Bottom Line/Health: Do you have a bad habit that you simply can’t break, and you’ve given up trying and you simply say, “I can’t help it?” Well, guess what? You can. And I’m going to help you.

I’m Sarah Hiner, President of Bottom Line Publications, and this is our Conversations With the Experts, where we get the answers to your tough questions from our leading experts.

Today I’m talking to Dr. Brooke Kalanick, a leading naturopathic physician in private practice in New York City specializing in women’s hormonal and weight issues. Welcome, Brooke.

Dr. Brooke Kalanick, ND: Thank you.

Bottom Line: All right, so all these people that say they can’t help it; they really can, right? You have a whole other solution.

Dr. Kalanick I think the important thing when we go about changing a habit is that we don’t do two things before we even start. We just say, “I don’t want to smoke anymore,” “I don’t want to eat sugar anymore,” and then we go down that path. We put more effort into where are we going to park our car than how are we possibly going to change the things that we do day after day.

Bottom Line: Do people not change because they really don’t want to change it?

Dr. Kalanick I think it’s because they don’t know how and they don’t answer a couple of important questions right out of the gate. What is it that you want? Let’s say the example is quitting smoking. Maybe it’s because you want to be healthier, you may want to lose weight, or you may want to be a size 6. Whatever those things are, define exactly what it is that you want.

These are important questions people don’t answer when they go about changing some sort of major habit that’s getting in their way. So what is it that you’re exactly after, and why do you want that? Weight loss is a great example. Many women just say, “I just want to lose weight and look good in a bikini.” That’s some sort of motivation for a short period of time, but it’s rarely an inspiring enough “why” for you to keep going on the days when you really want to have chocolate, when you really want to have wine, when you don’t want to go to the gym.

So connecting to those two things, taking the time to answer “what do you want?” and “why do you want it?” And a “why” that’s big enough to sustain you continuing to keep doing better.

Bottom Line: The “why,” that’s interesting. When you talk about the “why,” it’s not about something about them. It’s something deep within yourself and it has to be bigger than, “I want to be able to wear a bikini.” Because that is – I’ll call it too small, too fleeting, too shallow?

Dr. Kalanick It’s not even that it’s shallow, but it is fleeting because it’s –

Bottom Line: I don’t mean shallow because I want to look good in a bikini.

Dr. Kalanick That’s fine.

Bottom Line: But I mean shallow like it’s not getting to the deeper self-image issue that’s really going on inside. That’s what I mean.

Dr. Kalanick For example, I have two young daughters. I have a 3-month-old and a 3-year-old. Part of my weight loss journey can’t just be about looking good. That’s not a very inspiring “why.” But knowing that I’m having a healthy body image and a healthy relationship with my own body to demonstrate for my daughters, that’s really inspiring, and that will keep me going long after my motivation wanes.

So take the time to identify those things right up front. Again, something that inspires you, that you’re willing to get out of bed for, that you’re willing to pass over the plate of nachos for – something that really needs to move you.

And the other thing is understating how a habit works. We know habits are happening all day, but there are components to a habit that when you break them down, you can attack those individual pieces, and those are the reminder, the routine, and the reward.

Bottom Line: That’s really interesting. So before you can even change a habit, you almost have to dissect what a habit is and how it works. Reminder, routine, and reward.

Dr. Kalanick Exactly. That’s the first step in my 6-step process to going through this. Identify those aspects. What’s the thing that gets you thinking about the habit? What do you go about doing to get to the reward? And the reward’s a little bit tricky for people to figure out. Sometimes it’s really obvious and it seems like you figured it out, but sometimes it’s a little bit more buried. So take some time to figure out what are the routine, the reminder, and the reward.

Bottom Line: For example, would it be like people that walk in the house and go straight for a glass of wine?

Dr. Kalanick Absolutely. That’s a great example, and this was a habit I had to break for myself. I was getting into the habit of having wine pretty much every night when I came home from work. It doesn’t help me sleep, I feel dehydrated – it’s not one of my best healthy habits.

