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Feb 15 21

Two More Rules of Habit Formation

by Beth

In my last post I discussed the first two rules for creating good habits from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits, 1) make it obvious and 2) make it attractive. Here are the other two rules:

3. Make it easy – Habits are formed based on frequency, not time. So forget the idea that it takes 21 days to build a habit! Each time you repeat a behavior, specific neurons in your brain fire. The more they fire together, the stronger the connection becomes, eventually making that behavior automatic. The easier it is to do something, the more likely you are to do it. Making a behavior easy will lead to more repetition and faster habit formation. 

One way to make a behavior easy is to do the minimum necessary to ritualize the behavior. Start by meditating or journaling for 2 minutes or practicing yoga or walking for 5 minutes. The key is to master the habit of showing up. Then you can start doing more. Taking that first step gives you a sense of confidence and momentum, making it easier to take the next.

Another way to make a behavior easy is to reduce friction. Your are more likely to go to the gym if it’s near your home. Chopping veggies on the weekend makes it easier to eat them during the week.

4. Make it satisfying – We are more likely to repeat behaviors that provide immediate rewards. Humans have a present bias, which means we value the present moment or instant gratification more than we value the future. This makes it hard to form habits that are good for us because many of the behaviors that provide long-term health benefits don’t have immediate rewards. So we need to find ways to add something positive to behaviors that pay off in the long run.

One way to make good behaviors more rewarding is to celebrate each time you do them. After each workout do a fist pump or a happy dance or shout “hell, yeah!” Anything that generates a positive emotion will reinforce that behavior.

Making progress is also satisfying, so tracking good behaviors can act as a reward. Put a star on your calendar every day you meditate or record how much time you read or how many vegetables you eat each day in a journal. I downloaded a habit tracker app in January and it’s very satisfying to see my streaks!

Your daily behaviors determine the person you will become. You can become a happier, healthier person by making beneficial behaviors more obvious, attractive, easy, and satisfying.

Jan 20 21

Two Rules of Habit Formation

by Beth

Last year I wrote a blog about how making behaviors easy and using cues as reminders can help you create habits for positive change. These ideas are based on the typical model of habit formation: a cue leads to a behavior that results in a reward, which causes the behavior to be repeated the next time the cue is present. In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear includes a fourth step in the habit loop: a craving. He explains that a cue must first lead to a craving in order for the behavior to happen.

Based on this four-step model, Clear outlines four rules for creating good habits:

1. Make it obvious – The clearer a cue is the better. If you want to exercise in the morning, leave your workout clothes by the bed. If you want to eat more fruit, keep a bowl of fruit out on the counter. Time and location are good cues, so make a concrete plan as to when and where you will do something. I practice yoga on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4:30. Current habits can also serve as cues. Habit stacking is when you add a new habit on top of a current habit. I built my meditation habit by meditating every day after lunch.

If you want to stop a bad habit, make the cue less obvious. I leave my phone in another room when I’m writing. This way I’m not tempted to check it and I can stay focused. My social media apps are all on the 3rd screen of my phone. The few sweets we have in our house are stored in a closed container on the top shelf of our pantry.

2. Make it attractive – You are more likely to form a habit if the experience is pleasurable. Dopamine is a feel-good hormone that is released in your brain when you experience and anticipate positive feelings. This creates a craving, teaching your brain to repeat a behavior that feels good. If you hate to run, choose yoga or walking instead. The best form of exercise is one you enjoy, because you are more likely to stick with it.

Temptation bundling can help you build a good habit by linking something you like to do with something you think you should do. Katy Milkman, a behavior scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, discovered the power of temptation bundling in a study showing that people were more likely to go to the gym when they only had access to an audio book they liked while exercising there. I only allow myself to listen to my favorite podcast (currently Smartless) when I go on a walk and I play music I love when I do chores around the house.

Stay tuned for my next post where I’ll discuss the other two rules of habit formation: make it easy and make it satisfying!

Dec 28 20

New Year, Fresh Start

by Beth

Are you as ready for 2021 as I am? The beginning of a new year is often filled with hope for positive change. January 1 is a “temporal landmark”, a day that stands out from other days. The beginning of a new year gives us a chance to start over. We can wipe the slate clean and give ourselves a fresh start.

Temporal landmarks can make change easier because we view our future self differently from our past and present self. We can decide who we want that new person to be. I did this last January when I changed my diet. The old me ate meat, while the new me prefers a plant-based diet.

