Research Paper By Lisa Fain
(Life Coach, UNITED STATES)
This article uses my own recent health and weight loss journey as a case study, in which several of ICA’s power tools and the framework for habit formation from Gretchen Rubin’s book “Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of our Everyday Lives” were instrumental in creating lasting change. Finally, this article will discuss the coaching implications of the lessons I learned from this journey.
As a child, I was a bit brainy, and I excelled in school and academic extracurricular activities. I never thought of myself as active. In fact, I perceived myself as quite clumsy, and defined myself by my intellectual than my physical or athletic capabilities. My family wasn’t active either, so there were no role models in my home for healthy, fit living. Though I aspired to be active, healthy and coordinated, it seemed to me that those qualities would be used to describe other people – not me.
Then, my junior year in high school, I moved halfway across the world to be an exchange student for 6 months. While I was gone, my parents learned to eat healthfully, love exercise, and as a result, lost quite a bit of weight. Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, I was diving into new cuisine and culture. Without noticing it, I was gaining weight, and when I returned, looked my newly thin and healthy parents in the eye, and realized that I had gained my share of the weight they lost, and picked up the unhealthy habits they had left behind. I knew it right away, but I also saw it in their eyes as they looked at me, concerned about my health and well-being. I realized that I had to do something.
I quickly learned about healthy food and exercise, became active, got fit, and lost extra body weight. So, throughout the remainder of my teenage years and my 20’s, I began to identify as a “runner”, as someone who is “fit”. I am small-boned, and in college was lovingly teased for being “tiny”. I was young and active, so I could eat what I wanted, and rarely gained weight. Being healthy and “tiny,” became part of my identity and I held onto it with great pride for many years.
In my 20s, I began to have stomach pain and discomfort after meals. I ate fairly healthfully. I rationalized away the discomfort—this is how people are supposed to feel after a meal, It’s not that bad, etc. So, nothing changed.
And then – in my 30s, I had two children. My body did not rebound, I could no longer eat anything I wanted, time for exercise was limited, and I never fully regained my toned body, healthy eating, or love of exercise. I was not longer identifying as tiny or healthy. Once my youngest was 7, I kept “trying” to get my fitness back. I’d run more often, eat better for a period, but I held onto this “baby weight” regardless. And, I continued to feel awful after meals, particularly after eating a meal out in a restaurant. Nothing changed. I was too busy. Too tired. Too low maintenance to adopt what I perceived to be “high maintenance” food choices.
Finally, about 18 months ago, I decided I had enough. When, early in 2015 I sat down to set my goals for the coming year, I realized that it had been over 5 years in which I’d had the same (unachieved) goals – to get fit, to eat better, to lose the “last” ten pounds of “baby weight”, and to stop feeling lousy after I ate.
In other aspects of my life, I was moving closer to who I wanted to become – my family and I moved to a better climate, I had a fulfilling professional life and was learning how to become a coach, and was building connections in my new community. But I couldn’t seem to “Crack the code” on my health. I knew I was holding myself back, but I wasn’t sure what to do about it.
Using ICA’s power tools to spur change
Throughout this period, I was working towards completion of my coaching certification at ICA. As I read through the power tools, I would each time see application to my own life, and a different key to thinking about my wellness different. I realized that I was talking about how I didn’t feel good and wasn’t happy with how I looked or felt, but I had chosen to keep the status quo. If I truly wanted to make change, I need to look myself in the mirror and start taking action. Power tools were instrumental in this realization. Here’s how:
Trust vs Doubt
Studying the Trust v Doubt power tool made me realize that I had been operating in doubt and this had been holding me back from making progress with my weight. My thinking was “I can’t do anything about it so don’t spend REAL effort trying.” Once I realized that if I trust that I can be trim, fit and healthy throughout my life, then it becomes a possibility. This shifted my thinking to the realm of possibility and spurred me to action. I came to realize that I had made change in my health before and that nothing but myself stopped me from doing so again
I also realize now that I truly doubted that I could find a way of eating that didn’t feel like a “diet” and where I wasn’t uncomfortable after eating. Once I trusted that there was a solution to my discomfort, I felt more in control.
