Episode 120 Summary


Tracking habits - The word tracking can feel quite traumatising for some people, particularly if you've done a lot of dieting where you had to weigh and measure and track and restrict every scrap of food that entered your mouth. For lots of people, when they hear the word tracking, it automatically conjures up negative thoughts, but it doesn't actually have to. We can change our thoughts about what tracking means. Tracking can feel positive, it can feel like ticking something off your to-do list. Tracking is the adult equivalent of star charts. It’s all about positive reinforcement rather than punishment and it doesn't have to be perfect to be okay. 


Approach your tracking with self-compassion - “Good enough is good enough”. Work to incorporate the ideas that “good enough is good enough” and “progress is better than perfection” into your tracking and use the power of tracking to increase your dopamine as you complete your daily habits.

Where did the idea, “Make the right thing easy, make the wrong thing hard” originate from? Dr Lucy’s daughter Ella, had a naughty little pony called Penny. When Penny tired of what she was doing she would rear and behave in a dangerous way, and she would be put back in the paddock. Penny was being rewarded for her naughty behaviour. Dr Lucy sought the help of a wonderful horse trainer and some of his words of wisdom were to make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard.  We can apply this technique to ourselves. Make the choice which is helpful for us easy and the choice which is unhelpful in reaching our goals harder. 


How can we make the right thing easier? Reduce resistance by preparing things and making things obvious. Put your swimmers on in the morning if you intend to swim later that day. Have your walking clothes and shoes ready overnight, if you want to walk in the morning. Meal prep or keep easy to prepare foods ready in your fridge or freezer so you don’t have to go out to buy take-away. On fasting days have bone broth ready and available if you’d like to use it as a tool.

Set up a prompt - Dr Mary has a sign on her kettle which prompts her each day to meditate while her kettle is warming. 5 minutes every day adds up over the space of a year. Set small, achievable goals. Remember that 5 minutes a day is going to be a lot more effective than half an hour a few times a year. 

Habits are powerful.  Habits are things that we do, prompted by some kind of a cue. Things that we do without necessarily thinking it through, without necessarily making a conscious effort. Things that we do semi-automatically or completely automatically. And they account for probably about 40% of all of our behaviour. So if you can get your habits moving in a positive direction, it can have enormously good benefits for the direction of your health and your whole life.


The perfect moment doesn’t exist - Choose action now. The preparation phase and planning can feel positive and hopeful, but it’s important to actually get started as soon as possible. We understand that it can feel scary to take action. You may feel like you could fail. The preparation feels safe and hopeful. Your thoughts create your feelings which create your actions, and discipline and motivation are both feelings. Come back to your beautiful powerful thoughts and make them helpful. “Well it doesn’t matter if… I’m going to do it anyway!”

Don’t get caught up in demanding perfection from yourself - It’s not realistic to expect perfection, but be careful not to let any unhelpful behaviours become a pattern. The longer a pattern continues for, the harder it can be to break. We like “The Two Day Theory” from James Clear’s Atomic Habits. Recognise if a behaviour is becoming unhelpful, and make sure it never happens for two days in a row. 


The rocks and sand theory - Imagine that the time you have available to you is represented by a jar. There are some things which are important to you which will help you live the life you want to live, and they are represented by rocks, and there are other ways which you find yourself spending time which aren’t as helpful or meaningful, and these are represented by sand. If you put the rocks in first, then the sand can be sprinkled in around the rocks and fill in the gaps, but if you put the sand in first, those rocks are not going to fit. So it’s important to always put first things first. Put in that self-care rock, the see-your-friends rock, the family-time rock, and then sprinkle all of the other things, the sand - it might  be netflix or social media - around those rocks.

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Show notes:

Episode 120 - Make the right thing easy, make the wrong thing hard


Dr Mary Barson: (0:11) Hello, my lovely listeners. I'm Dr. Mary Barson.


Dr Lucy Burns: (0:15) And I'm Dr. Lucy Burns. Welcome to this episode of Real Health and Weight Loss. Gorgeous ones. It's Dr. Lucy here. I hope you're having a fabulous start to your day, if you're listening to this at the start of the day. Before I get cracking with the fabulous Dr. Mary, I did want to remind you that Dr. Mary is hosting a brilliant masterclass, called The Key to Permanent Weight Loss. We know that lots of people will go up and down the dreaded yo-yo dieting, which is actually harmful to our health. So learning the keys to permanent weight loss is something you're not going to want to miss. The masterclass is on February the sixth, it's a Monday night, whether you're in the US or in Australia. We have two links. So you can sign up to register. Even if you can't come, we'll send you the replay. And the links are obviously going to be in the show notes. But in case you're just driving around, it's on our website. So www.rlmedicine.com/weightloss. And if you want to register for the North American one, it's  rlmedicine.com/weightlossUSA. Otherwise, my loves I reckon we should get cracking on what is going to be a brilliant podcast today. Dr. Gorgeous, Mary. Good morning.


