Daniel J. Green is ACE’s Senior Project Manager and Editor for Publications and Content Development. In addition to his work with organizations including the International Association of Fire Fighters and Agriculture Future of America, Daniel writes an ongoing blog series covering lifestyle change for NBCbetter.com. He has also written feature articles for local publications in Western North Carolina (WNC), including WNC Parent and WNC Magazine.
Discipline = Freedom: How Systemization Can Support Behavior Change
In a 2020 episode of The Tim Ferris Show podcast, Jerry Seinfeld spoke about what he called “systemization of the brain” as a means of staying on track and completing large projects. He was talking about his writing process, but the concept can be extended to any type of habit formation or behavior change. By creating a repeatable process that becomes seamlessly incorporated into your lifestyle, he explained, you eliminate the need for willpower or decision making.
In other words, if you can develop the self-discipline to do the upfront work needed to set yourself up for success, you become free from the stress of having to constantly convince yourself to make the healthier, positive or more productive choice.
After a long discussion about writing and his creative rituals, Seinfeld explained that he extends this concept of repeatability and systemization to other aspects of his life, including exercise. Things that he values—including not only writing but also weight training, cardio workouts and transcendental meditation—are all built into his set-in-stone weekly schedule. He claims this frees his mind during other times of the day to think creatively, enjoy his family and rest without the stress of thinking he should be doing something else.
Jerry Seinfeld, of course, has a lifestyle that few people ever get to enjoy. But there are lessons to be learned here about how to minimize stress and in-the-moment decision making to optimize behavioral outcomes, whether that’s through better nutrition, more exercise or any other lifestyle change a client may be pursuing.
At the Crossroads of Decision Making
Leila Finn, MA, NBC-HWC, author of Health Coaching Tips and Case Studies to Improve Your Coaching Skills and a contributing author to the ACE textbook The Professional’s Guide to Health and Wellness Coaching, tells the story of a client who found herself at a stoplight on the way home from work every day, at which point she could either turn right toward the YMCA or left toward home. She was at a literal crossroads, forced to make a decision about whether to do what she had already identified as a personal goal—to exercise at the Y after work. She agonized at that moment and often found herself turning left toward home, disappointed and frustrated.
Perhaps her goal of after-work exercise wasn’t realistic given her other obligations, maybe she wasn’t quite ready to make the changes she expected of herself or maybe she was simply too tired after a long day at work. In any case, the goal of systemization is to minimize or even eliminate the number of such crossroads moments in your day.
As a health coach or exercise professional, you can collaborate with clients to make simple changes that build into a system. In this case, it might involve packing a gym bag and light snack and leaving them on the front seat of the car. With these steps, the client gets a little fuel and shifts into “gym mode” once she gets in the car. Or the client could drive a different route after work that takes her directly to the gym, avoiding that dreaded intersection altogether.
The point is, having a system in place allows a person to eliminate those stressful decision-making moments, as choices and preparations will have been made in the days and hours leading up to that moment, allowing the person the freedom to simply continue on with their day in the most productive way possible.
Taking a Realistic Approach to Structure
Having structure is vital to the process of behavior change, says Finn, who has served as a health coaching instructor for several certification and certificate programs, including ACE, Emory University, Georgetown University and the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. “When you’re trying to change a habit or create a new one, you have to break old patterns,” she explains, “so it’s important to plan and schedule.”
Finn goes on to say that she encourages clients to visualize their day before committing to a change in behavior. Many new clients are eager to get started, so they’ll be quick to set a goal that is unrealistic for their current schedule, both professional and personal. In such cases, either the goal or their current habits will have to shift. When clients start to think realistically about their day, they often identify obstacles they had overlooked.
Erin Nitschke, EdD, NSCA-CPT, an exercise science professor at Laramie County Community College in Wyoming and frequent contributor to CERTIFIED, concurs about the need for planning and structure. “By creating a system,” she says, “you are optimizing the behavior-change process. Automating certain pieces of that process can really support behavior change.”
Meal prepping is a great example of how systemization can be used. Many clients have a goal to eat a certain number of healthy lunches each week while they’re at work, which requires meal prep. Meal prep, however, has several prerequisites that a client may not think of when first committing to this idea, including the knowledge and ability required to cook healthy meals and the time needed to shop for ingredients and then prepare, portion and pack those meals.
A system, Finn and Nitschke agree, must fit within the reality of the client’s day and week, not an idealized version of what they’d like their life to be. So, when working with clients who want to meal prep, for example, you have to collaborate to identify the best day to do the grocery shopping, the best time to cook and pack the food, and the best days to eat those lunches each week. Finally, the client should set those times aside in their calendar with the same importance as their other responsibilities or appointments. There is a huge difference between saying, “I will go to the grocery store on Saturday morning at 10:00 and buy the following items” and stressing all weekend long about the need to get the shopping done but not having a plan or schedule.
“If that preparation has been done,” says Nitschke, “they’re less likely to slip into the convenience mentality of picking up lunch on the go or grabbing something from the office vending machine.” They won’t have to decide what to eat for lunch as breaktime approaches, because that decision will already have been made.
Your role is to help clients accept what is realistic and then stay within those boundaries as they develop their personal systems. Nitschke suggests that health coaches and exercise professionals encourage their clients to ask themselves, “What are the big blocks or barriers that I have over the course of the next week?” Keep those things in mind as you work together to break objectives and processes into smaller chunks that account for the client’s current realities.
It’s important to consider seasonal realities in terms of not only weather, but also a client’s changing responsibilities over time, whether that’s having to pick up their kids after soccer practice during a certain part of the year or working overtime as an accountant during tax season. The idea here is to be strategic, not reactive, meaning that the client develops a realistic system that lets them overcome or avoid obstacles before they even arise.
Once a system is developed, clients are still required to find the self-discipline to adhere to the plan. Being too tired to shop for groceries on Saturday morning means that meal prep on Sundays is in jeopardy and the client may be left to make decisions about what to eat for lunch in the moment, when they’re already upset with themself for veering off course. It takes serious self-discipline to build a system, especially in the early going.
So, where does that discipline come from?
For Jerry Seinfeld, it comes down to repeatability and simplicity. Each step must be easy, even if the overall picture is difficult.
Nitschke echoes this sentiment by encouraging clients to dream big, but then narrow down what it takes to get there. Take it step by step and break down the process into manageable chunks. The idea of eating a healthy lunch three days a week may seem overwhelming at first but breaking it down into a stepwise process—every moment of which is relatively simple—can help clients feel less overwhelmed. That way, they’re not required to have the self-discipline to take on such a large task all at once, but rather to complete a handful of smaller tasks that are much more manageable individually across the span of a week.
Of course, they will still need to make the decision to take on each individual task and summon the discipline to get it done. At the moment of decision making, even if the client is simply trying to convince themself to get off the couch and head to the store, Finn recommends they think about why they want to do the new behavior and focus on that instead of their fatigue, responsibilities or whatever may be holding them back. By focusing on their values and why the overall behavior change is so important to them, they may just find the inspiration that tips the balance toward positive decision making.
Finally, remind clients that making smaller, easier decisions along the way, before the moment of stress arrives, will set them up for long-term, sustainable success.
One thing that should not be lost in the process of systemizing the brain and one’s behavior is that doing these things is very difficult, no matter how much you break them down into smaller parts. Nitschke suggests that you “encourage your clients to be kind to themselves and remind them that change is not going to happen all at once.” Clients sometimes have to be given permission to be in a process of trial and error, she says—it’s not like they can flip a switch and the system starts working.
Finn agrees, saying that clients should remember that they need to build new behaviors slowly, and that the process should be a bit challenging. (Note: ACE Certified Professionals can access a Personal Transformation Worksheet at the link at the top of this page, which can be used to help you and your clients develop a clearer picture of your past, current and future selves. Making these comparisons can often have a significant impact on one's motivation to make a positive behavior change.)
Finally, Nitschke recommends that all clients write down their weekly accomplishments, no matter how small they may seem—and that this should be part of the weekly system that keeps them motivated to stay on track. Doing so helps them focus on the positive and perhaps see themselves in a new light. They can include everything from walking the dog and completing scheduled workouts to preparing healthy meals and spending leisure time being active with their family. They can list barriers that they overcame, as well as new barriers that they uncovered during the week. The idea is to capture all the small things that make the client see how their system is working and how their lifestyle is changing in meaningful ways.
Kindness and recognition of positive behaviors and even the smallest of successes should be built into the system, as these are often what help people continue to make healthy and productive choices moving forward.