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How Can We Overcome Stopping Points When Pursuing Healthy Eating and Exercise Goals?

The POP decision tool can keep people on track with their greater goals.

Key points

  • We often start pursuing lifestyle goals with enthusiasm, only to stop when we face life’s unexpected disruptions.
  • This stop is due to decision traps like all-or-nothing thinking. These momentary distractions are core derailers of sustainable change.
  • Stay on track by reframing the stop as a choice point: Your opportunity to choose frees you to make choices that maintain your momentum.

When it comes to changing our eating and exercise behaviors, we generally plunge in, all charged up! Like track stars, we await the starting gun and then take off.

But unlike track stars, we don't have a smooth track that we can follow to the finish line. Instead, despite our initial burst of momentum, we encounter the unexpected twists and turns and challenges of life's small and large disruptions. Instead of seeing them as inevitable — a sick child, a rainstorm, a wedding banquet, a demand from work — we are thrown off track. We perceive it as a failure: our fault that we couldn't stick to the plan. And then we stop.

And then we start again. And then we, well, stop. And we start and stop and start and stop but we don’t sustain. With every stop (and there can be hundreds over a lifetime) we feel further demoralized and wonder whether starting again is even worth it, because won't we just stop again?

The start is great because it's full of promise. But the stop contains decision traps, like all-or-nothing thinking. And that keeps us from achieving the consistent decisions that underlie sustainable change.

So: How do we stop the stop so we can keep moving forward?

Stopping "the Stop" With the P.O.P. Decision Tool

How we frame "the stop" is everything. When we view this disruption to our plans not as a failure to achieve our plans (hint: this is all-or-nothing thinking taking control), but instead as a choice point — an opportunity to choose through flexibility and play — we are already well on our way to stopping the stop!

With this in mind:

Pause. When you face an unexpected challenge to your eating or exercise plan take a few slow, deep breaths to bring your awareness back to the current moment. Name any decision traps coming your way. When we label experiences, especially stressful ones, we increase our cognitive control in the challenging situation. No one says it better than Dan Siegel: "Name it to tame it!"

Open your options and play. This is the fun part! Explore: What are other options to your ideal plan that will allow you to still honor your greater goals (by rejecting all-or-nothing)? For example, if you can’t get to the gym for 40 minutes, can you walk for 7 minutes now or later? If you want to participate in the celebration, but nothing there is on your eating plan, what compromises can you make that deliver pleasure while still respecting your greater goals?

Pick the Joy Choice. The Joy Choice is the alternative that most resonates with your needs right now. It's the option that allows you to do something instead of nothing so that you can not only tend to your greater self-care needs, but you can keep going and prevent the stop.

When I am delivering this information in keynotes or when consulting with an organization, I always get asked the exact same question (which shows just what a problem it actually is): “But Michelle, won’t encouraging this type of thinking actually cause bad habits (in my employees, patients, clients)?” My answer is an emphatic NO. Here’s why: First, we’ve been trying to "stick to the program no matter what" for decades. Not only has it not worked for most people, but it also cultivates the all-or-nothing thinking that causes the stop for many of them. And second, research suggests that this type of flexible responding (that P.O.P. guides us to) is more adaptive than the alternative for staying on the path!

So when you ask me how we stop the stop – this is it! And now you know why it matters so much, too.

It's meaningful for me to hear how P.O.P. has enabled those of you using it to keep your momentum. Please keep your inspiring stories coming!

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