At Viking Athletics, we frequently harp on the importance of forming healthy habits, based on healthy behaviors. Motivation comes and goes, and if you have solid habits, you can get through your occasional lack of motivation. With exercise clients, we try to establish the habit of training 3+ times per week. With nutrition clients, target 1 habit at a time. And where possible, we try to start with their linchpin behavior.
What’s a linchpin? It’s the one behavior that triggers others, and keeps them in place. What do we mean?
Bad less-than-optimal behaviors are often coupled with other habits. For example, many smokers have a morning cigarette with coffee. Many rampant snackers couple their snacking with watching television – it gives them something to do with their hands.
In these cases, we can come up with some simple fixes. We won’t pretend to be able to break someone’s smoking addiction, but switching coffee for tea, or some other beverage, could help. For snacking, an obvious mitigation strategy would be substituting the snack for a healthier option. Or we could encourage the person to read a book, rather than watch television. It removes the trigger and gives them something to do with their hands.
Now we can move on to a more extreme example. Let’s examine a hypothetical person, we’ll call him Erik. Erik had a rough end to 2021, and by the end of the year he had a number of less-than-optimal health behaviors:
- Frequently less than 6 hours of sleep per night
- More than 400 mg of caffeine intake per day
- Less than 64 oz of water per day
- Eating lots of take out, or not at all
- Lack of motivation to train, leading to inconsistent and poor workouts
- Neglect of thorough dental hygiene (sorry Dr. Jason)
- Too much alcohol intake
A list like that can be overwhelming – where do you begin? We start by digging deeper.
- Why the lack of sleep? Bedtimes were too late, and sleep quality was not good.
- Why too much caffeine? To make up for the lack of sleep.
- Why the lack of water? Because Erik was busy drinking coffee to get caffeine.
- Why the reliance on take-out? Because Erik didn’t meal prep.
- Why the lack of motivation to train? Because Erik was tired, dehydrated, and not properly fueled.
- Why the neglect of dental hygiene? Because Erik stayed up to have a nightcap or two and wanted to crawl into bed after a quick brush, or rinse with mouthwash, rather than taking time to floss.
- Why too much alcohol? Because a nightcap helped Erik relax – at least, temporarily.
After digging deeper, a root cause should be evident here. Erik didn’t get enough sleep because he stayed up late to have a nightcap or two. This also was time he could have spent meal prepping and properly caring for his dental hygiene. The alcohol also negatively impacted his sleep quality, making him very tired. This resulted in an increase in caffeine intake, and a decrease in water intake, as well as a lack of motivation to train. And, while the nightcap helped with temporary stress relief, being tired and not properly nourished also affected his speed and focus with work, which in turn resulted in a greater pile up of tasks, and more stress. Having a nightcap was Erik’s linchpin behavior.
By removing the nightcap in 2022, Erik is going to bed earlier, sleeping better, having better training sessions, better with meal prep and hydration, and intaking less caffeine. He is also taking much better care of his teeth, regularly. And, with healthier physical habits, his mental faculties are functioning better too, allowing him to deal with more stress, rather than trying to sidestep it temporarily with a beverage.
The moral of the story? If you have a number of less-than-optimal habits, try to identify your linchpin. If you can change that behavior, others will fall into place, and you’ll have an easier time developing healthy habits. If you need help, reach out to a coach! This is what nutrition consultations and coaching are all about. See you in the gym.