I posted recently about going off track post-surgery and my working to get back on track. Last week, I was able to mostly stay on track and have been doing well this week. Part of that is getting back to the rules and habits that I had successfully used before. This post is to talk a little bit about how rules and habits help with weight loss and maintenance and to list out some of the ones that have been most helpful to me.
The Difference Between Rules and Habits
Rules and habits can overlap but are not the same. In many instances, it isn’t really important to decide if something is a rule or a habit. The terms are sometimes used interchangeability. That said, I find it helps to clarify my thoughts if I conceptualize the differences between them.
I see habits as basically ongoing ways of behavior. We may consciously know that we have a habit, or it may be something that we are not consciously aware of. Habits can be good or bad. Some years ago, when I worked in an office, I would go downstairs to the vending machine almost every day and would be a full-sized candy bar. This was a habit. It wasn’t a good habit and I didn’t really set out to create it. But, it was one that I developed over time. I just sort of did it reflexively every afternoon.
A rule is different. A rule is usually something you consciously know about and decide to follow. You will do X or you won’t do Y. It is specific and usually you follow a rule all the time. Habits have a bit more leeway. I have a habit of weighing myself every morning. I do it almost every morning. But, if I got a phone call just as I was getting up and forgot to weigh, it wouldn’t be a big deal. On the other hand, I really need to always follow that rule about stopping for a red light.
While it isn’t that important to differentiate between rules and habits, I do think about them a little differently when trying to figure out my strategy for weight loss and maintenance. The first goal with habits is to identify them. Some of our habits may be so ingrained that we don’t even realize that they are habits. And, we may not recognize that each habit is a choice and that we can make different choices. Many years ago, I would go out to lunch at a restaurant every day. I didn’t really think of it as a habit or as a choice, but it was. At some point, I realize I could save a lot of calories (and money) if I brought my lunch to work. And, so I changed that habit of eating out every day to a habit of bringing my lunch. At first, it seemed strange. I saw eating out every day as being “normal”, when it was actually just a habit. I made other changes on eating out. When my husband and I used to eat out, at certain restaurants we always had an appetizer with our meal. Now, there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with that. But, it was a habit. The first goal is to identify habits.
Rules we generally know about. For me, rules are often more about limiting something. I have a rule that I won’t eat Tutti Frutti frozen yogurt more than once a month. That makes it easier for me. I don’t have to constantly be thinking about whether to go to Tutti Frutti when I go out. If I’ve been there during this month, then I don’t go. Simple. No angst.
How Rules and Habits Help with Weight Loss and Maintenance
I find that having explicit rules and known habits helps me with weight loss and maintenance because it reduces the need to make in the moment decisions. They also help to implement a plan. I never had much success with losing weight based upon the idea of just cutting back on food or just eating less. I wanted something more specific. I wanted to know that if I did X, then I would lose weight. I think that many people join Weight Watchers because they want a plan.
Now, Weight Watchers isn’t the only type of weight loss plan. Some people calorie count, some eat low carb, or follow South Beach or whatever. And, different people will like different plans. I know that there are some people who don’t need or want that. They just decided to eat less and cut down without following a specific plan. That is fine for them, but doesn’t work for me.
For me, once I have a plan I need to know what to do to carry out that plan. Of course, eating X SmartPoints a day is part of the plan. But, rules and habits flesh that out a bit and make it easier for me to eat the proper amount of SmartPoints each day.
When losing weight there are so many choices to be made. There is a point where decision fatigue can set in. Rules and habits reduce the need to decide. This point is nicely made by Valerie Waters in the foreward to Fat Loss Happens on Monday:
When we have rules or habits in place, it takes away a struggle. The rules are the freedom.
And essentially, your diet, your plan means having some basic rules or habits in place. The rules are not to make you feel deprived in some way. It’s exactly the opposite–these are your ticket to freedom. Once those habits are in place, everything else disappears. You don’t ever have to struggle about food again.
We all have our own rules–I don’t tell a lie; I don’t steal. This is how society operates–rules make everything work. it’s not bad to have those rules. We don’t think, “Oh my God, I hate that we have to stop at stop signs. I just want to roll through the stop signs.” I’m happy we have a rule to stop at stop signs so I know what everyone else is doing. It’s the rules that make driving on our busy roads even possible.
