Healthy habits are great, right? Yes, but there’s an argument that they’re overrated and don’t suit everyone.
Michelle Segar, a Michigan-based researcher and author, claims to have answers for people she describes as ‘unhabiters’ — people for whom habits don’t work.
She studies motivation and health behaviour, especially in women. Habits, she says, suit simple actions such as flossing our teeth or putting our keys in the same place, but they don’t hold up for more complex behaviours like exercise or healthy eating.
As evidence she points to the way so many people start, stop, start, stop, and struggle to sustain those behaviours.
She argues that this is because the real world is messy, we have competing demands on our time, and our best-laid plans easily come unstuck.
To illustrate, she uses the example of her and her husband. Her husband, a ‘habiter’, apparently goes to bed in his exercise clothes. Each morning at 5.30 his alarm goes off and he heads to the gym in their basement for a workout.
Habiters, she says, are disciplined and self-controlled. (And the kind of people who wear their gym clothes to bed?)
She, on the other hand — an unhabiter — says that if she hasn’t had enough sleep, she’s going to choose sleep over exercise.
I’m not sure if we all fit into two camps. If, like her husband, you exercise before the day gets going, you might avoid interruptions to your plans. But a lot of us need to be more flexible than that.
I’d say all habits and routines have to be able to bend and stretch. If I’ve had a lousy sleep there are times when I prioritise extra time in bed over exercise too, but that doesn’t mean I won’t do anything.
I’ll look at what I can fit in later — maybe a pre-dinner walk around the neighbourhood. Whatever works, and I’ll aim to get back on track the next day.
Michelle Segar encourages women to frame healthy behaviours in a positive and enjoyable way, rather than as something that occurs as a burden that we then feel bad about not doing.
And three cheers to that. None of us needs a longer ‘to do’ list or more guilt.
She’s come up with an approach for managing those days when our well-intentioned plans sail out the window. She calls it POP, and it stands for Pause. Open up your Options. Play.
Which means: slow down and take a breath, consider what else you could do that would go some way to honouring your original intention, and pick the most attractive option.
An exercise example is easy, so sticking with that, let’s say you have to skip your Pilates class to take your dog to the vet.
You consider the options, which might include booking a class on another day, adding a couple of extra blocks while you run errands, doing a few Pilates exercises at home, or going for a bike ride with a friend.
In the end you take your exercise shoes so you can walk briskly while you do the errands, even if you don’t have time for the extra blocks, then go for a bike ride and chat with your friend to wind down at the end of a crazy day of juggling.
One way or another there’s still a choice to be made and action to take. And unless you value physical activity and see yourself as an active person you won’t be thinking about options.
But I like Segar’s effort to get us to lighten up in the face of the messiness and imperfection of it all.
The language we use when we talk to ourselves about physical activity, eating and so forth is important and shapes our experience of those activities.
So frame them in whatever way appeals to you. Habits and routines provide me with peace of mind, but you might prefer to see what you do as self-care, fun, time for yourself, or just plain sanity time.
Whichever way we go, it’s wise not to set the bar too high. Remind yourself that something, some baby step, is always better than nothing.
And we all have plenty of days when better than nothing is good enough.
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