Responsibility vs Blame
As many working mothers do, I felt stretched in time, energy and attention. When I studied the Responsibility v Blame power tool, I realized that I blamed my situation – my genes, my job, my kids, my lack of sleep, etc, for feeling lousy after I ate and being unhappy with my health and physical fitness. Once I came to the reckoning that no one is making me eat things that leave me feeling lousy and that others will support my decision to take care of myself, I realized that I am responsible for my current situation and I alone can change it.
Commitment vs Trying
I had set a goal to figure out my stomach issues and lose the “last ten pounds” several times over the last several years. But, in each instance, committing the time to it seemed less urgent than other demands on my time. We had many social engagements, and it never seemed opportune to refrain from eating what I was served, or to truly commit to planning and sticking to a dedicated food regimen, particularly since what my body needs is different from what most people can/want to eat. I was fearful of being perceived as “high maintenance”, “rude” or “needy,” and I just seemed easier to go along with whatever others were doing in a social setting. When I did this, it would derail me until the next time I stated that I was ready.
In studying the Commitment v Trying power tool, I realized that each of these times, I wasn’t truly committed. I was merely trying. Once I really declared that I am gluten free and dairy free – once I committed to this way of eating and being – others were supportive and encouraging. Once I stopped “trying” and declared my commitment, I began to truly make changes.
Action vs Delay
Undoubtedly, life as a working mother is hectic. It is marked by periods of divided focus, sleep deficiency, and the constant feeling that there is not enough time for oneself. When trying to make changes in one’s wellness, it is easy to rationalize that “now is not the time” and that it will be easy to change when things are not quite so hectic.
As the Action v Delay power tool taught me, focusing on the time I didn’t have, the rest I hadn’t gotten and the other obligations that kept me from focusing on myself was really just a form of delay. It hit me that if I continued in delay, I’d make the same unfulfilled promises to myself year after year and nothing would change. It felt like Einstein’s definition of insanity “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting to get different results.” This power tool helped me realize that the best time to make change is now.
Unlocking the code:
The first step for me was realizing that I am responsible for my health, that I could feel better and even that I was supposed to feel better. At a friend’s recommendation, I saw a naturopath. The naturopath confirmed what I knew in my heart to be true, that I wasn’t supposed to feel lousy after I ate and that there was something I could do about it to still be able to enjoy eating and to feel better. After several tests, she recommended that I try a gluten- free and Dairy-free diet. This was just what I had feared – no bread?!? No soft baked amish pretzels? No cheese? WHAT?!? I can’t do that!
Many of my friends had begun gluten and dairy free diets that had been helpful for stomach issues, but I hadn’t wanted to adopt special needs for my eating, to be high maintenance, or frankly, to give up the bread, cheese and beer from which I got enjoyment, even if those things caused me discomfort.
But, thinking about these principles, I realized that I could, but I hadn’t wanted to. I gave it 28 days. I told myself that I would take those things out of my diet for 28 days and if I didn’t feel better, or if it was too hard (enter whiney voice), I could add them back in. Well, it WAS hard, but after 28 days I felt great. And, though it was difficult and I missed some of my favorite foods, it is relatively easy to find food that fit within my diet. I no longer felt bloated, sniffly or fatigued.
I’ve maintained that diet now for about 18 months, but until 4 months ago, I had not lost any weight. In fact, I gained weight and felt worse about how I looked.
Even with adding exercise, I couldn’t lose the weight. I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing. And I just kept feeling worse and worse about the state of my body. Then, something shifted.
The shift. What it took:
Three things prompted me to lose weight. Vanity , joint pain, and the book Better than Before by Gretchen Rubin.