So trying to break that, I had to first really look at that reward. What I thought I was getting out of it was relaxation, but I’m not really relaxed if I’m feeling anxious about how I’m not going to sleep as well, how it’s not supporting my fat loss goals. What I was really getting out of it was the freedom. When I was in school for 12 years, I couldn’t do anything that got me a little bit more tired or would throw me off my game, so when my friends were going out and having drinks on a Tuesday, I couldn’t go.

So what that glass of wine really represented to me was I have the freedom to have a glass of wine whenever I want to. That was the reward, and getting clear on the “why” and being willing to give that reward up anyway.

The routine was as I was leaving my office, I would start thinking about “when I get home, I get to walk past the wine store, I get to have a glass of wine.” So my reminder was packing up my computer bag, shutting off the lights from my office; my routine was literally my walk to the subway; and then the reward was supposedly my relaxation when I got home.

When we get down through how you’re going to give these things up, the very first step is just identifying those three components. The next step is being willing to give up that reward or that payoff even though it gives you something. We don’t do things that we don’t get anything good out of. We might think that’s just an unhealthy habit, to eat a lot of sugar, or it’s an unhealthy habit to never go to the gym. But we get something out of it, and answering that tough question of “Why would I still do this when it doesn’t really serve my bigger goals?”

Then the third step is in that loop, the reminder, the routine, and the reward, you only change the routine. My routine in that case was I always walked the exact same way to the subway, and then I walked home past two wine stores. Therefore, I changed my route. There’s nothing magic about changing that routine, but it gets you back in the space of “Oh yeah, I’m trying to do this. This is important to me,” and you at least have an opportunity to slow down and make some different choices.

Bottom Line: And now you’re not connecting it, because we do connect situations – what is it, chaining or whatever. You’ve attached the stimulus-response. So every time that I go past that liquor store, “ooh, I’m going to go in there.” So we change the routine.

Let me ask you a question. That’s one, two, three, but on the reward, you said you have to be willing to give up the reward. You still deserve, in your wine example… you still deserve freedom. There’s nothing wrong with having something that’s freedom. But can you switch to some other source of freedom? It might not have been wine. Maybe it was that you allow yourself when you get home to take a bath, or you allow yourself when you get home to take 10 minutes alone before you pay attention to the kids or whatever.

Dr. Kalanick Yeah, and as long as you’re really clear on what the reward is – if I just thought “All I’m getting out of this is relaxation,” yes, there’s so many other things that I could do to relax. When I got past that and I saw that it was freedom, I had to really look at how many ways I actually can create freedom in my life. And I’m not free when I’m chained to this habit, when I’m just doing it on autopilot every night when I get home. I don’t even necessarily want it, but now it’s what I do when I get home.

So really being clear on that reward allows you to see the real freedom, the real reward, wasn’t what I thought it was. I didn’t have any freedom; that habit was ruling me. There really wasn’t freedom in it. So making sure that you’re really clear and being willing to give it up in the face of the fact that I do enjoy having a glass of wine. It’s not that I can never have it, but it’s changing that reward and routine system so that you’re not at the mercy of the habit. You’re in control, and you can do it when you choose to do it.

Bottom Line: Okay, so now you switch your routine.

Dr. Kalanick Switching the routine.

Bottom Line: Step 4?

Dr. Kalanick The next step is to troubleshoot how this is all going to go wrong. Because this is the first thing people say when they’re working with me, is, “Well yeah, but by the time I get home, my husband’s already got that bottle of wine open.” So that’s a challenge to troubleshoot. Ask him not to do that.

Bottom Line: “Let’s have tea instead.”

Dr. Kalanick Exactly. Or you make a plan that if it’s Thursday, we definitely enjoy a glass of wine together. If it’s Wednesday, we have tea or we watch a TV show or whatever else you can do to connect. You don’t want to take all the pleasure out of your life, but when you’re trying to dissect and change these habits, you’re going to want to troubleshoot the things that are going to get in your way.

Bottom Line: All right.

