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Andrew Gwynne

The best way to break a habit

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Here’s a peculiar thing about human beings. Last week you decided to give up the booze, but here you are with a hangover. You promised to exercise, but you’ve not moved from the sofa all evening. And the doughnut crumbs tell their own story. Have you ever wondered who’s in charge?

We think we’re making our own decisions all day, every day. But at least 40% of the things we do are simply habits. In other words, they’re choices we make without actually thinking about them. Once upon a time, many of them started with a decision. But now they’re automatic and hard to budge.

Our good habits – like brushing our teeth – are useful. But the bad ones can get in the way of us achieving things we really want. They can be powerful, and even destructive. They can keep us hooked on junk food and glued to the TV. Over the long-term, that damages our bodies, our mental health and even our relationships.

Every one of my clients has some habits they’d like to stop or replace. So what can we do about it? The bad news is that there’s no quick fix. The better news is that change is possible, and there’s been some research to help us in recent years. It’s a good place to start.

What are your habits made of?

Experts think our habits have three clear parts, working together in a loop:

  1. What’s the cue? This is a trigger that tells your brain which habit to put into autopilot. It could be seeing a chocolate bar when you’re in the supermarket queue. It could be something emotional, like an argument with your partner.
  2. What’s the routine? This is the action – the thing you think or do. It’s buying the chocolate bar or losing your temper. Routines can be long and complicated or simple – some of yours will last for only a fraction of a second.
  3. What’s the reward? This is the feeling we get as a result of the routine. Rewards can be the physical sensations we get from food or drugs, or emotional payoffs like pride in a job well done. Rewards reinforce the habit.

Then there’s craving. A craving anticipates the reward when you get the cue. It pulls you through the routine, even when part of you says ‘no’. If you don’t go through the routine, there’s no reward. The craving in your brain is left unsatisfied, and that’s hard to deal with. You’ll probably feel grumpy and out-of-sorts. Cravings may be so powerful that you lose control over your behaviour.  

Over time, the steps in this loop become automatic. Once we set a routine of heading for the sofa rather than the gym, or buying a pastry for breakfast, the pattern stays with us. Forever. The habit gets built into our brain, because these shortcuts are usually efficient for us. Just think about driving – we don’t have to keep remembering to stay on the left side of the road.

So what can you do about it?

There is a Golden Rule if you want to banish a bad habit. Don’t worry about the cue and the reward – you can keep them. But you must change the routine. This works because a habit cannot be killed off, but it can be replaced. By unpicking the routine we replace it, and take control of the ‘habit loop’. The old pattern stays, but now it’s now tucked away. We’ve taken the old routine – buying a Mars bar – and replaced it with a healthier one – buying an apple.

This is the best strategy because it works with the habit, not against it. After a while, choosing an apple becomes as automatic as any other habit. It also works because you don’t need to worry about changing the cue. That’s good when your cues are things or places you can’t avoid – like your workplace or the local shops.

How to believe in change

For many habits – like doing more exercise – success grows when your new routine involves a group. That’s because belief in yourself often shines through when you’re with other people. Shared experiences like parkrun are a magic ingredient, as you can see people building good habits all around you. But you don’t need to look for big communities. A group can be as small as two people, like a personal trainer and their client.

Use exercise as your keystone habit

There’s something else that’s important about wellbeing and exercise habits. People who train regularly eat better and are more productive at work. They feel less stressed and smoke less. We’re not 100% sure why this is, but researchers call physical exercise a ‘keystone habit’. It seems to spill over into other parts of life, triggering other healthy changes.

I think our gut feel tells us this. Whether it’s weight loss, healthy eating or family relationships, the right habits can change everything.

Let’s go

Find out more:

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business

The fascinating life of a 20th-century pathfinder

By Blog

More than a hundred years ago, one man saw that modern lifestyles were taking their toll on our wellbeing. Long before Zumba, Body Combat and Hot Yoga, he built and promoted a world-famous exercise programme. His name is more well-known than his unusual story, which starts in Germany in the 1880s.

The man’s name was Joseph Pilates, and he got a poor start in life. He was a sickly kid who was picked on by his schoolmates. He had asthma, bad posture, and rickets (giving him soft, weak bones). To make things worse, he lost the sight in one eye at the age of five – allegedly from a stone used by a bully.

Yet as a teenager, he was earning money by posing as a model for anatomy charts. How had he transformed himself? Inspired by an interest in the ancient Greeks, he developed daily exercises to improve his health and wellbeing. He took to the weights and picked up bodybuilding, wrestling, yoga, and gymnastics. He overcame his disadvantages with focus and discipline.

