When Henry first started eating a whole food plant-based diet, one of my first thoughts was “I don’t have the tenacity for that.” Henry is deeply passionate about so many things that this change makes sense for him, but I still doubt that I have the willpower to make such a radical change in my diet (even though I’ve been doing it 95% consistently for a few months now!). I’m the kind of person who hears the word “donut” and I know where I’m stopping on my way home this afternoon.
But what is this thing, willpower, that I believe I do not have? According to James Clear, willpower is a characteristic of behavior that is similar to flexing a muscle. The more we flex our willpower “muscle,” the better we become at using it.
Great. But the last thing I want to do when I stumble, bleary-eyed, into the kitchen at 6am is flex my willpower muscle. That’s when the addictive power of sugar and fat are the most potent. While I believe that I am what I eat and I want to save the planet etc., that’s the moment when it becomes very easy to reach for a Pop Tart and call it a day.
Clear has a solution, and it’s a helpful framework for anyone making a big dietary change (such as switching over to a whole foods, plant-based lifestyle). Synthesizing the science of behavioral psychology, Clear tells us that the more healthy habits we have, especially at the beginning of the day, the more we are set up for success through the rest of the day. James Clear has two formulas for healthy habit building: Paring down choices and regular scheduling.
Let’s say I pare down my breakfast decisions to oatmeal with fixin’s, a smoothie, or toast with a nut butter du jour. Now my choice is streamlined and I don’t even have to use my willpower muscle. All of my options are the options I would choose if I had willpower. The process of paring down those options is creating a healthy habit. Now I don’t have to say “I guess I should eat the oatmeal instead of the pop tart, ugh, so healthy” I get to say “I think I’ll choose toast today, that sounds yummy.” This transforms a breakfast of denial (I really wanted that pop tart) into a breakfast of choice (I picked the breakfast I wanted today!).
As someone who really dislikes eating the same thing every day, I find this first option for healthy habit creation incredibly useful. I want to eat what I’m hungry for, which is rarely the same thing every day. If I create a menu, I can pick the breakfast I’m hungry for that day, without the temptation of the less ideal option (using willpower efficiently). Menus also make for streamlined grocery shopping.
Some intersecting ideas to this first formulation of healthy habits are other ways to streamline your mealtime decision-making. I find it’s helpful to keep my kitchen as clean as possible so that when inspiration strikes, there are as few barriers as possible to my diving into a vegan cooking extravaganza. Decluttering the kitchen makes it a food space, and more inspiring to cook in. I also find it helpful to cook ahead for some of my meals each week. Usually on the weekend I will make lunch in a jar for the rest of the week (a new post on that coming soon!), stir-fry jars, or a big pot of soup.
Now what about regular scheduling? This is a very similar concept to the previous one, but still a little different. A lot of behavioral scientists and writers are starting to promote the idea of building habits instead of working toward goals. Regular scheduling is the mechanism of building habits.
Say I really wanted to lose weight. I know that exercise is an important part of that, so I decide I’ll train for a 5K. I stick to my plan, I run the race, I do an awesome job… But now what? I’ve set a goal for myself, I’ve accomplished the goal… I could set another one, like a 10K, but I’ll always reach a point where I’ve accomplished my goal. At that moment of accomplishment, I face a choice: Do I pick a new goal so that I keep working out, or do I say “eh, mission accomplished, I’m done,” and go back to my blissful couch potato life?
What James Clear (and behavioral scientists) are promoting is forming a habit instead. If I simply say that I will do some form of exercise every weekday afternoon at 5pm, it’s regularly scheduled. I know what I’ll be doing at 5pm every day of the week. If I stick to my schedule, I have built a foundational healthy habit that can carry me through to weight loss and beyond. I never reach a point where I’ve accomplished my goal, because my habits keep me going.
How is all of this useful to those of us who eat whole food, plant-based diets? Here’s a neat bulleted list, in the style of James Clear:
- Use your willpower muscle! Choose the plant-based whole food option. Choose it again, and again. See your willpower flourish.
- Make yourself a menu, especially for the meals when you’re tired. Don’t deny yourself the unhealthy option, give yourself a healthy choice.
- Build habits, eschew goals. Set a realistic schedule. Stick to it. Watch the healthsome benefits roll in.