What Are Bulletproof Fat Loss Habits?
Habits are the small decisions you make and actions you perform every day.
Your life – and in this case, body shape – is the sum of all your habits. Those who successfully lose body fat and keep it off have managed to sculpt a lengthy list of habits they can perform every day, with ease, for the rest of their lives.
From instinctively putting on their gym clothes in the morning to chugging down a protein shake after a brutal ‘leg day’ session, habits are the small, ingrained choices they repeatedly make.
Both breaking and creating habits are, therefore, central to behaviour change. They play a significant role in people’s failure to adopt and stick with what is best for their health.
For example, chocolate lovers who had developed a habit to eat carrots continued to make the healthy ‘carrot choices’ even when chocolate became available 1. All hail that carrot life.
Just like brushing your teeth comes naturally, if you can train your body and mind to work on autopilot to maintain a lean lifestyle, you won’t have to constantly battle with your psyche to stick to any fat loss endeavour.
The Formation Of A Bulletproof Fat Loss Habit
The process of habit formation has been well documented. For example, Charles Duhigg, in his book The Power of Habit, explained the pattern as a three-step channel:
Cue: The cue is the reminder that initiates the behaviour. The trigger to put your gym clothes on in the morning would be your alarm going off, for example.
Routine: The routine is the behaviour. Putting your gym clothes on, for example.
Reward: The reward is the benefit acquired from performing the behaviour. Feeling good that you’re one step closer to going to the gym, for example.
The more you repeat this pattern, the more likely it will become ingrained into your daily routine. Similarly, the closer in time and proximity this three-step channel occurs, the more likely you are to repeat the behaviour.
In one study, overweight participants who were instructed to develop predictable and sustainable weight loss routines, modify their home environments to increase cues to eat healthy foods and engage in exercise, and have immediate positive rewards for certain behaviours, continued to lose weight during the months following the end of this multifaceted habit formation intervention 2.
This is the beauty of combining all three components of the habit formation process: It occurs almost instinctively and breeds long-term change.
If any diet or weight loss journey you undertake creates an overwhelming desire to return to former habits or deviate from the new behaviour, these new behaviours haven’t become habits yet.
However, with enough tinkering, adjusting, and practicing, you can design for almost any behaviour you want to execute and short-circuit most behaviours you don’t.
Habits vs Rituals
A habit is a behaviour you repeat until it becomes automatic.
Involuntarily putting your gym clothes on in the morning, making a coffee and grabbing a biscuit (or four) at 11 am, and walking the same route to the post office all occur without you even thinking about it.
Your effort levels, therefore, are extremely low. Your brain will do everything in its power to make life easy, so it can focus on other important considerations, like cultivating relationships, making crucial decisions, and generally staying alive.
It will start to form new behaviours as instinctive, meaning both awareness and effort are minimal – placing themselves in the bottom left-hand corner of the graph.
Rituals, however, require more awareness and more effort.
Physically going to the gym, spending a couple of hours prepping meals for the week, and going for a long walk at the weekend are rituals. They, therefore, fall in the top right-hand corner of the graph.
Rituals can be a combination of small habits but often require more conscious thought and more energy levels. They don’t occur involuntarily. While you have to initially think about small habits, you usually perform rituals because they’re the ‘done thing’.
Eating turkey at Christmas has never required serious thought. It’s consumed because it’s what we’ve learned happens on Christmas Day and therefore is viewed as a ritual, not a habit.
While it’s improbably, therefore, to turn a ritual that requires a host of moving parts (going to the gym means getting in the car, driving to the gym, entering the building, training, and then going home, for example) into a habit, it is possible to change the way we feel about rituals.
A ritual is performed repeatedly with a purpose outside the individual habit itself 3.
A combination of healthy habits and meaningful rituals can elicit significant behaviour change and adherence to any fat loss goals you possess.
The Elements Of Behaviour Change
It’s obvious: If we want to change our lives, we need to change our behaviours.
Fortunately, there’s a simple way we can do this. Using habit virtuoso BJ Fogg’s Behaviour Model, we can figure out how behaviours occur and how we can change them:
A certain behaviour occurs when these three elements converge at the same time.
Motivation: This is your desire to perform the behaviour. The more motivation you possess, the easier it is to complete a behaviour.
Ability: This is your capacity to perform the behaviour. The easier a certain behaviour is to complete, the more likely you are to execute it.
Prompt: This is your cue to perform the behaviour. The more prompts you have to execute a specific behaviour, the easier it is to complete.