By 1912 Pilates was living in England, working as a circus performer, boxer and self-defence instructor. When the First World War came, he was interned with other Germans for four years. In later life, he explained that many of the ideas that made him famous came during this time.

Pilates was held at the Knockaloe farm camp on the Isle of Man. As the months dragged on, he saw many fellow prisoners slump into apathy, with little to do but stare at the walls. But he also noticed the local cats. Although they were nothing but skin and bone, they were still full of beans, springing after the local mice. Why were the cats in such good shape, while humans grew weaker?

Pilates had learnt to watch bodies. He saw the cats stretching out, over and over again, keeping their muscles in shape. So he began thinking about exercises that would stretch a human’s muscles. He shared them with those around him, and they began to do the exercises, too. 

For a while he worked in the hospital, helping soldiers too weak to walk. He set up resistance exercises by fixing springs to the ends of metal bed frames. So even these patients could improve their strength and flexibility. Over the years, ideas like this made their way into kit that’s still in use in modern Pilates studios.

Many of Pilates’ soldiers actually ended their war in better shape than when it started. When the Spanish flu epidemic swept across Europe in 1918, legend has it that not a single man under his care died. That’s remarkable when you consider the poor living conditions of these camps, hit hard by the deadly virus.

Like so many innovators, Pilates soon headed for the USA. On the boat over, he met his future wife, Clara. They set up a new gym in New York, where his ideas became popular among those wanting precise control of their bodies. Joe and Clara welcomed dancers, actors and opera singers – people who wanted to get back from injuries or improve their skills. All were introduced to fearsome-sounding equipment like the Universal Reformer, the Wunda Chair and the Spine Corrector. 

Over the years, the gym saw an eclectic mix of famous visitors, including Laurence Olivier and Yehudi Menuhin. Joe’s ego and energy were balanced by Clara’s compassion. Some say she was the better teacher, and her approachable style took off. It showed that ‘Contrology’ (as Pilates was then called) could be tailored to any level of health and fitness.

As Joe often told us, “Physical fitness is the first requisite of happiness.” He kept developing his methods until his death in 1967, a role model for energy,  persistence, and health through exercise. There are photographs of him performing advanced stretches at the youthful age of 80. It just proves that there’s a lot you can learn from cats.

Let’s go

Leadership lessons from the ends of the Earth

By Blog

As job descriptions go, it didn’t sound much fun: “Men wanted: For hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful.” But legend has it that these words attracted five thousand applicants for the ill-fated Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. 

The man placing the ad was Ernest Shackleton. He planned to sail his ship, Endurance, to Argentina. He would then head for Antarctica, and walk across the continent. It would be a brutal challenge for even today’s explorers. But this was 1914. There were no radios or satellite phones. No weather updates, snowmobiles or Gore-tex gloves – they were 70 years away. It’s a story of hardship and resilience, with lessons in leadership for everyone who’s heard the story. 

Just imagine the isolation and the deprivation. On a good day, the crew might get some ‘hoosh’ – a soup of seal meat, fat, and snow, plus a few crushed biscuits. If they could sleep, they were plagued by dreams of home-cooked food. One day they killed a leopard seal, and ate the undigested fish in its stomach. Inside their tents in the evenings, drinking-water often froze over. 

The diet was a hardship they expected, but around them things got worse. Five months after setting off, they left the island of South Georgia. It was the last time they touched land for nearly five hundred days. Despite Shackleton’s caution, their ship was trapped and eventually crushed in the ice. They were forced to camp on the ice floes and drifted for months. After an epic journey on sledges over pack ice, their three small boats eventually reached Elephant Island. 

With no hope of being saved, they were on the edge of disaster. Shackleton decided to set out with five others on a small lifeboat, across the roughest ocean in the world. To seal the boat’s timber and canvas they relied on wick from lamps and oil paint. Rolling and pitching, and without modern navigation aids, they plotted their way using the position of the sun. 

After 800 terrifying miles, they somehow made it to South Georgia. But the whaling station they were heading for was on the other side of the island. With nails hammered through their boots for grip, Shackleton and two others set off across the mountainous terrain. Walking day and night, they made it through the icy wilderness to organise a rescue effort. The tough Norwegian sailors they met could barely believe their eyes.

Against all the odds, not a single member of Shackleton’s 28-man team died during the time they were stranded. He hadn’t lived his dream of trekking across the continent. But he proved that failing doesn’t make someone a failure. It’s just a setback. 