Dr. Kalanick The next thing comes right on the heels of that, which is knowing how willpower works. At the end of a long day, you’ve made decisions all day long, and you’re not a weak person who can’t get on top of not having a glass of wine; you’re simply out of willpower. You’re probably also hungry, which drains willpower.

Bottom Line: I’ve read one of your blogs. I think that is such an important point. By the end of the day, you’re deciding all day long, and then you’re like, “Do I have to make one more decision?”

Dr. Kalanick Yeah, and you’re simply out of willpower. But we don’t see it that way. We come home and you gravitate towards the thing that is easiest; that’s comfortable. And you might have been thinking, “I’m not going to do that tonight. I’m not going to have too many carbs for dinner. I’m not going to have dessert” or “I’m not going to have a glass of wine” or “I’m not going to sit in front of the computer for 4 hours,” but you do. You think, “I am so weak. I’m so bad. What is wrong with me?” You’re in a situation where you were simply out of willpower.

So you can do things to boost your willpower. Making decisions all day drains willpower, so as long as you know that getting home, you can at least let yourself off the hook that you’re not a weak person. A couple things that help you build willpower – it’s really interesting; there’s a lot of research now that we understand. Willpower’s not something you have, and so you are more successful than I am. It’s something we acquire as a skill, and you can learn to get better at that.

For example, boosting willpower in one area will boost it across the board. So practice things like brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand. That takes willpower to think about that and make a different choice. “Every time I sit down, I cross my left leg over right” – so practice sitting down and have the willpower not to do that each time you sit. It’s really fascinating.

Something else that helps is just keeping it really positive. Instead of saying, “I won’t have wine,” consider an alternative, “I will have a cup of tea” to get you out of the restriction and the negativity that so often comes with feeling like we don’t have enough willpower to do these things.

Bottom Line: I also think, we actually focus on all the things that we’re not doing. We’re focusing on where we’ve broken down, but as you say, there’s so many choices that we’re making all day long that are demonstrations of willpower that are positive. And we’re so mean to ourselves.

Dr. Kalanick Own worst critic and not our own best cheerleader.

Bottom Line: It’s true. All right, so Step 6.

Dr. Kalanick Step 6 is to manage your progress in this situation: comparing yourself to how you would’ve done yesterday, not how someone else would’ve done. We love comparing ourselves to everyone else, and it’s really useless when the only thing you’re in comparison with is would you have had the glass of wine yesterday? Well, today you didn’t, so you’re making progress. So really, how much better are you doing than your old self would’ve done?

Bottom Line: Just give yourself permission to be human. We’re so mean to ourselves, as I said.

Dr. Kalanick Yes. We love the idea of chasing perfection, and when we do, you just constantly fail. If my goal is never to have another glass of wine at the end of a long day, I’ve failed that already. It’s just not realistic.

Bottom Line: And then I think, again, if you reinforce all the things that you did do successfully in managing yourself, then it’s not just that one thing you failed on, but “Oh, look at all the things that I did that were good and that were strong and positive and constructive.”

Dr. Kalanick We get down that spiral. But yeah, you’ve got so many other examples of how you were strong and powerful and made good decisions.

Bottom Line: All right. Thank you, Dr. Brooke Kalanick. The bottom line? You can change your habits. Takes a little willpower, but believe it or not, you have willpower. You have willpower all day long when you make choices. Sometimes by the time you get to the end of the day or whatever place it is where you’re vulnerable, your willpower’s a little tired. But you have it.

But what you have to do: identify what it is that’s keeping you attached to that habit. Change the routine; look at the routine that gets you into that habit, that has you connected to what that habit is, and then change it. Figure out what the reward is; what are you getting out of that habit? Find out. It’s not as simple as it seems. It may be some other deep disconnected thing that’s a little bit hidden below, but once you find the reward, you’ll realize that you really don’t need that habit in order to achieve that reward.

Again, develop your willpower. You have it. You just have to identify it and know that you have it. Find some different habits. Find some alternate behaviors that will take the place of the behavior that you’re trying to do. And then manage it. Watch how well you’re doing. You are making progress. Don’t be so mean to yourself. You really are making progress.

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