Saturday, December 13, 2014

Habit Hacks: Sardines for Breakfast

sardines
You could say it started with eating sardines for breakfast.

I've been trying to change a lot of habits and routines, from what I eat to how I workout. Earlier this year, I learned first-hand that picking up new habits is hard, and I quantified some of the limitations. For example, training yourself to do one new habit consistently is doable. Picking up two new habits at the same time is very difficult. And three was, for me, impossible.

When it comes to breaking addictions, some experts have noted that the successful people usually make huge changes in other areas of their life. They move to a new neighborhood. They drop their old friends and get new ones. They change jobs. They craft a whole new lifestyle. If you keep everything else about your old lifestyle the same, you are much more likely to fall back into old habits.

I figured that if breaking an addiction requires radical change, certainly making or breaking other habits would also take huge shifts.

So I started eating sardines for breakfast.

And boiled, cold, sweet potatoes. And dolmas. And avocados.

With cold weather settling into the New York area, I know I'll be on my bicycle less and less (I commute by bike most days, 11 miles round trip), which means I need a new fitness routine. I've been wanting to lift weights for a while, but I never made it a priority. Plus, it was hard to work in a weight-lifting workout with my typical bicycle commuting routine. But now that I'm biking less, I joined a gym, which I've done before to get me through the winter, and committed to going specifically to lift weight at least twice a week.

Meanwhile, I also wanted to change my eating to steer clear of the sugary, fatty foods that have long been a weakness, and a source of that soft layer of fat that hides some of my muscles.

Dolmas: grape leaves stuffed with rice in oil and lemon juice.
I revamped my diet this week to push a lot ("a lot" being a highly relative word here) of protein and fat at breakfast. But more than that, I wanted to change my eating routine, change everything about it so much that it would be easier to break the habit of eating fatty sweets when I'm stressed, bored, or noshy.

It got a little wacky.

I've tried a few foods this week that I don't really like all that much, like pumpernickel bread and dolmas, just to kick my old habits in the ass. Actually, the dolmas have grown on me, and, paired with eggs and half an avocado, they don't make for a bad breakfast at all.

Diet is one of those areas of life that makes me wonder how reticent most people are to change. If someone in her 30s knows she has never liked rye bread, how many times would she actually try eating rye bread now? (P.S., I loathe caraway seeds and have therefore never ever liked rye bread.) If a 60-year old has eaten yogurt and fruit for breakfast for the last 20 years, how unlikely would it be for him to swap it for Jarlsberg cheese, sardines in mustard, and pumpernickel toast?

My belief is that there is value in radically changing simple things in life that you have a lot of control to change. So the question becomes: If you want to change other small things in life that have big consequences, whether it's the time you leave the house in the morning for work or how much exercise you get, would it be valuable to radically change other aspects of your typical routine? I'd love to see studies about this idea.

It may be counter-intuitive. My previous trials at trying to adopt three new habits proved that I could not manage to do more than two new things consistently. One would have been more realistic. But what if we change parts of the routine that are easy to change, like the amount and types of foods eaten for breakfast? How does that affect the whole system in which we develop new habits, as opposed to just tweaking existing ones? Let's just see how long sardines for breakfasts lasts.