After I launched my coaching business, I developed a website and needed head shots. I got my hair and makeup done, bought some new blouses and entered the studio feeling beautiful. In trying to get the best pose, the photographer asked me to move my chin up and turn my head, making an offhand comment about how “We larger women” need to put more space between our body and our head. We larger women??? Was she talking to me?
I went home feeling defeated, unattractive and powerless. I had to do something. But, what???
Around this same time, I began to have frequent pain in my right hand. My mother suffers from Rheumatoid Arthritis, a painful (and often hereditary) condition that causes restricted motion in ones joints. I’d observed how this affected her and grew increasingly worried that this was happening to me too. I was tested for RA, and thankfully, I do not have it, but the joint pain persisted. I got physical therapy and it did not help. The doctor suggested that I explore surgery or get cortisone shots. Neither of these solutions felt right to me. Yet, “Putting up” with the pain in my hand started to remind me of “putting up” with discomfort after eating, and I knew I had to do something.
Enter Gretchen Rubin and Better than Before.
Better than Before.
I have long admired Gretchen Rubin, the author of “the Happiness Project” and followed her blog about creating happiness through small actions. About the time of my photo shoot, she released a book called “Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our everyday Lives, “ in which she talked about strategies and frameworks to adopt new habits. I began to read and realized that this was applicable to my current situation.
Rubin’s philosophy is that Its simple to change habits, but it is not easy. P xii
As a student of habit formation, Rubin has developed a model that explains how people respond to habits. Differentiating between how one responds to inner vs outer expectations – she calls these the 4 tendencies.
The Four Tendencies, model by Gretchen Rubin
|Are you in individual who….||Meets inner expectations||OR||Resists inner expectations|
|Meets outer expectations||Upholder||Obliger|
|Resists outer expectations||Questioner||Rebel|
Upholders will be able to easily adopt new habits, because they are intrinsically driven to do what they say they are going to do. They are disciplined and have great follow through, but often rigid. They will sometimes do something that they committed to, even if it no longer serves them, just because they said they would. For example, an upholder who resolves to begin a running regimen may resolve to set her alarm clock for 5 a.m. to get up and run and will have little difficulty sticking to that commitment. To use ICA language, it is rare for an upholder to be stuck in “trying.” The upholder easily makes and meets commitments she makes to herself and to others. Thus, it is easy for an upholder to adopt new habits.
On the flip side, Upholders can be quite rigid and may meet an expectation that doesn’t serve them simply because they committed to do so.
Obligers will readily meet external expectations but struggle to meet internal expectations. Thus, for example, an obliger may set her alarm clock for 5 a.m. to get up and exercise, but if there is someone else waiting for the obliger (A workout buddy, a personal trainer), it will be difficult for the obliger to meet this expectation and create habit change. Thus, the way for an obliger to meet an internal expectation is to make it an external obligation. In our example above, the best strategy for an obliger to stick to a 5 a.m. wakeup time is to hire a trainer or enlist a friend to join in the early morning workout.
Questioners are the opposite of obligers. Questioners will easily meet internal expectations, but will resist external expectations. Questioners need data and information to understand and commit to the expectation. If it makes sense to them, if they understand why, how and what to commit to, they will ready get up at the 5 a.m. alarm clock. However, they will keep the trainer waiting if they don’t fully internalize the commitment.
Rebels resist internal and external obligations. This does not mean that they can’t create change, however. Rather, they will meet expectations if they want to achieve the change, so they must attach to the consequences of the new behavior. Thus, a rebel must be able to articulate the “Why” of the early morning alarm – the healthier lifestyle in order to be around for their children, for example, or no longer being out of breath, and then will be able to affect change.
This model is helpful in that it suggests that the way to motivate each tendency toward adopting a new habit is to work with the tendency they have. Thus, as an obliger, the key to me would be to have an external accountability – someone who was vested in my success, and who could help guide me along the way. I wasn’t sure how to apply this. I knew I didn’t need a personal trainer – as instinct (and experience) told me that frequency and consistency of exercise is something I could motivate myself to do. The answer came to me at work that week, when I ran into a colleague who had recently lost a lot of weight. He mentioned that he had seen a nutritionist who believes that weight management is highly personal and customized.
