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The Power of the Habit Streak

In looking back, I realize that I haven’t created a blog post since late May.  Lots of things can be cited as reasons for this – pandemic-related apathy, busy summer and fall, the annual shortening of the light and my tendency to want to hibernate on my couch with knitting and tea and YouTube videos.

Truth be told, all of these things are part of the reason.  We did have several trips during the pandemic lull of summer and fall, including two wonderful weeks with family in Germany, Austria and France.  We enjoyed summer travelling and socializing with far-away friends and family while the numbers were low and we were basking in the security of being double vaccinated.  I stayed busy doing my usual jobs, plus lots of podcasts to share the Hacking Chemo story and protocol.  I did some remote coaching as The Cancer Doula.  And I started to investigate how to pivot my career to allow me to use LCHF, ketogenic diet, intermittent fasting and a food-first approach to help others to prevent chronic diseases and to help those with chronic disease to reverse the damage and live an awesome life.

Come November, most of my get-up-and-go just got up and went. I wouldn’t call it Seasonal Affective Disorder, just a kind of mild apathy as the days get shorter, sunshine is in limited supply, the cold weather sets in, and I basically turn into the proverbial pumpkin.  All of the energy of summer that had me out in the garden, riding my bike and bouncing around has dissipated. Add to that a new coronavirus variant that looked to be looming like a tidal wave over Christmas, and how was one to feel optimistic or hopeful?

Well, Christmas happened despite Omicron.  My kids from Ottawa made it home for several days and we gathered for a feast, family gift exchange and the annual tradition of working together on the giant Holiday Crossword Puzzle from the Globe and Mail. After being unable to gather last Christmas, this was wonderful! Despite the surging numbers, we were safely bubbled, double or triple vaxxed and happy to be together.  I realize that many people did not have their expected Christmas and it just adds to the anxiety and apathy of this time.

Despite all of this doom and gloom, both in the news and outside my window, I have managed to create a new habit that has stuck with me for 63 days so far.  That habit is learning Italian through Duolingo. One of the bright spots this fall has been planning and booking the tickets for our twice-delayed 60th birthday trip to Florence next fall, with my three best girlfriends – “my sisters from other mothers”.  Two of them have been diligently working on learning Italian in preparation, but I had poo-pooed that idea, saying that I’m going to be simply a “leaf on the wind” and let the others take care of me while we’re there.  I was too busy with still working (they’re all retired), book promotion, online coaching and “stuff”.  And besides, I’m not someone that learns new languages well, as evidenced by my years-long struggle to learn decent Spanish, and my ongoing lack of German, despite being with my fluent husband for over 40 years…

But for some reason that I can’t remember, I opened Duolingo 63 days ago and set it for Italian.  And I started.  And here I am, 63 days later, still opening that app every day, completing at least one lesson and getting credit for another day in my streak.  Suddenly I have a new habit that I never had before.

It got me thinking about the power of the “streak” for reinforcing habit change. Why does watching those numbers scroll upwards matter so much? How did that little counter manage to overcome the inertia of early winter, the anxiety and apathy of pandemic fatigue, and my inherent resistance to language learning?

A lot of research has been done on habits, their formation and strength, why our brain likes them, why they can be hard to break.  According to behavioral scientist, JB Fogg, a habit requires three factors – Motivation, Ability and a Prompt or Trigger

Motivation is the WHY and how badly you want the change or outcome of your habit change.  Ability is how easy the habit is to accomplish.  And the Prompt or Trigger is often an associated behavior that already exists and you can attach your new habit to it.  This is an incredibly simplified version and JB Fogg’s book, Tiny Habits, is worth a read.

As an example, I’m highly motivated right now to learn Italian because I have the upcoming trip that is highly anticipated and I expect it to be spectacularly awesome.  My ability to do the habit is made easy by using the Duolingo App.  I made it even easier by buying a year of the premium service so that I don’t have to deal with ads or running out of “gems” when I make a mistake.  The trigger is knowing that I have a streak to protect.  Even if it’s only one lesson on a busy morning, I have to do it for the streak to continue.  The lesson tends to happen during morning coffee, so that’s reinforcing the behavior by attaching it to an already established routine.  And if I get busy and haven’t done it, I get an email by mid-morning, reminding me that Duolingo is waiting for me. Another trigger.

Then I get the reward – watching the streak numbers tick over for another day.  And the intrinsic satisfaction of having completed my lessons well.  And whoever imagined that I could like language learning?  Certainly not me…

“Mundane, tiny tasks repeated day after day, week after week, month after month can create exponentially more transformation than the effort put in.”

One study concluded that on average it can take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form a habit, with an average of 66 days.  So, by that metric, my Italian lessons must be firmly entrenched by now.

When I look back on my chemo experience and my strict adherence to the keto diet and the Chemo Fasting Protocol, I can see how these same factors played out.  My motivation was HIGH – cancer is a big motivator.  Trying to survive chemo with minimal side effects is a big motivator.  Avoiding throwing up and nerve damage in my fingers was a big motivator.  No lack of motivation here…

My ability to follow a keto diet was high because of my background as a low carb dietitian.  I already had the knowledge to make it work easily.  I had the ingredients, the recipes and the support from my husband to make and eat meals that fit into the keto guidelines.

So the triggers, like my impending chemo date, would be very successful in making me continue with the behavior change.  I also tested blood sugar and ketone levels daily and knowing that the test strip was coming up soon was another reminder.

And the reward?  Well, it was seeing ketosis by the numbers almost every day.  It was feeling like I had a sense of control in an uncontrollable situation.  It was dodging the bullet of peripheral neuropathy, of always having adequate blood levels to allow treatment to go ahead, of feeling awesome for over two weeks out of every three weeks.

Streaks are a tool for behavioral change, and as with any tool, they can be used for positive or negative outcomes.  The letdown of breaking a streak is what keeps people doing their new habit, but it can also result in people not listening to their own physical or psychological needs.  If I had to spend several days in hospital at the side of a sick or dying relative, you can bet that the scrolling of the Duolingo numbers would not be my first priority.  Maintaining a streak has been the cause of people working out through physical injury or turning their backs on important life events.  And too far down the wrong streak path can lead to addiction.  The gaming and gambling industries know this and use it to hook users.

I plan to put the power of the streak to good use in several areas of my life this winter.  The pandemic inertia has extended to my eating habits and movement levels and as a result, I am over 10 lbs above where I feel my best.  My eating habits have been decidedly non-LCHF over the past 2 months, and I have done almost no exercise.  I feel stiff and weak and lumpish, and I’m not happy with how my clothes are feeling.  So, I have set a 30 day goal and a 100 day goal for making some small but positive changes that will help me to get back to where I feel my usual awesome self.  And I am setting a big goal for September that will motivate me to get off the couch, get outside, get stronger, make better food choices.  I have set up an old-school calendar on my desk for recording my success.  Here I go!

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