Changing Habits

Dear ___  

I just returned from a 9 day retreat called “Radical Aliveness” with my mentor, Richard Moss, whose work I have written about in previous newsletters.  It was an extraordinary, challenging and illuminating workshop where we learned, among other things,  how we leave ourselves through our thoughts and reactions and practice how to bring ourselves back to the present moment.  I have been studying mindfulness for years and have gotten better at noticing my habitual thoughts and reactions but felt this intensive practice would enable me to make it a regular habit.  Now of course, the challenge is to continue the practice.  I often use the example of people with asthma who are taught how to breathe when they’re having an asthma attack but they don’t practice, there’s no way they can have the presence of mind or the skills to use the calming breath when they’re actually having an asthma attack.  I liked Richard’s suggestion that we congratulate ourselves when we’ve noticed ourselves going into one of our stories, because that means we have awareness of the story and are not totally identified with it.  I thought of all of you and how important it is to congratulate ourselves when we notice ourselves eating mindlessly or habitually or as a reaction to an uncomfortable emotion.  Even if you are not able to stop eating that moment, if you able to notice yourself doing it and breathe and be with what is happening, your experience will change.

At the retreat, we had fabulous cooks (!)  It was so delightful not to have to cook and to be nourished in that way and I generally ate “from the inside-out.”  But at the end of the final dinner, I found out that I had cleanup duty and, having spent the afternoon helping prepare the room for the evening’s festivities, I was mad and told myself stories about doing double-duty, it’s not fair…   And then I saw the chocolate cake!  So, instead of sitting down and savoring it (which has been my habit these past years, most of the time), I walked around with one piece, then another, attempting to shovel in sweetness to take away the sourness of my mood.   I vaguely tasted the chocolate that had been so lovingly prepared and ended up with a stomach ache – and fortunately, amusement at myself for having fallen back into an old pattern.  Interestingly, the next day, our farewell lunch included brownies.  I asked if they were worth eating and when I was told they were “to die for” (couldn’t resist that!) so I decided to give one a try.  This time, I remembered to be mindful and appreciative, picked up a section of the brownie (leaving the rest in the plate) and proceeded to love it with all of my senses.  That bite was so satisfying that I packed up the rest of the brownie to take with me on the drive. 

I learned from my trip to Italy (if you didn’t get that newsletter, I’ll be happy to send it to you) that I have both sets of habits and that if circumstances trigger me and I am not centered and aware, I am likely to fall back into compulsive and emotional eating. My practice is to use my tools to stay centered (like a boat with its rudder down so it isn’t pulled whichever way the wind blows – especially if you use the sail skillfully) and to forgive myself when I am pulled off course.

There’s much that I would like to share with you about what I learned at the retreat, how I am using it with clients and  how I am practicing it myself, but I’d like to focus this newsletter on habits and how you can work with them this summer to have greater satisfaction and feel more in charge of your life.

With Warmest Regards,


Resources: My workshop, Bitman’s Article

How to Change Habits

Charles Duhigg, the author of “The Power of Habit” suggested some simple steps to changing a habit: 

1- Identify the Reward,

2- Define the Cue

3- Make a Plan

These are my suggestions on how to use these simple (but not easy) steps.

First, identify the reward.  A habit got started because, at least initially (and perhaps still), it gave us pleasure or helped us avoid pain.  Do it often enough and it feels like there’s something missing when we don’t do it.  So, to avoid the unease you would feel when if you didn’t do your habit, you do it.  Sort of like scratching an itch.  And then had some simple ways to If you are feeling worried or frustrated with your overeating, it may be tempting to go on another diet. Often, this is instigated by our shame about our eating and our fear that we will gain weight. It is understandable if you are thinking of going on another diet. Often we have lost weight dieting in the past. It is summer and we may not feel comfortable exposing our skin. We hear friends, family and colleagues talking about their latest diet. But if, like many of us, you have been on a diet-binge yo-yo, dieting is not the answer. The deprivation and underfeeding of most diets is a setup to binge. I try to remember this definition of insanity – doing things the same way and expecting a different result!

Here are a few ideas to help you change your compulsive eating pattern without dieting:

  • Track your eating for several days to get a clear picture of your current eating patterns. In “Conscious Eating, Conscious Living,” I have a chart for tracking which includes: time of day and whether your desire was prompted by hunger, fatigue, habit or an emotion. Most people think of charting as a way to stop themselves from overeating Mine is an investigative chart where I recommend eating as you would normally. This allows you to become an interested observer, a scientist who is trying to understand his or her patterns. You can’t understand your triggers if you are being “good.”

  • Remember a time when you weren’t struggling with food. What were you doing differently? You can use yourself as a role model!

  • Chart your hunger and fullness levels before and after eating. Notice if you tend to overeat (to the point beyond satiation) when you have let yourself get too hungry. If that is your pattern, make it a priority to keep your blood sugar even. This means planning your meals (there is truth to the adage “failing to plan is planning to fail”)

  • Notice (from your charting) if you are eating from habit rather than hunger. The easiest way to change a habit is habit substitution. Discover what times of day and in what situations you are most prone to eating from habit and decide in advance what you will do in those situations. For example, if it has been your habit to head straight to the refrigerator when you first come home from work, you might decide to make a beeline to your bedroom to change your clothes and take the dog for a walk or lie down on the bed with the cat. If you are feeling ravenous after work, it may be stress, experienced as hunger. If you are too hungry because your blood sugar has gotten too low, try eating a snack at the end of workday. While some people can keep their blood sugar even on 3 meals a day, others, like me, need 4 or 5. Let your body be your guide, not some rules you have heard somewhere.

Whatever you decide to try, remember that this is a practice. Which means that you will forget and fall back into old habits. And then you will remember again. See if you can forgive yourself for being human.And then remember the airline pilot and reset your intention and your course.

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