Not only is it easier to do things differently when we hit a temporal landmark, but we are also motivated to continue the new behavior to preserve our perfect record. I’m less tempted to eat meat now because I don’t want to break my streak. So if there’s a change you’ve been wanting to make in your life, January 1 is a great time for a fresh start!

But just deciding that you want to change isn’t enough. We all know that New Year’s resolutions are hard to keep. Your motivation will wane, so you need to take steps to stick with your resolution. You’ll be more successful if you pick one goal to focus on and make it specific. Commit to exercising for 30 minutes 3 days each week, not just exercising more. Aim for eating 30 different plants every 7 days, not just eating healthier. Resolve to turn the lights out by 10:30 pm, not just get more sleep.

A detailed plan can help you stay on track. Decide when and where you will exercise. Plan your meals ahead of time so you can make sure to include a wide variety of plants. Set an alarm at 10:00 pm to remind you it’s time to wrap things up and head to bed.

Tell others about your resolution so they can support you and keep you accountable. And be kind to yourself when you slip up! You will have setbacks and it’s important not to use them as an excuse to give up. Instead, use them to explore what might have gone wrong and make changes to your plan. Perhaps you’ll find fewer reasons not to exercise if you do it first thing in the morning. Or maybe you need more than a 30-minute warning to get organized before going to bed. Stay flexible and celebrate the progress you do make.

What will you do differently in 2021? Here’s to a new year and a fresh start!

Nov 16 20

Do it for Your Future Self

by Beth

Most of us know what we need to do to be happier and healthier. We know things like eating healthy food, exercising, and getting enough sleep will boost our mental well-being and prevent us from developing disease. Yet knowing is a lot easier than doing.

We humans aren’t very good at making short-term sacrifices in order to reap benefits in the long run. We aren’t wired that way. Our reward circuitry pushes us to look for instant gratification. Our brains prefer to settle for a smaller present reward rather than waiting for a larger future reward. This present bias is what leads to an intention-action gap.

One way to reduce this gap is to think about your desired future self. Imagining who you want to be in the future can help you take the necessary steps in the present to become that person. Do you want to have enough money saved to retire in five years? What kind of house do you want to be able to afford? Do you want to be a person who is healthy and energetic enough to travel, play with your grandchildren, or go on long hikes with your partner? Do you want to own your own company?

The more vividly you are able to see your future self, the easier it is to make choices today that will benefit that person. Dan Goldstein has done some great research using computer simulations to show people the tradeoffs between how much they invest today and how much money they will have in retirement. He makes the scenarios more real by including computer generated pictures of people when they are older. You can see his TED Talk here.

Writing about your desired future self can help you visualize who you want to be more clearly. Thinking about that future version of you as another person, someone you need to look out for, can increase your empathy toward your future self. This may help reduce present bias so you will make smarter decisions for the long-term. Your present self may think skipping a workout or eating an unhealthy meal won’t make much of a difference, but your future self knows that all of the small choices you make today will determine who you become.

If there is something you know you should do, but you don’t have the motivation to do it, think about what your future self would want you to do. Picturing your future self enjoying retirement might make it a little easier to control your online shopping. When you make a good choice, imagine your future self giving you a high five. Celebrating will increase the likelihood that you repeat the desired behavior.

Oct 16 20

Your Health Can Keep You Safe

by Beth

One of the most important things you can do to keep from getting sick from the coronavirus is to avoid exposure. Wearing a mask, physical distancing, gathering outdoors, and hand washing are the best ways to do this. I bet you hear about one or more of these almost every day.

Unfortunately, you don’t hear nearly enough about the importance of your health for reducing the likelihood of becoming sick if exposed to the virus. The underlying conditions that increase the probability of hospitalization and death are all related to our metabolic health. Sadly, only 12% of Americans are metabolically healthy.

The good news is that your health is determined in large part by your lifestyle. Studies have shown that lifestyle changes can significantly improve your metabolic health in as little as 21 days. That means you can take steps right now to reduce your risk of getting sick from COVID19.

The 5 keys to improving metabolic health are: diet, exercise, sleep, stress management, and social connection.

