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The Secret Little Words that Make Healthy Habits Stick

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The Secret Little Words that Make Healthy Habits Stick

I’ve worked with hundreds of clients who have MyFitnessPal accounts. It’s a fantastic tool that helps them tremendously. But every client who has let me look at their MyFitnessPal diary has kicked off the sharing conversation with the same two words: “I’m sorry.”

To which I always reply, “Don’t worry—I’m a coach, not a priest!”

And after tens of thousands of interactions with clients, helping them develop new healthy habits, I have stumbled onto a simple, universal trick. A single, hard and fast sentence that is the secret to making any healthy habit stick for good. It’s only two little words, so it’s easy to remember—but, man, is it hard to say!

Every day, I hear the words “I’m sorry” from my clients. They are sorry for eating cupcakes. They are sorry for only doing 8 kettlebell swings instead of 10. They are sorry for thinking about sleeping in. But “I’m” and “sorry” are not the two little words that are hard to say.

“I’m sorry” means, “I feel guilty because I know I should want to do something but I really don’t want to.” I’m sorry means, “I feel bad because I’m supposed to want this.” In psychology, this is known as introjected motivation and, although it’s powerful in the short term, it’s poison in the long term. I’ve never had a client reach success by shaming and guilt-tripping themselves across the finish line. Because in the long term, “I’m sorry” really means, “I’m sorry I’m not sorry” and the most sorry people quit.

No, the two little words that are the secret to making healthy habits stick are what I say in response to “I’m sorry.” They are what I try to teach people to tell themselves when they think, “I’m sorry.” The two little words that get people back on track, back to the plan, and back to habits that work: “It’s OK.”

It’s OK that you ate that cupcake. Let’s talk about why and how we can better plan ahead next time. It’s OK that you only did 8 swings; that’s 8 more than you would have done last week. It’s OK you thought about sleeping in because you’re human. But in the end, you showed up!

One week in 2010, I tried to count the number of times I said, “It’s OK,” to my clients. It was more than 500—so many that I joked about having cards made so I could coach remotely. But people don’t really need to hear “It’s OK” from me. They need to hear it from themselves.

So I had my clients make their own cards. I bought blank business cards and had them write, “It’s OK,” with a thick, black marker. They put the cards in their wallets, taped them to the back of their phones, and put them on their scales and refrigerators.

Because everyone has those days; everyone has those thoughts. Ask a priest and he’ll tell you, too: we’re all human. Screwing up is part of the plan. What matters is forgiveness. Forgive yourself, get back on track, and do a little better tomorrow. After all, it’s OK!

Have you learned the art of self-forgiveness yet? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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