More than a hundred years on, what can we learn from his approach? Here are five leadership lessons from the Endurance story and the man they called ‘The Boss’:

  • Plan for setbacks and be flexible: Shackleton was good at adjusting to circumstances. When new information or problems emerged, he changed tack. He knew not to get too fond of any plan, no matter how much time and effort it had cost. His dream ended when Endurance sank. But he said, “It looks as though we shan’t cross the Antarctic Continent after all. It’s a pity, but that cannot be helped. It is the men that we have to think about.” He focused on what he could do, not on things that weren’t under his control.
  • Cultivate the habit of optimism. Shackleton described optimism as “true moral courage.” He took responsibility for setting the tone, because he understood its impact on those around him. His positive outlook was contagious, and he encouraged games and fun. When choosing men for the journey, he asked about their practical skills. But he also wanted to know if they could sing. The crew would face hardships that defy belief, but he’d built a team spirit that let them bounce back from disappointment. 
  • Develop a clear purpose. At every stage, every man on the expedition knew what they were trying to achieve. And time and again, this clarity appears as the prime factor behind a winning team. It’s true for individuals too, as our most rewarding emotions get behind us when we’re heading for a meaningful goal. I wrote about this in another blog about goal setting – there’s a link at the bottom.
  • Build the right team around you. Shackleton was good at choosing his crews. If you have some goals for your fitness and wellbeing, who do you want in your team? Who are your cheerleaders? Belief in ourselves often shines through when we’re with other people. So find the right ones. That could be friends with whom you share weight-loss goals, or the running group at work. If you’re on your own, you’ll make success much harder.
  • Make the tough decisions. In Argentina, Shackleton fired a cook for bad behaviour, knowing the harm that this posed to morale. His focus on clear goals and the wellbeing of his team allowed him to make the right call. In our personal lives, we often put up with things to avoid short-term upset or conflict. Perhaps a friend is bringing you down, or you’re putting up with a job when your heart’s not in it. Have a word with them, or brush up the CV. You’ll be glad you took control.   

Shackleton was an iconic explorer and a model leader. Yet like all of us, he had his own personal fears and weaknesses. He told us that without willpower he would “make a first-class drunkard.” So he developed a rock-solid mentality that overcame every difficulty nature could throw at him. To finish with another quote from this great man: “Your hardest times often lead to the greatest moments of your life. Keep going.”

Let’s go!

Find out more:

Book: Endurance – Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage to the Antarctic

Video: Survival! The Shackleton Story

Blog: How goals can change your life

Where to find everyday courage

By Blog

If you’re reading this blog, you probably have a challenge in mind. Perhaps you want to lose a few pounds, or play with your kids without getting breathless. Perhaps you said ‘yes’ to a long walk for charity, or told your partner you’d get fitter. Underneath it all, you’re trying to be the best version of yourself. 

Together, we can work out the steps you’ll need to follow. It’s going to mean hard work in building the right habits. But it also means being brave, finding the courage to face up to physical and mental obstacles. Luckily, you’re not alone. There’s inspiration all around us.

When I think about courage, I remember my deployment to Helmand, Afghanistan during 2009. I also remember meeting a cheerful young soldier called John, who chipped in to help us with some work one hot day. At this point, you might be expecting a story about a fierce male warrior on the battlefield. But you’d be wrong. This hero has never been more than 5ft tall, and she believed her courage came from a simple promise. 

Back then, Chief Petty Officer Kate Nesbitt was just 21 years old. “I promised my friends and comrades I’d be their medic,” she said. “I promised I’d be there if they ever needed me. They needed me that day – so when the call came, that’s just what I did.”

What she did on that day was remarkable. During a patrol that was ambushed by Taliban fighters, Lance Corporal John List was shot in the neck. The wound was serious and would quickly choke him to death. Learning of the casualty by radio, Kate dashed 70 yards across open ground. With rockets and bullets for company, she made a temporary airway for John and stemmed the blood he was losing. They were pinned down for nearly an hour. 

In the chaos of a gun battle miles from home, John List was lucky to meet the right person that afternoon. He was airlifted to hospital and recovered. Kate Nesbitt became only the second woman to be awarded the Military Cross, one of Britain’s highest military medals for gallantry. She had kept her promise, with a superhuman display of personal leadership.

Nesbitt and List were reunited back in the UK several months later at a medals parade. It was the first time he was able to speak and thank her. Her citation read:

“Nesbitt’s actions …. were exemplary; under fire and under pressure her commitment and courage were inspirational and made the difference between life and death. She performed in the highest traditions of her service.”

On the battlefield, Kate Nesbitt’s courage was clear to all her colleagues. It was at the extreme limit of what’s humanly possible. But courage isn’t always so obvious that it leads to a ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Bravery comes in many forms, as everybody’s life brings different challenges, tragedies and difficulties.