I just love that quote. This is so much how I feel about it. Rules and habits make it all easier. In that same forward, Waters makes the point that “strategy trumps willpower.” That is so right. I have seen so many people wanting to know about how to improve willpower. That is hard to do. And, it is hard to know what to do. What is willpower anyway? How do we know if it is strong or weak? Following a rule is just ever so much simpler. I have that rule about Tutti Frutti no more often than once a month. Now, sometimes I skip a month (I skipped January, February and August this year). But, I don’t have to worry about Tutti Frutti very often since if I have already eaten there this month then I don’t even think about going there again. Maybe I could go there twice a month if I was “careful” about what I ate. Then, I would have to go there and worry about whether I was being careful enough.
Or, like I don’t buy certain foods for the house except in single servings. I used to buy boxes of cookies at the grocery store. And, every time I went past the pantry I thought about whether to have a cookie. If there answer was yes, then the next decision was how many to have. I remember there was this one cookie where 5 small cookies were a serving. One day I had 9 servings! And, it was one serving at a time. It was a constant decision and it was a decision where I didn’t make a good choice again and again. Once I quit buying cookies for the house, things became ever so much easier. I didn’t struggle about whether to have a cookie. I knew I wasn’t having any in the house so there was no decision to be made. I didn’t go down that aisle at the grocery store any more. If I happened to see cookies at the end of the aisle, I reminded myself of the rule.
Now, for some people, it works to set the rule to “never eat a cookie.” Personally, I don’t set weight loss related prohibitions on certain foods. I have one absolute food prohibition — I don’t eat beef. This isn’t for weight loss reasons. I haven’t knowingly eaten beef in many years and it is easy for me. I don’t even “see” beef on menus any more. I know it is there but it never occurs to me to eat it.
So, yes, it is possible to totally prohibit certain foods. Many people do it either for health reasons, ethical reasons or religious reasons. And, for those types of strong motivations I think that having such an absolute prohibition can work fine.
For me, though, that type of absolute prohibition doesn’t work that well for weight loss. I think it is because I know that I can lose weight eating any food. So, there isn’t a strong reason for me to avoid a particular food unless I have a health related to ethical related reason to do so. For some people, they set a rule to absolutely never eat X food and that works fine. For me, I do better setting a rule that limits the food.
The decision for me is in setting up the rule in the first place. Once the rule is in place then I apply the rule. I don’t have to decide each time I go out whether I will go to Tutti Frutti. All I have to do is think about whether I’ve been there this month. If so, then I apply the rule and don’t go. All very easy to do.
Now, none of this means that rules and habits are inviolate. I do change rules at times. I used to have a rule — i.e. a budget item — that we would only spend $200 a month eating out. Well, we almost always violated that rule. I had 3 options at that point. We could spend less money eating out. I tried this for awhile. But, I realized that eating out was a higher priority to me than I had realized. I didn’t like being so limited in eating out. The next option was to break the rule freely. Just abandon it. The problem with this is that I could end up spending too much money and would exceed my total budget for the year. That wasn’t a good option either. The third option was to change the rule. In this case, it meant increasing the dining out budget and cutting another area so total spending didn’t change.
So, rules can be changed. If it was really important to me to eat at Tutti Frutti twice a month I could make that work. But, I would have to change something else to compensate for the added eating at Tutti Frutti. And, habits can be changed as well. If my habit is to use the rower 3 days a week, I can change that to using the elliptical 3 days a week if I find that I like the elliptical more.
But, once I make a rule and establish a habit my day to day actions are made so much easier than if I am having to make every decision on the fly.
Rules and Habits are Individual
While I am going to be posting some of my rules and habits for weight loss, that doesn’t mean they should be your rules and habits. We are all individual and we all need to work on different things. I find portion control on cookies to be a challenge for me, so I have a rule on them. There are other foods that aren’t really challenging so I have no specific rule. But, you might hate cookies and might want to have a rule for something else instead.
That is not to say that there aren’t some strategies that many people find helpful. Some studies have found that daily weighing is helpful to many people seeking to lose weight or maintain weight loss. While I may find it very beneficial for me and it may be beneficial to many people, there are some people who find it hard to deal with the normal daily weight fluctuations who may not find it helpful to weigh daily.
Also, we all have different things we are able and willing to do. For example, I walk as one of my primary forms of exercise. I do think that many people have a lot of success if they have a habit of running. But, due to a severe lack of cartilage in my knees I can’t run. And, sometimes it isn’t just what we are able to do, it is what we are willing to do. I do better in terms of losing weight when I don’t eat out. If I ate at home every day of the month, I would lose more than if I ate out 2 or 3 times a week. And, yet, I eat out at least 2 or 3 times a week. I enjoy eating out. I enjoy the food at a number of restaurants. But, I also just enjoy going out with my husband for a meal. We get an opportunity to talk somewhere pleasant where we won’t be interrupted. I am just not willing to give up eating out even if it would make weight loss easier if I did. Instead I have all kinds of rules that surround eating out.