You’ll notice in this graphic two axes: the level of motivation, which can range from anywhere between ‘high to low,’ and ability level, which can also range anywhere from ‘high to low.’ There’s also a curved ‘Action Line,’ which demonstrates that relationship.
If someone is above the Action Line when prompted, they will perform the behaviour. Scrolling through social media in bed is ‘easy to do’ and is relatively simple to motivate yourself to do; it falls in the top right-hand corner of the graph.
If someone is below it, they won’t complete the behaviour. Going on a 5k run is probably quite difficult to motivate yourself to achieve; it falls in the bottom left-hand corner of the graph.
Conversely, if any of these three elements is missing, the behaviour won’t happen.
How To Create Bulletproof Fat Loss Habits
Reduce The Friction
We’ve learnt the closer in immediacy the ‘cue, routine, reward’ process is, the stronger a habit will become. Habits form like this whether you’re aware of it or not. So, whether you’re learning to play the piano, learn Spanish, or lose weight, it makes sense to make things as easy as possible.
The easier it is, the more likely you are to repeat it. The more likely you are to repeat it, the more likely it will become automatic and, therefore, a habit.
Habits like reaching for your phone when you wake up or grabbing the TV remote when sitting on the sofa are convenient and straightforward. There’s little friction in completing these tasks.
Using this principle, we can make the habits we want to promote as easy as possible.
Just like having your gym clothes laid out by your bed, a protein shake made for you, or having pre-cut vegetables ready in the fridge, starting with something easy gives you the platform to form new, beneficial habits.
Stack Your Habits
Have you noticed how you always put your keys down in the same spot when you step into your house? Or check your bank balance once you’ve made an online purchase?
You often decide what to do next based on what you’ve just finished doing. You always put your keys down once you’ve entered your house. You always check your bank balance once you’ve bought something.
One behaviour sets off a cascade of new behaviours.
This is known as ‘Habit Stacking’ and allows us to pair new habits we want to form with old habits we already have. The habit stacking formula is:
Habit stacking can be repeated to marry several behaviours together. An old behaviour dictating a future behaviour elevates the automaticity of a habit, meaning energy and awareness are minimal.
We know getting to the gym can be an arduous process. Stacking habits on top of one of the other will make this process less painful. It may look like this:
The flowing nature of this process reduces the friction of getting to the gym and increases the automaticity of the pattern. The more specific you make each step and firmly link each behaviour to the next, the more likely you will integrate these crucial habits into your life.
Change Your Environment
It’s not easy getting out of bed, is it? Especially when we’re confronted with the horrifying knowledge we’ll have to move from the warmth of a comfortable duvet to the frosty and unpleasant chill of the bedroom.
I’m sure you’ve heard the strategies to combat this all too familiar problem: Place your alarm clock on the other side of the room, have your clothes ready by the bed, programme your coffee maker to start brewing the moment you wake up, have your partner beat you over the head with the pillow until you get up.
These are all great strategies, and all follow the same ethos: Manipulate your surroundings to your advantage to limit the need for self-control.
Your environment – typically places like the home, workplace, restaurants, and supermarkets – shapes your eating decisions more than you realise.
All the choices you make have more to do with physical cues and your surroundings, than you crafting your own judgments.
When we proactively choose or change situations that reinforce this response, we engage in, what’s known as, situational self-control strategies.
For example, when we modify situations in our daily lives that make temptations – and ultimately instant gratification – more costly and less attractive and make long-term goals less costly and more attractive, we no longer have to rely on that battle between want-to goals and have-to goals.
There are a host of methods to limit the need for continually relying on self-control:
We can engage in situation selection, whereby we consciously choose places to be in or people to be with that facilitate effortless self-control, such as going to the salad bar instead of the pizza restaurant or arranging to meet up with friends you know will be going to the gym.
We can engage in situation modification strategies, whereby we purposefully change our situation to help with the behaviours we need to execute, such as removing all trigger foods from our cupboards or packing our gym bag the night before
Redesigning your environment to make bad decisions hard and good decisions easy will enable your choices to align with your goals.
Motivation is like your ‘fun-friend’: It’s fickle and untrustworthy. Great for a night out; not so helpful when you need them to pick you up from the airport.
Aspiring for high levels of motivation to complete the tasks you need all the time isn’t feasible. It’s going to dip, rise, ebb, and flow and trying to rely on it is flawed.
Instead, we’re going to use a task called Focus Mapping.
