4 Key Aspects of Habit Formation for your Path to Going Vegan

4 Key Aspects of Habit Formation and Maintenance

diet & exercise on being vegan podcast Dec 15, 2023

Show notes:

So many of the topics we discuss at Brownble have to do with the changing of habits, the quitting of habits and the creation of new habits. Today I’ll be sharing some simple tools, habit basics and motivation basics all in the hopes that these support you on your efforts if you’re on this journey to eating more plants or going vegan, as well as some of the tools, exercises and resources that have helped countless of our students through the years.

Vegan How To: Focusing on Systems instead of Goals

If you’re here, it probably means that you’re on this quest to making more vegan choices or going fully vegan, and wherever you are along that spectrum you have a goal you wish to achieve. If you’re a seasoned vegan, you might be here because your goal is to cook more at home, expand or add variety to your meals, learn new vegan cooking skills. Perhaps you’re also here because you want to learn how to be more attuned to your hunger and fullness levels and start a practice of mindful eating, or you’re trying to improve your relationship with food. No matter what your journey looks like, in these or other areas (work, exercise, hobbies, work-life balance), chances are you have goals you wish to reach with each of those journeys.

It’s become popular knowledge that setting specific goals for yourself leads to more actions made towards them, but one aspect that is even more conducive to actually getting there is to not only think of the goal, but think of the steps and actions and planning, aka the systems you need to put in place in order to get there. Once the goal has been set, don’t leave it at that, take it one step further to see what you can put in place to get there.

To give an example, if you are on this journey to making more plant based choices in your food, your specific goal might be cooking one fully vegan meal a day. Working on the system might be deciding on what day you’re going to shop, making sure you have the ingredients you need, planning a few of those meals or batch cooking the central protein of those meals the weekend before.

If you’re already vegan and you want to learn more advanced skills or add variety to your plant based meals, your goal might be to make two new and different recipes a week, so your system might be to take a moment during the weekend to browse your cookbooks, pick your two recipes and make your shopping list.

Change doesn’t happen just by the magic of coming up with and setting a goal, that’s definitely important, but it’s by looking at the specific steps to get there that we get closer to those goals by working on those systems.

A book that talks about this beautifully is the book Atomic Habits by James Clear. He talks a lot about sports and how both the winning team and the losing team have the goal of winning as many games, matches, competitions as they can. He talks about all these examples where it was the teams that focused on those systems and those small daily improvements in the nitty gritty of their sport, that marked the difference. This may sound obvious, that setting a goal and just expecting it to magically happen is obviously NOT how you get to the results and changes, but so often I encounter a student that is putting a lot of attention on those results, often being very judgmental as to why they haven’t been able to get there, but when I ask about how their organization is in terms of shopping, of batch cooking, of learning, of practicing, of making sure the fridge is always stocked with fresh produce, or they have snacks available, the response is a lot of “ums” and “not sures”.

Make a point of zeroing in on the systems if something is preventing you from getting to where you want to get, that’s where the magic happens.

Transitioning to Vegan or Plant-Based: Habits and Identity

Another topic I wanted to highlight that is very central to veganism itself, is why developing an identity surrounding your habit (or the moment you discover that you already have such a connection), is one of the most helpful aspects of any change.

When people ask me how long I’ve been vegan and I tell them it’s been over a decade, people can’t believe it even when they’ve been around me for all those years. Part of the reason for this is I think people like to draw a parallel between veganism and other dietary plans and they remember 

the time they went keto or paleo or went on any other diet plan. Veganism is of course about much more than what fills your plate but even if we focused on the dietary aspect of this change, we would see a stark difference. That difference is there because of identity, and it’s why people who are vegan have often been able to make these changes for decades and even lifetimes, and I just gave you the clue just now when I said people who ARE vegan.

As a way of eating and living that is based on ethics, it quickly becomes a part of who you are. This sense of identity is in a way a grounding of those daily habits well into your psyche, in the same way you might consider yourself a hard worker and so you work hard, or you believe you are athletic and so exercise if a part of your every day, and even within that you might say you’re a runner and you therefore run often and enjoy the process, strengthening it with each run.

When you tie the new habits you’re trying to create to your identity, it gets internalized in a way in which you’re saying this isn’t just the way I’m going to do something, it’s the way I am and therefore I do.

It’s so clear with veganism, but you can purposely tie this same helpful aspect to any habit you’re trying to create in order to strengthen it, always being sure that the identity itself is always going hand in hand with checking in with yourself in seeing that it is aligned in a positive way (identity can be tricky in that it can also push us perfectionists to unhealthy limits, so keep in mind that your boundaries and your well being also need to be a part of the picture).

In this way, the non smoker doesn’t smoke because he isn’t a smoker, the mindful eater eats calmly and with presence because they are a mindful eater, the avid cook cooks often because it’s a part of how they perceive themselves. The creative person creates because it’s a part of who they are. You can start strengthening this in a “fake it til you make it” way until the actions go from habits to identity. This is something we do all the time, the avid reader wasn’t born that way, they became an avid reader because they bought a book that was right up their alley, then they read another by the same author, then they started walking into bookstores, then they got a library card, then they started asking for books as gifts, then they started taking a book wherever they went, then they decided they were going to read for an hour before bed, then they downloaded some book recommendation podcasts, and suddenly, they are not a person who reads books, they are a reader.

This is the place we want to get to, in order for those new habits to last us a lifetime.

One thing that needs to go hand in hand with this is to start dismantling beliefs that contradict this. If you have a belief that you’re bad at trying new things, that you could never live without a certain food, that you’re a bad cook or terrible at keeping habits up for long, these beliefs often become self fulfilling prophecies that will come knocking on days where motivation dwindles (which it will!), and that’s often the combination that leads us to stopping habits that were in the process of getting formed. Counteract these beliefs by finding the many moments that surely went unnoticed where you actually did alright, let go of some of these beliefs that might have come from messages given to you by family members, and most of all, try things anyway, and begin paving a new path where you show yourself that those beliefs about yourself aren’t set in stone.

It’s in that magical triangle of dismantling limiting beliefs, putting one step in front of the other when it comes to those daily actions and habits and letting all that knit itself into your identity (sometimes it feels like a new identity in progress), where your habits will actually stick.

I want to quote James Clear (this is a quote in quotes as I’m roughly translating from Spanish because I read his book in Spanish):

“During most of my childhood and youth I didn’t consider myself a writer. If you could ask my teachers at school or my professors in college surely they’d describe me as an average writer in the best of cases and surely none of them would have the opinion that I was an accomplished writer. When I started my career as a writer I published one new article every Monday and Thursday the first few years. As the evidence grew, the same thing happened with my identity as a writer. I didn’t start out being a writer, I became a writer because of my habits”. - translated from James Clear's book Atomic Habits.

The way I see and understand this is, our identity can be formed, chiseled and welded by our habits, and our identity holds our habits in place because they become a part of who we are.

Switching to Vegan: When we Don’t see Progress or our Progress Stalls

I remember that whenever I drew a picture of mountains as a kid I drew them as this steep triangle that was perfectly smooth and had a climber looping a rope at the pointy tip and pulling himself up that shiny gray diagonal. I also grew up in Caracas, Venezuela and every morning upon waking I would see this oval shaped gray valley filled with houses and buildings down below, framed at the north by a massive mountain range called the Ávila mountains. From afar they look like a massive green block of rounded rolling hills that seemed to be completely covered in a green carpet. I remember that the first time I went to the mountains as a kid, I was surprised to not see it all covered with grass. Instead there were trees, patches of dirt, sandy areas, rocky areas, steeper hills that then made you relax in a tiny flat meadow before going up again.

We have this idea that when we set out to climb the mountain of any new habit, that it will be as simple as looping our rope to the tip and going up in a straight line, or as easy as walking across a rolling green carpet that just goes straight up to the top. When we put new habits into place or are attempting such a big lifestyle change such as going plant based or vegan, we are going to have moments in which the path up is steep, moments in which it’s sunny and easy, moments in which there is a bit of a plateau, moments in which we’re going up but then feel we’re going down only it’s not really going back to the starting point, it’s just what happens to us humans.

Have a plan for when life throws you a curveball, for when you have less time, for when motivation isn’t the same as it was at the start, expect moments that are boring, or that feel hard, the first step is to see this as a normal part of the process. Let yourself have an off day, and then try to see that one day, one moment is a blip in the grand scheme of things. That what we’re trying to achieve aren’t short term goals but long term sustainable habits that will become a part of your life and identity and this is a process that requires patience while you take those small steps, and those small steps will have peaks and valleys but the important thing is to keep following that compass that will take you up, up, up.

To quote Anne Lamott, “take it bird by bird”. This is an expression her father used on her little brother when he realized he had this giant school project on birds due the next day and when he opened his books he saw there was the pelican, the chickadee, the robin, the sparrow, the crow the eagle and he said “there are just too many birds!”, and their dad said “just take it bird by bird by bird”. Those small individual actions, doing one small thing on a day that was hard, is going to help you continue with the momentum, even if it feels like it has slowed. It will soon pick up speed again.

Understanding Extrinsic and Intrinsic Motivation when Going Vegan

I left this important aspect of habit changes and motivation for last because in my opinion it’s what seals everything into place.

Extrinsic motivation is what is known as the type of force that propels your actions but that is reinforced by outside sources. Some examples of this would be, studying hard to get a good grade in a final, winning a competition for the money prize at the end, achieving a goal because of the praise we’ll get from our peers. Extrinsic motivation is making choices in our eating and exercise habits because we want to see a number on a scale or fit into those old pair of jeans.

Intrinsic motivation is that type of force that propels your actions that isn’t guided by external sources, instead it refers to the desire and pull to do something because of the satisfaction the action brings us in and of itself. Examples of this are studying hard because we want to really learn a topic that interests us, playing a soccer match because we love the sport itself, regardless of the outcome of the match, achieving a goal because the process or action itself is enjoyable, putting you in what is known as the flow state, where you’re so into something you lose track of time, you are immersed in it, you’re fully present and enjoying it. Intrinsic motivation is making choices in our eating and exercise habits because we enjoy the exercising itself, because we enjoy cooking at home and love that our new habits are maybe connected to something bigger than ourselves, or because we enjoy the process of preparing food that makes us feel good.

There are different degrees of extrinsic motivation, so for example, eating more fruits and vegetables because we’re being paid to participate in a study of fruit and vegetable consumption might be in one end of the spectrum, and eating them for health reasons and because we know they’re good for us is closer to intrinsic motivation but still considered extrinsic motivation, and it’s when we truly do it from a wish, a desire, a knowing that it FEELS like what we want to do, or the process gives us enjoyment in and of itself, where we’re fully in intrinsic motivation territory.

When habits are intrinsically motivated, we are much more likely to maintain them.

It’s the difference between a child who plays the violin because it pleases his parents, or the child that plays it because he can’t wait to play, he can’t wait to nail that overture, because he loves the motion of the bow, because he loves the sound and how lost he gets in it while he’s playing.

This is why I teach presence and mindfulness with everything I teach. By connecting to how your body is feeling, by connecting to the effects of the foods you eat in your body, by being present in learning how to transform ingredients and all the joy that can come from cooking more at home, by connecting to why these changes are important to you, not only for the sake of animals and the environment and your health which are still also in a way external factors, but by connecting to why these choices are important to you and add value to your life and give you a sense of connection, purpose, of doing what you feel is right or what feels best for you, you are strengthening the connections to your intrinsic motivation. That’s where you enjoy the focus on systems, that’s where changes happen and new habits stick, become part of your identity, and stay, come rain or shine, integrating all the sides of the equation we’ve covered today. There are more aspects involved in the formation of habits, but I’ll leave it at these for today, in the hopes that focusing on just a few will get you started.

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