder. Make good behavior easier.
An example of this is the goal of trying to wake up at 5am. For the first two or three times, you fail because you keep hitting snooze because the alarm is next to the bed (and it’s easy to do so). Then, finally you realize that you are weak. So, the change is to take the clock and place it across the room so you have to actually make a conscious decision from across the room to get back into bed. It made a huge difference to think about the surroundings/environment.
Also think about the social environment, which is the biggest challenge. It’s hard to eat healthy around other people. So, make the bad behaviors harder to do. Spend more time with different friends, or take the same friends and say “this friendship means a lot to me”… but see if you can spend time together in different ways such as hiking instead of eating. To people you know really well (family), make a request like watching the Forks over Knives documentary together. Do not underestmate the power of your phyiscal and social environment.
5. Lacking support and accountability
Humans are social creatures, and we do not do well when left to our own devices. Often, we need to develop support and accountability. And developing support does not have to involve other people:
Solution 1 for accountability:
Write your intention down on paper.
We have intentions and often we keep those intentions in our heads. There is a lot of power in writing our intentions on paper. A study was performed called “Why 3% Harvard MBAs make 10x more money than the other 97%”. 84% of the student had not thought about earnings or written them down. 13% had thought about their earnings, but not written them down. 3% had thought about their earnings, and committed it to paper. When researchers followed up with them 10 years later (the proxy they used is money), they looked into how much each were making. 13% who had thought about the number but not written down making on average 2x money than the ones who had not thought about it at all. The 3% of MBAs who made 10x as much money as the other 97% combined: they had thought about their intention and written it down.
(Editors note: A quick search to reference this study: it appears as though this study, and a similar quoted Yale study, may have been a myth that perpetuated over the years. Here’s a source to start your own research if inclined.)
Regardless, the ideas is that you can write down a Mission Statement in December. Sort out: what are priorities this year, and never have more than three. What is important:
- what matters to me
- how am I going to achieve this
If you don’t have time to write down your goals, when are you going to have time to do them.
Solution 2 for accountability:
Find an accountability partner or group. This could be a group in person, an online group (such as a Facebook group), an in-person or virtual health coach, or a friend or family member.
When finding a group, your success is way likelier (this idea stems from success metrics of AA and other support groups).
Solution 3 for accountability:
Consider raising the stakes on yourself. The idea is you want to increase the stakes for this behavior.
An example of this is an online tool used to place stakes on achieving your goal, such as this tool: stickK.com. So: you put down your goal online, and you put money behind it. For example, if you do not meet the goal, then you can set up who to give money to, such as a charity. Or to up the ante, you might even give money to a charity you disagree with. This works for certain personalities: in other words, you have to be honest with yourself.
6. Not tracking our progress as we go
Tracking your progress might involve tracking inches around your waist, days eaten only plants, or adding a new blog post on a weekly basis. But how?
Solution for tracking progress:
Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity tip to “not break the chain” is a great way to track our progress.
Seinfeld asked about the key to success, and he said “I write a joke every single day. I get a calendar and put a big red X for writing a joke each day. And when I see that chain, I don’t want to break the chart.”
You will now find many phone apps dedicated to this idea: “don’t break the chain”. It’s simply based on a visual of looking at the calendar. Keep it simple, and don’t break the chain. If you break the chain, just focus on getting a longer chain the next time.
Another example of “not breaking the chain” in the context of a plant-based diet is Dr. Lisles Daily targets (starch targets, where you put a check mark after accomplishing eating a starch, salad, exercise and so on – see this blog post for more information on this kind of tracker).
FOCUS ON POSITIVE BEHAVIORS. Positive behaviors are far more realistic and more doable, and the break the chain apps or even using a paper calendar to track is a simple way of tracking your actions. This method reminds you of what is important to you, and the visual keeps it at forefront of mind (mental proximity): with these benefits, you are more likely to change your behavior.
For more information, read the interview where this productivity tip was first revealed over on Lifehacker.