I am posting my rules and habits for two reasons. First, as I get back on track I want to remind myself of my rules and habits. It is shockingly easy to get out of habit on some things. Not so much on the habits I formed unconsciously. The ones that it is easy to lose are those where I had to consciously form the habit and where it didn’t come easy to me. Having my routines turned upside down over the last 5 months obliterated some of my habits.
It is also good for me to look at my rules and habits so I can modify them. Sometimes, we need to change a rule or we need to form a new habit. By reminding myself of those rules and habits I can evaluate them to decide what needs to change.
The second reason I am posting this is to perhaps help others to jumpstart thinking about your own rules and habits. I am sure your rules and habits won’t be the same as mine. But, maybe seeing what I am doing may help you come up with your own ideas.
My Rules and Habits
This is not an exhaustive list. These are mostly the ones that I really needed to think about and consciously adopt in order to lose weight. I have other habits, for example, that may in some way help weight loss but they are things I’ve done for a long time and they are so thoroughly ingrained that I don’t even think about them. For example, I don’t drink soft drinks – well any kind of drink — with sugar in them. I just don’t do it. But, I can think of rare exceptions. Several years ago, I went to an outdoor event many miles away from any store. The only drinks were soft drinks with sugar. There was no water available. So, I had a Coke. I also remember having lemonade at a restaurant maybe 6 or 7 years ago. Maybe I will do that again. But, I don’t on my list below that I don’t drink stuff with sugar as this is something I gave up over 30 years ago. I wouldn’t do it even if I felt it wouldn’t impact my weight because I think it is unhealthy. So, this list is more the habits and rules that I developed specifically to help with my weight loss.
- Track everything I eat in writing – I do this most thoroughly on MyFitnessPal. I also track on Weight Watchers tracker so I can keep count of my SmartPoints but I sometimes just quick add points there. This is probably my most inviolable rule. Sickness and surgery don’t change it. When I couldn’t see after surgery, I dictated this to my husband. Travel doesn’t change it. When we went on vacation to England for 2 weeks I still tracked everything I ate. I had to do more estimating than usual but I still tracked.
- Weigh (almost) every morning – I say almost because it isn’t an inviolable rule. Sometimes I forget to do it or am in a hurry and I skip it. But, I weigh almost every morning. It is comforting over time to see the daily fluctuations and know they are normal. And, most importantly, daily weighing helps me to not kid myself. It was daily weighing that really let me know that I had gotten off track over the last month or so. Daily fluctuations are normal. And, right now, I still have more than normal due to the post-surgery swelling that comes and goes. But, when I found that I was up 2 or 3 pounds every day for 2 weeks, I knew this wasn’t a daily fluctuation. I had truly gained weight.
- Have a weekly calorie deficit. – I keep track of what I eat every day and I record the total calories in a spreadsheet on a daily basis. My Fitbit tells me how many calories I’ve burned. On a particular day, I may or may not have a calorie deficit. Sunday, I went out to eat and ate more calories than usual. My spreadsheet says I had a calorie surplus for the day of 83 calories. That is, I ate more calories than I burned. Having a surplus on a couple of days during the weeks is fine. But, I want to have an overall deficit for the week. I don’t say it has to be a particular amount. Just to have a deficit. I know this isn’t exact. The calories eaten and calories burned numbers aren’t totally accurate. Still, I had a lot of success losing weight just by making it my aim to have a calorie deficit each week.
- Don’t buy packages of cookies, most candy, or chips for the house. – This is a rule with a lot of permutations. I do eat all of these foods. I sometimes buy them for the house. The key is that I buy a single serving or I buy them when away from home. So, I bought a single serving bag of potato chips the other day. Sometimes, I get a Subway or Which Wich sandwich and get a cookie. Candy is a bit more nuanced. I regularly buy 70% dark chocolate (at least 70% is a rule for me). I find that I can break off a serving that is about 50 to 100 calories and eat it and then not eat any more of the dark chocolate until a day or two later. I usually eat dark chocolate 3 or 4 days of the week. But, give me candy like Butterfingers or Snickers and I can’t really control the portions. So, if I want that kind of candy, I need to buy only the amount I want to eat right then because it will be gone within 24 hours.