Step 1 – Focus on one part of your journey that will lead to the eventual goal (e.g., consuming more protein, increasing step count, training three times per week)
Step 2 – Focus on specific behaviours that lead to that part of the process (e.g., a protein shake with breakfast, having a high-protein takeaway, going low-carb etc.)
Don’t worry about the feasibility of each; the idea is to note down as many behaviours that aid the process.
Step 3 – Now, ask yourself how effective each behaviour is in reaching the overall aspiration.
Having a protein shake with breakfast is an easy way to get an instant 25g hit of protein and is, therefore, very effective. Having a high-protein takeaway can be expensive and calorific and is, therefore, not very effective.
Step 4 – Now, ask yourself how achievable each behaviour is.
Having a protein shake with breakfast doesn’t require much effort and can easily be set up the night before and is, therefore, very achievable. Searching for 25 grams of protein at every meal requires a lot of effort, planning, and self-control to achieve every time and is, therefore, not very achievable.
Step 5 – Now, detail the behaviours that you noted as effective and achievable.
These habits you know will have significantly impact your overall aspirations, and you can manage without much effort.
How To Remove Harmful Fat Loss Habits
Increase The Friction
Just as reducing the friction for healthy behaviours will promote change, increasing the friction of habits we want to eradicate will also do the same.
Smoking bans in English pubs, for instance, made it more difficult for people with strong smoking habits to light up while drinking. Having to leave the pub to smoke creates friction, so smoking bans have generally increased quit rates 4.
It’s remarkable how little friction is required to prevent harmful behaviours.
Even something as simple as placing snacks at the back of the cupboard or avoiding walking past the bakery on the way home from work will make ‘bad’ behaviours more difficult to complete.
Just a small fragment of friction can be the difference between sticking with a good habit or sliding into a bad one. Imagine the cumulative impact of making dozens of these changes and living in an environment that makes the good behaviours easier and destructive behaviours harder 5.
Unearth Your Emotions
Your day is littered with bad habits. From checking your phone the second you wake up to reaching for the snack drawer at 3 pm, these small behaviours prevent you from acquiring the physique you want. Unfortunately, getting rid of these harmful behaviours isn’t as simple as ‘not doing them’.
Often, when we’re stuck in that vicious cycle of bad habits, it’s down to the way we feel. Any specific behaviour you perform is in your life to address an intrinsic motive.
Think of one of the bad habits you’d like to expunge from your daily routine. Let’s dig deep: Why do you perform that habit?
If it’s snacking in the evening, it’s probably not because you’re hungry, but potentially because you’re bored. And why are you bored? Because the relationship you have with your partner is faltering. Ouch. Can you see how the bad habits in our lives are there to conceal piercing feelings we’d rather not face?
Replacing your bad habits with healthier behaviours that address the same desires is the answer. Just ‘stop snacking’ will fail to conceal that boredom and ultimately means you’ll still end up with your hands deep inside another bowl of popcorn.
You still need to deal with that boredom; it’s how you deal with it that is the answer.
If you know what bad habits you’d like to purge from your life, the process becomes a lot simpler. For example, if you know your first instinct is to reach for a glass of wine as soon as you return from work, you can place a big glass of water on the table and vow to drink this first instead.
The cue (feeling stressed) and reward (removing that stress) are the same; you’ve just changed the routine to something that will be more beneficial to your goals.
As James Clear in his book Atomic Habits states, ‘The specific cravings you feel and habits you perform are really an attempt to address your fundamental underlying motives. Whenever a habit successfully addresses a motive, you develop a craving to do it again.’
Utilise Bright Lines
We’ll often revert to old habits, if we believe there’s a ‘finish line’ to what we start. Being specific in the guidelines we set, therefore, will help you extinguish those bad behaviours.
Telling yourself you ‘can’t’ have cake puts you in muddy waters. It’s ambiguous. If you can’t, you might be able to later. Or tomorrow.
In one study, for example, students with a healthy eating goal were instructed that when faced with a temptation, they should say to themselves either ’I don’t do X’ or ‘I can’t do X’. (e.g., I don’t eat chocolate versus I can’t eat chocolate) 6. On their way out of the lab, they were told to choose a gift as a thank you for their time: a chocolate bar or a granola bar.
Who chose the ‘healthier’ option? 64% of those who said, ‘I don’t’, compared to only thirty-nine percent of those who said, ‘I can’t’.
It’s imperative you go one step further and be even more specific. Nir Eyal calls this ‘Progressive Extremism’. By slowly expanding what you don’t do – and being as clear-cut as possible – you’ll start to remove those bad habits from your life.
