Emotional Health

Keystone Habits: Where Change Begins

If you begin with making sleep you first priority, you may find that you will automatically have to tweak a few other habits to do it. In order to get to bed at a better hour, and to sleep soundly, you need to cut down on your drinking and TV viewing as part of that plan. You might decide that you will turn off the TV an hour earlier, and have less to drink at dinner to accomplish this. You may even have to reduce it even further to reach your goal.

By making sleep your priority, you can make inroads with three habits at once. This happened to me many years ago when I resolved to stop smoking. I was really committed to this one goal, but I was aware that I might gain weight if I did, so I began jogging, in advance of my start date. After a few torturous weeks, something unexpected happened: I began to enjoy the jogging. When, a month or so later, I finally stopped smoking, my efforts were further reinforced because my running improved immediately as my lungs cleared.

In doing this, I had stumbled upon what experts now realize is a good strategy for trying to change: find a replacement habit. While jogging and smoking don’t necessarily seem similar, they have one important correlation: health. By substituting a healthy habit for an unhealthy one, I began to change the way I looked at other habits as well. I became more conscious of nutrition, for example, and drank less alcohol because it affected my jogging performance the next day.

You may find the same cascade effect if you are better rested. You energy will be higher, which will give you the option of exercising rather than drinking to relax. Research shows that exercise sometimes further energizes rather than tires people. It certainly leads to better, more restful sleep. Getting adequate sleep is also correlated with lower weight.

Once the better sleep habit is in place you may have the energy to adopt a better approach to eating as well. Whether this is a full-fledged weight loss diet or just a commitment to cooking more nutritious meals, you may find yourself losing weight through a combination of sleeping better, exercising more, and drinking less.

This may take time. Duhigg says 21 days minimum but others say it can take as many as 66 days. Though awkward at first, once you do something enough times it becomes second nature. Adults rarely think of teeth brushing as a “habit.” It is so ingrained that we feel funny if we don’t do it. But watching a young child trying to learn this habit underscores the fact that it is not initially seen as a pleasant thing to do.

If your plan does not work smoothly, take a look at where your motivation breaks down and see if you can make improvements. Duhigg writes that he was able to reduce his TV viewing simply by keeping the remote control across the room rather than next to his chair. We are simple creatures, it appears: a small change here or there can lead to bigger ones, but we have to keep trying to find the formula that works and not give up.


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  • V. Brooks Dunbar, DM April 7, 2017 at 5:20 pm

    This is an important topic that needs more discussion in wellness circles. I discovered the importance of sleep a few years ago while an employee of the US Army Surgeon General. It was her key initiative and it still resonates with me because it was linked to all of my bad habits, including eating and exercising. Wonderful article. Thank you.

  • Donna Magelli February 2, 2017 at 11:59 am

    Spot on! I loved this article because it was exactly what I told my stressed out daughter to do. At the age of sixty, I have finally learned how important sleep is for my entire well-being. Tweak some habits, and new habits can be formed. Give yourself plenty of time to acclimate and the rest will follow.