- Don’t go to X restaurant or food place more often than Y. – I have a number of these rules. I already mentioned Tutti Frutti frozen yogurt. That is a once a month thing. There is a Mexican food restaurant nearby that I really enjoy. It is also a once a month thing. There are a couple of places that are quarterly. These are places that I like where the food I like tends to be higher calorie. I don’t want to give them up entirely, but I need to limit them if I don’t want to gain weight.
- Don’t eat X more often than Y. – Again, I have several of these. An example is a 17 SmartPoint Cinnamon Crunch Bagel from Panera. The rule is to not have one more than once every quarter of the year. Eating at Panera’s is fine. I can always eat there and stay on program within my calories….if I don’t have a cinnamon crunch bagel. There are other foods that fall within this type of category. A large cinnamon roll is more like once a year. That kind of thing.
- At least 150 minutes of aerobic exercise a week. – For a long time I was far exceeding this. But, this is the minimum. This is usually walking, but sometimes is my exercise bike or the elliptical when I was going to a gym. This is something that is an easy habit for me to let slip away. I was unable to do this post-surgery but now it when it needs to come back into focus again.
- At least 30 minutes of strength training twice a week. – I had struggled with this one for a long time, then I started working with a personal trainer twice a week and did really well on this for about a year. For 12 weeks after my tummy tuck/breast lift, I wasn’t allowed to do any strength training. I have now been cleared to go back to it although I still have to avoid anything abdominal. So, this is something I am not currently doing but was a habit before I started all of my surgery. It is time to carefully go back to this at least lightly.
- Eat at least 80 grams of protein a day – I was doing this very consistently pre-surgery. I would occasionally miss it but not often. With surgery and not being able to make my own meals for a lot of the time I fell behind on this. I do better when I eat more protein. This is something that I find easy to do if I make it a priority and check on it during the day as I record food in MFP. If I don’t check it, I tend to stay a little behind.
- Eat a salad at least 5 days of the week – This is not totally a rigid rule. It is OK if it is, say, 4 times this week and 5 the next. A large salad, though, tends to be a low calorie, low SmartPoint meal and it is a good way for me to get veggie servings. I usually put in skinless chicken breast or occasionally salmon and it is a good way for me to up my protein. On days that I have a salad for lunch I am usually in good shape on SmartPoints and calories going into the evening.
- Walk at least 250 steps an hour for at least 12 hours of the day. – This is to encourage me not to sit too long. I am not saying that this is the only walking I want to do. I do want to do more fitness walking beyond this. This item is mostly one to help me not be sedentary. I think that doing this is better for my health. And, if I do this, I burn more calories during the day even if it is not a major exercise day. I will be honest and say that this is a habit I have not been totally doing. I wasn’t doing this all the time even before surgery. Even on days I had a lot of steps I often had 2 or 3 hours of the day when I was sitting and didn’t move. And, of course, post surgery I wasn’t doing any walking except as necessary to get around. But, I have been working this week. Yesterday, I did this 8 out of 12 hours. One of the things that has been helpful for me is that my Fitbit Blaze will notify me at 50 minutes past the hour if I haven’t walked the 250 steps. That notification feature, which is new, is really helping.
- Limit eating refined grains. – I don’t totally avoid all refined grains. But most of the grains I eat are whole grains. I’m not a huge grain eater actually, but I don’t totally avoid them either. But, I buy whole grains whenever possible. Even when I was eating frozen meals more often than usual after surgery, I found that many were available with whole grains or that were grain free. While this rule is mostly health related rather than weight loss related, I found that when I limit refined grains I end up limiting things like pastries that also tend to be high calories.
- Eat an average of less than 30 grams of added sugar every day. – Again, this is mostly health but it also helps me keep calories in check. An occasional high day is OK (hello, Tutti Frutti), but most days I am well under 20 grams.
- Weigh in and attend Weight Watchers meetings at least twice a month. – The maintenance requirement is once a month, but I think at least twice a month is better for me. And, often I end up attending more than that. Before surgery, we went almost every week. When we were actively losing weight, we went every week and it had to be something major for us to miss a week. Now, after having been on maintenance for over a year, I am little looser about it. Still, I do better if I go to meetings more often. It helps me keep my head focused on weight loss and maintenance. I rarely learn anything new at meetings (I’ve been to a lot of meetings), but it is psychologically of benefit to me.
- Follow my rules and habits during holiday seasons. – I basically follow these rules and habits year round. Near Christmas time I may buy a box of cookies for the house or even make cookies. But, I only do it if there are going to be people here eating all of them. I may have a very indulgent holiday, with a big calorie surplus for that day. But, I still want to have a calorie deficit for the week itself. I still record what I eat when I go out for my birthday. It may be a lot of calories, but I still record it.