The Ever Better Challenge, Part 2: Maintain the Change, Get Closer to Your Goal

I’m grumpy.

People are starting to ask me if I’m OK. I politely tell them I’m fine, but the truth is I’m craving desserts. It feels like something is missing. I don’t want to get too existential, but life has felt a little empty over the last week.

It’s been about seven days since I stopped eating dessert for my Ever Better Challenge. So far, I have lost a pound or two and am finding I sleep a little better. I feel good about these changes—but I really, really want some frozen yogurt.

Hopefully, you’re doing great and soaring into the second week of your challenge.

But maybe you’re having an experience similar to mine and are struggling.

Changing a habit is tough

I was pretty excited to get started on this challenge. I had done the research and was prepared with the facts. I was confident that these blogs would be a journal of triumph.

That was last week.

The truth is it’s harder to skip the Monday morning chocolate-hazelnut croissant this week. I am realizing I love desserts more than I thought—or that my habit of consuming them is stronger than I thought.

Habits can be broken

It’s possible that giving up desserts is so hard because I’m hooked on sugar. There’s evidence that sugar is addictive, and that not only is my mood impacted by removing it from my diet, but my physiology is as well.

But behavior is at the root of that possible addiction, and while years of wiring my brain and body for eating desserts may make it harder to quit eating them, it’s just a habit—and habits can be broken.

The habit loop

I just finished lunch and am craving sugar. As I mentioned in last week’s blog, I’ve followed meals with desserts for years. As a result, finishing a meal is a cue for my habit.

Cues are part one of the habit loop; they initiate a craving (part two) that leads to performing a routine (part three) in order to enjoy a reward (part four). For me, the reward is the dopamine my brain releases in response to sugar.

Dopamine is pretty great stuff that compels people to do unhealthy things—even when they know better. I know sugar isn’t good for me, but that doesn’t stop me from raiding the snack cabinet after dinner at home or searching for nearby frozen yogurt options after a meal at a restaurant.

Hacking the habit loop

In order to break free from the compulsion to eat desserts, I have to change something in my habit loop. I’m wired to want sugar, but for now, I can at least avoid the cue of a snack cabinet or frozen yogurt shop to reduce the craving.

The routine is where I can make the most effective change. Before I started this challenge, I thought that maybe munching on carrots after meals would satisfy my craving. Nope—there’s no dopamine in eating carrots.

Since I’m wired to want dopamine, I have to find a way to change my routine and still get it somehow. Exercise works, and it serves my goal of losing weight.

As I head into week three, I’m going to try doing some pushups every time I want sugar. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Don’t give up now

Changing habits is inherently difficult. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have any bad habits at all.

But we’ve made it this far and there are ways to maintain that momentum:

  • Recognize progress — Rather than focus on how many days you have left in the challenge, celebrate how many days you’ve stuck to your goal.
  • Stay in the moment — You can only do this challenge one day at a time. You don’t have to worry about the future, you only have to think about today.
  • Have patience and self-compassion — Habits take a long time to build, and will take a long time to overcome. Be kind to yourself along the way.
  • Focus on the rewards — It can be easy to get bogged down in the emotions associated with changing a habit. Consider every decision you make toward your goal as a victory and celebrate your progress. With each step, you come closer to your goal and grow the confidence to take on whatever is next.
  • Remember to use the four Ever Better Challenge templates:
    • Build a Plan — Keep this template handy to stay focused on your goal, motivation, and steps to success—especially if you find yourself struggling a bit.
    • Habit Tracker — Use this template to keep tabs on your progress; it feels good to tick off each day’s box. You can also make notes in this template—I’m writing about how and when I feel tempted. It turns out walking by the neighborhood bakery causes me to want dessert, so I’ve picked a new route to get home from work. By taking notes, you might also discover things you could do to help yourself succeed.
    • Support Network — Use this template to make sure you’re getting the help you need as you go through your challenge. I’ve noticed I’m not using my Support Network template to reach out to people as often as I could. When I began this challenge, I let my team at work and a few of my friends know what was going on. Everyone has been supportive when I’ve brought up the challenge, but I haven’t really been letting them know how hard it is. Next week, when I get frustrated, I’m going to tell someone how I’m feeling.
    • Reflect & Correct — Hopefully, you saved and filled in what you could of all four templates before starting your challenge. I did, and this week I’m writing down some reflections on how difficult going cold turkey on desserts is, and how my future challenges could be made more effective by being more reasonable. I’m also correcting myself a bit. I’ve decided that it’s OK to have a healthy cereal or granola bar when craving sugar. This template is a great place to journal on how things are going—for now, and for later. Try to incorporate your daily Habit Tracker notes for a more complete understanding of your experience.

Maintain your momentum

On the rough days, remember that consistent effort is all you really need to change a habit. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to make progress. At the end of week two, you’ll be halfway through the challenge. Focus on your goal and keep up the good work.

Oh, and one last thing…

Last Thursday, my team had a holiday party at a restaurant downtown. A tray of warm chocolate cookies was brought out and placed next to me. Without thinking, I grabbed one and devoured it, not realizing what I was doing until I noticed the looks on my coworkers’ faces.

It was a genuine (and delicious) accident. But it was also a setback…more on that in next week’s blog.

Until then, be sure to share your story with the Ever Better Challenge Facebook group.

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