  • Diet is most important, because it’s the only one of these interventions that has been proven to reverse metabolic health on its own. Eating a wide range of fruits and vegetables will ensure that you get the fiber needed to feed the healthy bacteria in your gut. Legumes, nuts, and seeds are healthy sources of protein. And sugar and processed foods should be minimized, because they suppress your immune system.
  • Exercise enhances the immune system’s ability to function and fight infection. Aim for 20 to 30 minutes of moderate activity, like walking, each day, as well as some form of strength-building exercise, like yoga, a couple of times a week.
  • A minimum of 7 hours of sleep is critical for good health. Some recommendations for sleeping better include a quiet, dark, cold room and bedtime routines like avoiding blue lights from screens and putting your phone to sleep in another room.
  • Stress suppresses your immune system, so you need to find ways to reduce it. Breathing exercises are a great practice. Just 10 to 15 minutes a day can make a difference. You can download a meditation app to get started. Practicing gratitude can minimize stress by helping you to focus on the positive. Other options include yoga or listening to music. Limiting the amount of news you consume, especially these days, can also reduce your stress.
  • Our social connections have a strong impact on our metabolic health. It’s critical to stay in touch with friends and family during the pandemic. We should be practicing physical distancing, not social distancing. Connecting virtually is a great option, but also look for safe ways to meet people outdoors for some mask-to-mask interaction.

You have the power to minimize the potential impact of coronavirus by making lifestyle changes to improve your health. Eating a healthy diet, keeping active, getting enough sleep, managing stress, and staying connected can all make a real difference.

Sep 15 20

Gardening for Well-Being

by Beth

I started meditating 10 years ago because I kept reading about the benefits of meditation for well-being. I’m so glad I did because it has made a huge, positive difference in my life.

Lately, I’ve been learning about the many benefits of gardening for our physical and mental health. So, guess what? I just planted a Fall garden. It took a lot of time and effort, but I’m really excited to add gardening to my list of well-being practices!

Here are some of the ways gardening positively impacts our well-being:

  • Gardening is good exercise. I was surprised by how exhausting it was to build my garden! Personally, I’m hoping the level of physical activity required for maintaining it will be a bit lower.
  • People who grow a garden eat more fruits and vegetables. You can enjoy healthy, fresh food that’s free of pesticides, herbicides, and chemical fertilizers.
  • Gardening increases your time outdoors and being outside reduces stress and boosts mood.
  • Gardening also relieves stress because it’s a mindfulness practice. You can become so focused on what you are doing that you are completely present in the moment.
  • Learning something new contributes to well-being. I’ve watched tons of YouTube videos to learn how to start a garden and I know I’ll continue to learn what works and what doesn’t as I tend my garden this Fall.
  • Gardening can boost your immune system. A harmless bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, found in soil has been linked to stronger immune systems. It also increases the production of serotonin, a mood-elevating brain chemical.
  • Gardening may protect against cognitive decline by keeping your mind active. One study found that people in their 60s and 70s who gardened regularly had a 36% lower risk of dementia than non-gardeners.
  • Growing food can make you more self-sufficient, giving you a feeling of control in a world in which so much is out of our control.
  • Gardening can give you a sense of doing good by reducing your carbon footprint. It eliminates transportation costs and gardens use about one-third as much water as lawns.
  • In his TED talk, Ron Finley, the “gangsta gardener” from South Central LA, discusses how gardening can transform communities.

Who knew gardening was so good for our well-being? I realize that some of you may not have the space or the patience to grow a garden. Fortunately, you can reap many of the same benefits by growing plants.

Aug 24 20

Positive Emotions Facilitate Positive Change

by Beth

Have you been trying to start any new habits lately? Maybe something that will help to boost your immune system, like exercising or eating more plant-based meals? Or something that will protect your mental health, like meditating?

Change is hard, but there is one really important thing you can do to help a new behavior stick: celebrate!

People change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad. We often fail to form a new habit because each time we don’t do the desired behavior we feel like a failure. You tell yourself you are going to exercise for 30 minutes, 3 times a week. If you skip one of those days, you beat yourself up for not doing what you planned to do. This undermines your motivation to keep going, because you are wired to approach what feels good and avoid what feels bad. You will abandon a goal if it keeps making you feel bad.

Dopamine is a chemical released in your brain when something makes you feel good. It’s part of the brain’s reward system that helps you remember the behaviors that cause good feelings so that you can repeat them. This means that if you experience positive emotions when you perform a behavior, that behavior will be reinforced. The desire to repeat the behavior will help turn it into a habit.