It’s not that you ‘don’t have cake’, it’s that you ‘don’t have cake at the office’. It’s not that you ‘don’t drink’, it’s that you ‘don’t have more than one drink if it’s not a big wedding or landmark birthday’. Setting ambiguous ‘I don’t’ mantras can be as misleading as telling yourself you ‘can’t.’
Combining specificity with flexibility enables you to eradicate bad habits at certain times, which allows you to enjoy them at other times.
Repeated behaviours in stable contexts can become automatic habits. It’s why you always go to work at the same time, eat at the same time, and scroll through Instagram at the same time.
When we change that context, however, we’re can weaken old habits and start building new ones. Just as moving to a new house or changing jobs facilitates the production of new habits we didn’t even think of, a change in current life situations can elicit a suitable transformation.
In a study in which people reported their attempts to change some unwanted behaviour, moving to a new location was mentioned in 36% of successful behaviour change attempts but only in 13% of unsuccessful ones 7.
Habit discontinuity interventions capitalize on this window of opportunity in which people are no longer exposed to cues that trigger old habits.
If you find yourself now working from home instead of going into the office (or even vice versa), think about what new habits you can implement into a fresh routine.
If you’ve adopted a new evening routine given the arrival of children or a new pet dog, think about what new behaviours you can introduce into your novel routine.
When there are significant changes in your life, try to ditch old, harmful habits and replace with them new, beneficial ones.
Redesign Your Ability
BJ Fogg created something called an Ability Chain which dictates whether a behaviour is completed or not.
- Do you have enough time to do the behaviour?
- Do you have enough money to do the behaviour?
- Are you physically capable of doing the behaviour?
- Does the behaviour require a lot of creative or mental energy?
- Does the behaviour fit into your current routine, or does it require you to make adjustments?
Meaning, if we break any one of these links, we make a behaviour harder to complete.
By increasing the time required to complete a behaviour, we make it harder.
If you feel yourself reaching for a mid-morning snack with your coffee, place these in another room or avoid buying them altogether, so you need more time to go and get these items.
By increasing the cost of certain behaviours, we similarly make things more challenging.
We’ve all heard of the ‘Swear Jar,’ so think about ‘charging’ yourself for any unwanted behaviours you execute.
To make a habit harder, you can increase the physical effort required.
If the lure of Netflix is preventing you from going on a long walk, sign out of your account each time or even unplug the TV whenever you’ve finished watching. Being bothered to plug the TV back in and sign in to your account each time will make things more challenging and, subsequently, make it easier to go for that walk.
For some habits, the best solution is to adopt more mental effort.
For example, tracking your food is somewhat more time-consuming than mindlessly eating, ensuring this habit is ‘easier’ to complete than not. Since true habits are behaviours we perform without thinking, requiring concentration can efficiently reduce its frequency.
Lastly, consider making an unwanted habit conflict with an important habit you value and is currently part of your routine.
Going to the gym earlier in the morning may well mean you have to go to bed earlier to ensure you’re ready and fresh when your alarm clock goes off.
1 – Lin PY, Wood W, Monterosso J. Healthy eating habits protect against temptations. Appetite. 2016 Aug 1;103:432-440.
2 – Carels RA, Burmeister JM, Koball AM, et al. A randomized trial comparing two approaches to weight loss: Differences in weight loss maintenance. Journal of Health Psychology. 2014;19(2):296-311.
3 – Hobson, Nicholas & Schroeder, Juliana & Risen, Jane & Xygalatas, Dimitris & Inzlicht, Michael. (2017). The Psychology of Rituals: An Integrative Review and Process-Based Framework. Personality and Social Psychology Review. 22. 108886831773494.
4 – Lemmens V, Oenema A, Knut IK, Brug J. Effectiveness of smoking cessation interventions among adults: a systematic review of reviews. Eur J Cancer Prev. 2008 Nov;17(6):535-44.
5 – https://jamesclear.com/reset-the-room
6 – Patrick, V. M., & Hagtvedt, H. (2012). “I don’t” versus “I can’t”: When empowered refusal motivates goal-directed behavior. Journal of Consumer Research, 39(2), 371–381
7 – Heatherton, T. F. (2011). A life-changing paper? That depends on your interpretation. In R. M. Arkin (Ed.), Most underappreciated: 50 prominent social psychologists describe their most unloved work (pp. 22–26). Oxford University Press.
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