If you’re about to embark on a journey to improve your wellbeing, you’ll need some courage too. You’ll have to make some promises to yourself, finding the personal leadership to replace old habits with better ones. You may need to face down some personal demons – like the school bully or the bossy PE teacher who put you off exercise all those years ago. 

Closer to home, you may have to deal with friends and family. They may be sceptical, or not understand that you’ll be sacrificing time and effort to reach your goals. And there’s always peer pressure to grab another beer or sugary doughnut. Some days you’ll doubt yourself, and it will take courage to continue on the path you’ve chosen.

Take a deep breath and listen to these fears about starting the journey. Write them down. Not because they’ll magically disappear. But because they’re all signs that your goal is going to be worth it. Like Kate Nesbitt, you’ll learn that making a promise and keeping it might be the best thing you’ve ever done.

Let’s go

14 tips for a good night’s sleep

By Blog

Feeling tired and grumpy some days? You’re probably sleep-deprived, and you’re not alone. One in three of us suffer – and it’s no good for our health. Sleeping badly can mean poor eating habits, putting on weight, even forgetting where you left the car keys. It also weakens your immune system, and makes you more prone to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and poor mental health.

But there’s some good news. Assuming you don’t have a sleep disorder, there’s lots you can do to get the six to nine hours you need. At bedtime, try to line up these things. Your body needs a cooler temperature, a lower heart rate and more oxygen. It also needs help from the sleep hormone melatonin, and a healthy batch of sleepiness built up during the day.

Here are the best ways to make it happen:

  1. Stick to a schedule. Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day, even on weekends. This trains your brain and body clock to get used to a healthy routine. Don’t try to catch up on sleep after a bad night, as this habit disrupts your routine.
  2. Try power naps. If work and family mean you can’t keep a schedule, short naps can help. Keep them under 20 minutes though, to avoid feeling groggy when you wake up.
  3. Exercise most days, but not too late. Regular exercise helps you sleep. But it’s best to get your workout done at least two hours before you hit the sack. That’s because you want your core temperature to be low when your head hits the pillow. 
  4. De-caffeinate your drinks. If that’s a big ask, then at least keep your coffee habit to mornings. Caffeine hangs around in your body for many hours. So even a cappuccino after lunch can keep you restless that night.
  5. Try alcohol-free beer and wine. Booze is bad before bed, as it disturbs your sleep – without you even realising. Because boozy sleep is not continuous, it’s not restoring mind and body. This is why your brain doesn’t work very well the following day.
  6. Don’t eat too late. Steer clear of large meals, sugary snacks and drinks late at night. If you’re really peckish, choose a snack with protein, fibre and good fats.
  7. Let your tiredness build up. If you’re a poor sleeper, avoid naps. Our bodies build up a natural tiredness during the day, and we need this to get to sleep. So don’t get in its way. Daylight plays a big part in your daily sleep patterns, so try to get thirty minutes of natural sunlight every day. 
  8. Take 20 minutes to unwind.  A relaxing activity before bedtime should be part of your routine. That might mean reading or listening to music, to help your mind calm down. Some people like to use meditation or breathing exercises to bring down their heart rate.
  9. Take a hot bath. When you get out of a bath, heat goes from your core to your skin. You’ll look flushed but your body temperature actually goes down. That’s a recipe for a good night’s sleep – especially if the bath is part of your relaxing routine.
  10. Embrace the darkness. Plan your bedroom to make sure the light stays outside. This will help you get to sleep and stay that way. Thick curtains are useful, especially if they keep out external noise. Say goodbye to powerful overhead lights, and use lowered, dim light where you spend your evening hours. 
  11. Stay cool. Central heating and a good night’s sleep don’t go well together. Keep your bedroom slightly chilly at night – for any geeks out there, sleep experts recommend 18.3 degrees. 
  12. Protect sleep and intimacy. Your bedroom should be a haven and sanctuary. Try to keep it that way, uncluttered, to escape the stresses of your waking life. People who sleep well build a strong link in their minds between sleep and their bedroom. They don’t weaken that link by adding a TV, gadgets or a poor mattress.
  13. Banish your smartphone. A hormone called melatonin is held back by the blue screen light of our gadgets. That’s not good because we need melatonin to sleep. One study showed that using an iPad suppressed it by over 50% during the night (compared to reading a paperback). You could invest in software that cuts down harmful blue light as evening goes on. 
  14. Don’t lie awake for long. It’s better to get up and do something quiet until the urge to sleep returns. Remember the importance of association – the bedroom isn’t the place to lie down and worry. If you’re a clock-watcher, hide that clock!

Find out more:

NHS sleepstation website

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams