It’s February 22 nd , you just realized you haven’t used your new gym membership in almost 3 weeks, and your plan to lose weight on the keto diet was blown up by a bag of Cheetos, a bottle of wine, and Seinfeld reruns. In your MSG-induced fog, you ask yourself, “when will I finally be able to make a plan and stick to it?” Rest assured there is hope!
This is the second of three posts on improving your health in 5 steps. This system, a way of thinking about your making improvements in your health, is designed to keep you moving forward where you’ve slid backward in the past. As a refresher, the 5 steps are:
- Assessment and iteration
In the first part of this series, we looked at Aspiration as the first step toward improving your health – understanding why good health is important to you, how it will let you feel, and what it will let you do.
In case you missed it, read the first post here.
Now let’s take a closer look at steps #2-4. If Aspiration is the key foundation for making changes that are sustainable and really impact your health, Attention-Intention-Action form the key framework, the engine, that keeps you moving forward.
- Attention. What areas in your life do you need to focus on improving currently? Where should you focus your attention?
- Intention. What will you do to intentionally to keep focused on your plan? How will you keep it at the top of your mind, especially when trouble arises?
- Action. What consistent actions will you perform to move toward your goal? How can you engineer your environment to make it easier to make the right choices consistently?
Brace yourself, as this is a slightly longer post than my usual! You might read straight though once then tackle each of the inpidual steps again on a subsequent reading.
Attention is the simple step of deciding where you will put your focus. What needs work in your lifestyle? You may be able to answer without much thought – Of course! I need to be more consistent with exercise. Or you might be unsure where to put your time and energy for maximum benefit. In this case let me suggest starting with the 3 pillars of a healthy lifestyle – nutrition/gut health, movement/exercise, and sleep. Does anything jump at to you as the obvious place to start?
If simple reflection does not suggest an area of focus for your attention, it is fine to ask for help and guidance! You might discuss your own health with your medical provider, a coach, or even a friend who knows you well. Getting a baseline assessment with measurement of height, weight, waist circumference, blood pressure along with metabolic lab testing might provide a clear area for focus. If you happen to live in Colorado and want to take a deep dive into your own metabolic status, check out the Comprehensive Metabolic Assessment which was designed to give you a detailed look at your current metabolic status, along with consultation for guidance about how to use the information in a way that suits your preferences and lifestyle.
Once you’ve decided where to focus your attention, the next step is to consider what you will do intentionally to ensure you make progress toward your goal. Many people assume that once you’ve made a decision to change, that action should follow automatically. Nothing could be farther from the truth! Unfortunately, forces like emergencies, crises, and other people’s agendas for your time and energy compete for your attention and try to knock your plans into the background.
Simultaneously, limits arising from your own psychology may sabotage your attempts at change. That little voice of doubt you hear telling you “you’re wasting your time, you can’t lose weight” starts undermining your resolve and willpower. (By the way, everyone hears that voice, not just you, just so you know.)
Three tools you might use to help you maintain your focus, your intention to change, are (1) time management and time budgeting, (2) creating a morning routine, and (3) intention setting. Let me explain each of these briefly:
- Time management and time budgeting. You’ve thought about why good health is important and what good health will allow you to accomplish, and you’ve focused on an area you wish to change. It is unrealistic to believe that you will be able to make significant change without devoting resources to making change, and one of the most important, and most limited, resources will be your time. You are way more likely to be successful if you plan to devote an hour or two per week toward planning, preparation, and monitoring of your progress, and you ensure you can protect this time.
- Intention setting. An interesting study showed that people trying to start an exercise program were about twice as likely to be successful, that is to actually exercise, when they took a step called intention setting. Intention setting takes one of two general formats:
- I will do [activity] at [time] in [location]. I will exercise at 1 pm at the gym.
- When [this thing] happens, I will [respond in this helpful way]. When my friends invite me to the bar after work, I will tell them I’m focusing on my relationships at home right now and can’t join them today.
- Creating a morning routine. Taking 5-10 minutes each morning to plan your day, envisioning potential obstacles and challenges and your response to them, and recalling why you are making this effort in the first place is a great way to help your brain refocus on the important actions for the day. Your routine might include meditation, gratitude, prayer, or anything else that helps you focus on what is important to you set your focus for the day and start the day with positive energy. For me, writing during the process makes it more likely to stick in my mind through the day. A simple routine could look like this:
- Take 3 minutes to focus on your breathing and calm your mind
- Write 3 things you are grateful for or excited about in your life
- Next, write 2 things improving your health will allow you to do
- Write the 2-3 things that are most important for you to accomplish for your health today. Keep the list small. Use your intention setting tools. “Today I will exercise at 11 AM with Sally before lunch. When I feel like snacking after dinner, I will get out of the kitchen and go brush my teeth.”
- Think of one person you have the opportunity to build relationship with today, and how you will be present with that person at that time
- Think of one way you can show compassion to yourself today. “I will forgive myself for eating the second serving of casserole yesterday. I’m learning how to live healthier, and I won’t be perfect every day. Today I will return to my plan and try again.”
- Walk or do gentle calisthenics for 5 minutes
This routine shouldn’t take you more than 10-15 minutes to complete and can be a great way to
set yourself up for success. Modify it as you see fit to best suit your needs!
To recap, you’ve worked through your Aspiration, why good health is important for you and what having good health will allow you to feel and do, you’ve decided where to set your Attention, and you’ve created a strategy for setting your Intention. Next it is time to take action!
What stops people is not lack of knowledge, what stops people is lack of action. At the end of the day, you may have the best nutrition and exercise plan in the whole world, but if you don’t follow it nothing about your health is likely to change. Planning to run 5 miles on four days per week won’t get you in shape. But actually running 15 minutes daily will help you see real results. Spending 4 hours researching nutrition plans and reviewing research won’t make you healthier. But eating more vegetables and cutting down on added sugars will improve your health.
There is almost always a gap between what we plan to do, and what we actually do. The action step focuses on the things you can do to “close the gap,” making your actions align with your plan. I won’t sugar coat this part. Taking consistent action is hard. There are cultural forces and psychological forces working against you. This is going to take work. You will have successes, but you will also have failures and setbacks. But if you will take consistent action steps, you will reach your goal.
While taking action might be challenging, there are ways to tip the odds in your favor. Ways that you can improve your odds of “closing the gap” will often involve making changes in the following areas:
One way to approach taking consistent action is to reflect on a situation when you struggled to follow your plan and see if you can identify a problem with one of the bulleted areas above. For instance, if you find it difficult to avoid eating junk when you are experiencing stress in the evening, working on your response to those emotions will be valuable. If you like to graze on the weekends and find you are eating to many wheat thins (hello, talking to myself!), you might work to break the habit of opening the pantry door when walking by, or even better might improve the environment by getting rid of the wheat thins altogether. Working on limiting beliefs, building identity as a health person, surrounding yourself with supportive and like-minded people, and creating external accountability are all strategies that might be useful to help improve your action.
This is a quick overview of the action step, and there are whole books written about some of these points. I hope this gives you the general flavor for how you might engineer your world to help you take consistent action. There is great benefit to having a knowledgeable guide – your medical provider, a health coach, a trainer, or even a trusted friend – to help you see where you need the most help and how to get past the barriers in your path.
Whew! I hope I have not overwhelmed you. If you found this at all intriguing, I’d encourage you to ponder if for a day and come back to read it again. And if you live near Louisville, Colorado, I’d love to meet you in person and help you apply this to your life, so let me invite you to set up a consultation at The Alpine Center. Finally, part 3 for this series will be coming next week – Assessment and Iteration, the key final step to making this system work for you, so you can make meaningful changes that last.