So Your Nutrition Plans get Derailed on the Weekend

I Get it!! It happens to me & my clients as well.  We’re experimenting with a new technique that’s proving to be quite successful. I’d love to share it & help you increase your adherence this weekend.

Studies show that us mere mortals deal better with challenges when we visualize the challenging situation and record a plan to deal with the pain point in advance of it happening.

I’d love to share a story to illustrate that point.  It’s plagiarized from a book “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg.  But I couldn’t illustrate the point better than this passage:

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In 1992, a British psychologist walking into two of Scotland’s busiest orthopedic hospitals and recruited five-dozen patients for an experiment she hoped would explain how to boost the willpower of people exceptionally resistant to change.

The patients, on average, were sixty-eight years old. Most of them earned less than $10,000 a year and didn’t have more than a high school degree. All of them had recently undergone hip or knee replacement surgeries, but because they were relatively poor and uneducated, many had waited years for their operations.  They were retirees, elderly mechanics, and store clerks.  They were in life’s final chapters and most had no desire to pick up a new book.

Recovering from a hip or knee surgery is incredibly arduous.  The operation involves severing joint muscles and sawing through bones.  While recovering, the smallest movements — shifting in bed or flexing a joint — can be excruciating. However, it is essential that patients begin exercising almost as soon as they wake from surgery. They must begin movement their legs and hips before the muscles and skin have helped or scar tissue will clog the joint, destroying its flexibility.  In addition, if patients don’t start exercising, they risk development of blood clots.  But the agony is so extreme that its not unusual for people to skip out on rehab sessions.  Patients, particularly elderly ones, often refuse to comply with doctors orders.

The Sottish study’s participants were they types of people mosts likely to fail at rehabilitation.  The scientist conducting the experiement wanted to see if it was possible to help them harness their willpower.  She gave each patient a booklet after their surgeries that detailed their rehab schedule, and in the back were thirteen additional pages — one for each week — with blank spaces and instructions:  My goals for this week are ________________?  Write down exactly what you are going to do.  For example, if you are going to go for a walk this week, write down where and when you are going to walk.  She asked patients to fill in each of those pages with specific plans.  Then she compared the recoveries of those who wrote out goals and those patients who had received the same booklets, but didn’t write anything.

It seems absurd to think that giving people la few pieces of blank paper might make a difference in how quickly they recover from surgery.  But when the researcher visited the patients 3 month later, she found a distinct difference between the two groups.  The patients who had written plans in their booklets had started walking almost twice as fast as the ones who had not. They had started getting in & out of their chairs, unassisted almost 3x as fast.  They were putting on their shoes, doing the laundry and making themselves quicker than the patients who hadn’t scribbled out goals ahead of time.

The psychologies wanted to understand why.  She examined the booklets, and discovered that most of the blank pages had been filled with specific, detailed plans about the most mundane aspects of recovery.  One patient for example, had written “I will walk to the bus stop tomorrow to meet my wife from work,”  and then noted what time he would leave, the route he would walk, what he would wear, which coat he would bring if it was raining, and what pills he would take if the pain become too much.  Another patient, in a similar study, wrote a series of very specific schedules regarding the exercises he would do each time he went to the bathroom

As the phycologist  scrutinized the booklets, she saw that many of the plans had something in common:  They focus on how patients would handle a specific moment of anticipated pain.   The man who exercised on the way to the bathroom, for instance knew that each time he stood up from the couch, the ache was excruciating. So he wrote out a plan for dealing with it:  Automatically take the first step, right away, so he couldn’t be tempted to sit down again.  The patient who met his wife at the bus stop dreaded the afternoon, because that stroll was the longest and most painful each day.  So he detailed every obstacle he might confront, and came up with a solution a head of time.

Put another way, the patients’ plan were build around inflection points when they knew their plan — and thus the temptation to quit — would be the strongest.  The patients were telling themselves how they were going to make it over the hump.

But the patients who didn’t write out any plans were at a significant disadvantage, because they never thought ahead about how to deal with painful inflection points,  they never deliberately designed their willpower habits.  Even if they intended to walk around the block, their resolved abandoned them when they confronted the agony of the first few steps.

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I’d love to hear about your experience using this technique.  I hope it works for you as well as it’s been working for me & my clients.

PS.  The Power of Habit is an awesome book if you’re trying to break bad habits.  You’ll learn how habits are formed: the Cue, Routine, Reward cycle and more importantly how to break old habits and create new ones.