“I begin each day of my life with a ritual. I wake up at 5:30 A.M., put on my workout clothes, my leg warmers, my sweatshirt, and my hat. I walk outside my Manhattan home, hail a taxi, and tell the driver to take me to the Pumping Iron gym at 91st Street and First Avenue, where I work out for two hours. The ritual is not the stretching and weight training I put my body through each morning at the gym; the ritual is the cab. The moment I tell the driver where to go, I have completed the ritual. It’s a simple act, but doing it the same way each morning habituates it—makes it repeatable, easy to do. It reduces the chance that I would skip it or do it differently. It is one more item in my arsenal of routines, and one less thing to think about.” Twyla Tharp

Gateway habits are like forks in the road, determining what you will do for the next few minutes or hours. Small routines like putting on your workout clothing immediately after waking up, stopping at the gym after dropping your kids off at school, or going to the gym when your phone reminder goes off, are good examples of routines that will determine how consistently you train.

Gateway habits related to dieting could be deciding to heat up leftovers instead of ordering take-out or asking your waiter to bring a carryout container with your meal so you can remove excess food from your plate. This one habit could make a huge difference. The longer you let the extra food sit on your plate, the more likely you will overeat. Food is a primary reward that we are biologically programmed to eat whenever it’s available. Even if you do not give in, leaving the food on your plate will erode your willpower unnecessarily – leaving you more vulnerable to the next temptation.

Besides removing the extra food, I recommend you stick to the simpler dishes, like salads or grilled vegetables, paired with a grilled or blackened high-quality protein. Tell the waiter you don’t want any sauces on your entrée or side dishes. Typically these sauces contain a lot of calories, mostly from sugar and unhealthy fats. If you eat out a lot, it can be challenging to lose weight because we drastically underestimate the number of calories we are being served.

A recent study concluded that 92% of menu items at chain restaurants exceeded the average person’s caloric needs. The average entree at non-chain restaurants contained a whopping 1,205 calories, twice the recommended caloric intake for a single meal. Logging your food will help you control your eating, but don’t forget that restaurants can underestimate the calories listed on their menu by as much as 20 percent. That 700 calorie menu item might be closer to 840 calories.

Gateway habits put your day on a positive or negative trajectory. Habits, like choosing to get enough sleep, will shape the day to come. Mastering these moments is crucial. I suggest you keep the initial action as small and as easy as possible. Some of these actions can even be automated. You can program your internet router to shut off at a specific time each night. You could set up a phone alarm as a primary or secondary reminder to go to bed, so you’ll get enough sleep each night. Your bedtime ritual can be as simple as putting your phone in its charger, brushing your teeth, and putting your head on your pillow.

Gateway habits make creating bigger habits easier. They shrink the behavior to something we can do in less than five minutes but shape what we do for hours, just like Twyla’s routine of getting in the taxi. Her 2-hour workout just becomes an extension of that routine. One habit stacking on top of the next. These gateway habits can be equated to decision points, a concept I learned in the military. The military defines a point in space and time when the commander anticipates making a critical decision concerning a specific course of action. We all experience decision points throughout our day, moments when we need to make a choice that will alter our options for hours. Are we going to hit the gym on the way home or hit the bar? Are we going to go running in the morning or hit the snooze? Am I going to stay up late watching Game of Thrones, or am I going to get a good night’s sleep?

These decision points, sprinkled throughout our day, can put us on a virtuous cycle or a vicious cycle. For example, the decision to initiate our bedtime ritual on schedule leads to a good night’s sleep; this, in turn, makes it more likely that we will get up, put on our workout clothing, and exercise instead of hitting the snooze. Working out will improve our mood for up to 12-hours, reducing our stress and consequently enhancing our self-control, which leads to better food choices and improved dietary compliance. Daily exercise and adequate sleep will reduce our cravings and stress levels while simultaneously increasing our willpower. Better food choices will result in better body composition. Improved body composition will lead to better sleep quality, making you more likely to exercise, eat better, and sleep better. Your results will provide the small wins that lead to lasting motivation. The more progress you make, the more motivated you’ll be.

A vicious cycle, on the other hand, begins with a harmful habit that leads to a cascade of bad decisions. We ignore our bedtime reminder and stay up late watching the news. We hit the snooze button the next morning. We repeat this a couple more times and miss our planned workout. We start the day feeling defeated, exhausted, and stressed-out. Stress and fatigue sap our willpower and are why a lack of sleep is closely linked to obesity. A lack of sleep also causes a hormone imbalance, which increases our cravings. The more rundown we feel, the stronger our cravings will be for junk food.

Clinical studies have demonstrated that most people need at least seven and a half hours of sleep each night. The easiest way to be better is to be better rested. We do our best when we feel our best. You’ll be more likely to follow through on your commitments to go to bed earlier, exercise regularly, log your food accurately, and eat better. One of my favorite books is EAT MOVE SLEEP. The author does a fantastic job of showing the reader how these three activities are interconnected, each playing a huge role in our overall health. Gateway habits shrink the behavior.

Shrinking the behavior prevents us from becoming overwhelmed. In a phenomenon called subjective fatigue, our mind looks ahead, estimates the work involved, and quickly becomes exhausted. The purpose of subjective fatigue is to kill any initiative that we perceive to be difficult. Can you remember a time when you had procrastinated beginning a project, only to discover, after starting, it wasn’t as difficult as your mind had made it out to be? If so, you have experienced subjective fatigue. When we put off doing something that needs to get done, we blame ourselves for being lazy and undisciplined, but that isn’t usually the case. Most times, it is because we feel stressed out and overwhelmed.

When we shrink our commitment, we reduce our subjective fatigue. Most of us can convince our reluctant Elephant to begin a task with a five-minute commitment. If you aren’t comfortable with a five-minute commitment, reduce your commitment even further. A simple litmus test for determining if you have shrunk the commitment enough is whether you could do it on your absolute worse day? If you can answer the affirmative, congratulations, you have shrunk the commitment down to a size that will improve your likelihood of success.

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