I was admittedly quite resistant. I already ate gluten and dairy free. How much more could I do? Would the nutritionist’s prescription for me be too restrictive? Would I still be able to enjoy eating? My colleague assured me that the nutritionist is thorough, understanding and endeavors to help her clients create a diet full of variety and enjoyment. I made an appointment.
The nutritionist suggested that I try a low-inflammation diet. I would start with a highly restrictive diet for 21 days – no gluten or dairy (this didn’t scare me of course), no alcohol, no nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, bell peppers), no grains (rice, oatmeal, quinoa, etc) no citrus fruit, low sugar, etc. After that time, I would gradually introduce these foods back in, measure my weight for inflammation and my joint pain, and end up with a customized plan that made me feel good and helped me lose weight. I was dubious and wary of further restricting my diet. But, when she told me that I could still have dark chocolate and coffee (Two of my very favorite things!) I knew it was doable and I agreed.
My nutritionist gave me plenty of documents, recipes and access to her by email, and we were to meet weekly to monitor my progress. Alas, there was the external accountability I needed!
Creating an external accountability – to a nutritionist – has made all the difference. Within three months of seeing the nutritionist and having someone external to hold me accountable, I began to see results. Notwithstanding the restrictive diet, it felt almost effortless to follow her recommendations. I lost several inches around my middle and 10 pounds, the pain in my hands disappeared, and I felt brighter and more energetic than I’ve felt in 10 years.
Rubin’s Four tendencies model is especially useful because it suggests that working with one’s own natural tendency is the best way to effect change. For example, encouraging a Rebel to hire a personal trainer as a means to lose weight will likely not have the same impact as it would for an Obliger. Whereas an Obliger would be motivated by the fact that a trainer is waiting for her at the gym to workout, this is not a motivator for the Rebel, who is not driven by external accountabilities. A better tactic for a Rebel is to take the time to connect with the consequences of why the weight loss is important and then, if it makes sense to him/her, determine which means to weight loss would be most tied to those consequences.
I have used this model several times in coaching clients. Each time, in describing the model, the client has very quickly been able to identify with one of the four tendencies. In one instance, a client who identified as an Obliger wanted to exercise more but was unable to hire a trainer because of the costs associated with it. I asked her how she might create an alternative external accountability to help her create a new habit of working out. She wanted to work out first thing in the morning, so she agreed to check in with me by email every morning after she worked out and before she had her coffee.
The model is also useful in coaching around communications or relationships. For example, this same client was navigating a difficult child custody issue with her ex-husband, whom she believed is a Questioner. She determined that he resisted several of her scheduling proposals because he did not understand why they would make sense to him or to the children. She realized that, as a Questioner, he needed information to understand the rationale of the new schedule and when she provided more details to create understand, he was able to more readily agree to her proposals.
Another client, a Rebel, wanted to lose weight. She had gone to weight watchers meetings but as an introvert, found them to be intimidating and burdensome. She tried checking in with me after she worked out or ate according to plan, but did not follow through on that. Then, she found a pair of new sneakers that she loved but which were very expensive. She said she could not justify buying the sneakers if she weren’t working out or eating well. So, she set a weight and eating goal for herself and if she met that goal by a set date, she would allow herself to buy the sneakers. She’s not at goal yet, but is on her way, and has stuck with her plan more than she ever had in the past.
I’ve not yet coached an Upholder, perhaps because by the very nature of an upholder they are less likely to seek coaching, but I could foresee the need to spend time with an Upholder on the utility of his or her goal. Are they blindly following a commitment because they said they would – or does it truly make sense for them?
As these examples show, there are lots of applications of Rubin’s model for coaching. Clearly the model was instrumental in my own transformation, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it informs my behavior as I adopt habits and change my behavior to move in the direction of my goals in the future.