7. Thinking just “a little bit” will be ok (moderation)
Moderation. We’ve all heard that “everything in moderation” is okay. Unfortunately, thinking “just a little bit” of a certain treat often leads to more and more and ends up being a slippery slope back to your old habits. An example of this is the holidays. You have to look back to what led to the problems, what is the initial trigger. It might be the holiday’s, or perhaps it is a box of chocolates (“Maybe I can eat one” eventually led to an empty box.)
Humans are often not good at “just having a little bit” so you have to recognize which areas of your life you don’t have good self-control. Moderation is NOT an option in the areas where you don’t have good self-regulating mechanisms. This is different from person to person. Where one person may have excellent self-control around chocolates or bread, the next person may not have that same self-control or regulation.
Solution for moderation issues:
You absolutely have to know those areas where you have slippery slopes or risks, and not kid yourself. If you do not have excellent self-control over a trigger problem, you need to consider avoiding that food or activity entirely, and consider an alternative food or activity to swap in for the problematic one.
8. Neglecting other core areas of your life
This one is so important. There are 4 pillars:
These pillars are reflected in and discussed in “The Blue Zones”, “Dr. Ornish’s Pillars” and more. They cover the importance of all the areas of our lives and acknowledge their interconnectedness. If you take one of these pillars out of your life, the others will fall down. So there is a lot of synergy between them and demonstrates how the sums of the parts are greater than the whole. But how do we apply this, how do we solve issues in these areas?
Solution for addressing the four pillars:
Measure each pillar for your life, and give it a score between 1 and 10. If you are low in one particular area, focus on this pillar.
Be careful, as you can’t have unrealistic expectations about fixing issues you note quickly or easily. So if you notice that you have low scores for several or all of these pillars, don’t create huge goals in all the areas and try to address them all at once. However, you also do not want to neglect one area in the name in making improvement in all of them.
So, look at where you are deficient and take baby steps towards addressing these deficiencies. If you are making a big change in one pillar, don’t completely neglect one of the other pillars.
9. Believing everything you think
The power of our thoughts is huge. The story we tell ourselves about our lives and ourselves has a profound impact on our overall actions and behavior. Thoughts influence feelings influence behavior (a basic concept of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).
An example of this is having the lapse with a box of chocolates mentioned in Number 7 above. One way is thinking about this lapse is: “Damn. I was making so much progress, and then fell flat.” You may feel sad, ashamed, demoralized, and then this turns into apathy… and more chocolate.
Feedback to yourself turns into bad thoughts, this is an easy cycle to fall into. However, we can also change our thoughts. You can adjust this feedback into: “I thought I could have a bit, but I can’t. Now I know this about myself.” Instead of feeling ashamed and demoralized, this new train of thought is now a feeling of empowerment. You may now say to yourself: “Now I know what to do next holidays, I won’t have any.”
Solution for addressing your inner monologue:
You can change your behavior by adjusting a negative cycle into a positive cycle of thoughts. Question the validity of your thoughts. Is it still true? Was it ever valid?
(Editors note: Think about or even write down your demoralizing thoughts and figure out the message you need to learn about them. Is it valid? For the thoughts that are valid (they may not all be), what have you learned about yourself? This message is empowering, and will help you move forward.)
10. Giving up
This one is the most important. We are all going to fall flat on our face: it’s a given. It’s all about whether you get back up after being knocked down.
Solution for wanting to give up:
Resilience. If you have resilience, no matter what happens you just get back up. You will succeed.
Summing it all up with a demo
Dr. Lim concluded the presentation with a demonstration to illustrate what happens when you adjust your lifestyle to achieve better health outcomes. He begins by filling a glass with soda to represent all of the bad decisions, toxicity, and harm on your health caused by what you eat. And then he takes a giant pitcher of water and begins to pour this into the full glass of soda. Slowly, the glass is replaced with the water, demonstrating how your body will slowly change from a toxic state to a healthful one. You are filling up your body with good, and the bad behaviors go away.
For more information:
You can read more about Anthony Lim MD in his Bio at True North here.
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