This is why celebrating each time you perform a behavior you hope to repeat, especially when you are starting out, is so important. The positive emotions you generate will help you stick with the new behavior because it feels good. Now this only works if the celebration immediately follows the behavior. It also needs to feel genuine in order to activate the reward system in your brain for the release of dopamine.

Think about something you could do or say that makes you feel good. How could you celebrate after eating a healthy meal? Not with a piece of cake, please! I sometimes say “Yes!” with a fist pump or do a short happy dance. You can clap, snap your fingers, or take a bow. You might feel a bit silly giving yourself a high five each time you exercise, but it really can help you make it a habit. Instead of being upset with yourself when you don’t meditate, celebrate each time you do!

Jul 7 20


by Beth

Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.” – Henry Ford

Mindset is a belief, or the way you think about something. How you view something can transform the situation, impacting your health and happiness. We can’t control the fact that we are facing a global pandemic, but we can choose how we view it. There are ways to think about the current situation that can help you be more resilient.

Continue reading here

Jun 10 20

Discerning How to Help

by Beth

In his commencement address to The Class of 2020, Barack Obama reminded us that “our individual well-being depends on the well-being of the community that we live in and that it doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick . . . that our country and our democracy only function when we think not just about ourselves, but also about each other”.

I heard the Dalai Lama speak several years ago about the deeply interconnected nature of our existence. He explained how, as human beings, we are all the same, we all aspire to be happy and not to suffer. Like Obama, he believes the best way to increase our own well-being is to care for the well-being of others.

The global pandemic has made it clear how interconnected we all are. And the protests have made it clear that people are suffering. This is leading more and more of us to ask how we can make things better for those who are hurting. What can we do?

There is no one answer. As you try to identify what role you could play, the Three Tenets of the Zen Peacemakers might help.

• The first tenet is not-knowing, which means letting go of fixed ideas about yourself, others, and the universe.
• The second tenet is bearing witness to the joy and suffering of the world.
• The third tenet is taking action based on what you have learned.

The first two tenets can help you really listen to people to learn how they are suffering and what kind of help they might need. This knowledge can then be used to choose what action to take.

So many things need to change and that means we can all find our own way to contribute. Take some time to listen and learn with an open heart and an open mind so that you can figure out ways to use your unique talents, connections, and circumstances to improve the well-being of others.

May 13 20

To Be Resilient Take Control

by Beth

Resilient individuals use active coping skills to get through difficult times. They identify what they have control over and focus on what they can do about the things within their control.

There are so many things we can’t control these days – the virus, the need for social distancing, our work situation, our children’s school situation. But there are many things we can control, like how we respond and how we spend our time. We can choose to focus on the positive, to be grateful for all that is good. We can choose to focus on the present rather than worry about an uncertain future.

We can also control our daily actions. Here are three things you can do to boost your well-being during these challenging times:

  1. Safety and health – Taking steps to protect yourself and your family is more important than ever. Hand washing, disinfecting, social distancing, and wearing masks can all make a difference. There are also many things you can do to boost your immune system. Getting enough sleep and exercising are important. Healthy eating matters, too. Fiber is especially critical, so eat lots of veggies. A recent study found a link between Vitamin D deficiency and COVID-19 deaths, so spend time outside!
  2. Growth – The sense that you are continuing to develop over time is linked to greater well-being. If you are busier than ever trying to figure out how to work from home or home school your children then you are learning new things. But you may have been furloughed or have more free time due to canceled travel and events. In that case, finding ways to grow can give you a sense of accomplishment. There are many things you can do for professional development like taking an online class, reading, seeking advice from a mentor, or building your network. As far as personal growth, the options are endless! It’s been fun to see what people have been doing, including gardening, baking sourdough bread, DIY home projects, meditating, and learning to embroider.
  3. Connection and contribution – Social support is one of the most important factors for resilience. Social distancing does not mean social isolation. Connecting with others at this time is paramount. Many of us are talking to friends and family more than ever. It’s also a good time to reconnect with people you may not have spoken to in a while. Finding ways to help others can have one of the strongest impacts on your well-being. Helping others makes you feel good and distracts you from your own problems. Any small act of kindness will do. You could help your parents figure out how to use Zoom, or comfort someone who is struggling, or share a funny video. Look for ways you can contribute to making someone else’s day a little better.