Dr Mary Barson: (1:45) Good morning, my dear friend and clever colleague. Tell me, how are you on this fine January day?

Dr Lucy Burns: (1:54) I'm really, really good. As you know, I set out a few intentions at the start of the year. And I'm tracking them. And I'm feeling on track. And there's categories in there, big intentions, but I feel like I'm going alright, so no, I feel good. I feel good. What about you darling?


Dr Mary Barson: (2:11) I'm good too, I’m good too.  Always very busy, being a mum of a little bub and working and doing all the things and wearing all the hats. I too am tracking this January and I'm really enjoying it. I'm tracking habits. You have inspired me with your 55 intentions this year. And I have come up with my 42, my 42 themed intentions because I'm turning 42. But I am primarily tracking my habits around meditation around weight loss around pelvic floor exercises. So are we allowed to talk about pelvic floor on this podcast? Absolutely. Yeah, pelvic floor exercises as well. And I'm loving it. I think that tracking is a beautiful way to get habits into your life. And today we are talking about habits.


Dr Lucy Burns: (3:07) Absolutely. And you know what's interesting, like I think the word tracking can be quite traumatising for some people, particularly if you've done a lot of dieting and diet culture where you had to weigh and measure and track every scrap of food that entered your mouth. And so for lots of people, when they hear the word tracking, it automatically conjures up negative thoughts. But it doesn't actually have to. Like we can change our thoughts about what tracking means. And the way I like to think about it now is it's almost, it's on par with ticking something off my to do list. It's like well done!


Dr Mary Barson: (3:49) Yes. Yes. For me tracking is the adult equivalent of star charts. I love star charts. They're very helpful for my daughter and for me the way that our brains work. And with my kids star charts are all about positive reinforcement. So it's not about punishment. It's all about positive reinforcement, and it doesn't have to be perfect to be okay. Good enough is good enough. So you can incorporate those comments, those ideas that good enough is good enough, progress is better than perfection and that you can use the power of tracking to increase your dopamine with your daily habits. Lucy, you've got a beautiful saying about how you want to make the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy.


Dr Lucy Burns: (4:38) Absolutely.


Dr Mary Barson: (4:39) Tell us more.


Dr Lucy Burns: (4:41) So this little story came from a horse trainer. So when one of my kids was little, she was eight and we had a naughty little pony called Penny. You know when Penny got sick of doing what she was doing, she'd start rearing and you know if you're an eight year old child on a rearing pony, it's quite dangerous. So naturally Ella would get off, there would be tears and Penny’d get put back in the paddock. So in fact, Penny got rewarded for her naughty behaviour. So we didn't know what to do. So we went to a horse trainer. It's always good to go to an expert when you have got no idea what you're doing. And he gave us lots of words of wisdom. But one of these favourite sayings was “make the right thing easy, make the wrong thing hard”. So the right thing, it's again, it's not a moral judgement, it's about you know, the thing that you want to do. So if we're applying it to ourselves, it's making, we will often use the word ‘helpful’, or the thing that you want to do, make that easy. And the thing that you don't want to do, make that hard. And you know, it seriously, some of it is like parenting 101, this horse training business. But often for ourselves, we need a little bit of self-parenting, because you know, you've heard Dr. Mary and I talk about the two parts of our brain, the toddler brain, and the parent brain. And sometimes the toddler brain is the brain that is doing the “wrong thing”, for want of a different expression, the unhelpful thing, because the parent brain is offline. And so we're going alright, well, we need to make the right thing easy and make the wrong thing, hard. So there's lots of ways in which we can make the right thing or the thing that we want to do easier. So Mares, you've got a couple of ideas around this concept, what have you done to make the things that you want to do, easier?


Dr Mary Barson: (6:39) Yes. So first of all, I reduce the resistance by preparing things and making things obvious. So habits, habits are powerful. Habits are things that we do, prompted by some kind of a cue. Things that we do without necessarily thinking it through, without necessarily making a conscious effort. Things that we do semi-automatically or completely automatically. And they account for probably about 40% of all of our behaviour. So if you can get your habits moving in a positive direction, it can have enormously good benefits for the direction of your health, your whole life. But if your habits are moving in a less than helpful direction, then the flipside is that it can have enormously detrimental effects to your whole life. So learning how to dial in your habits is useful.

(7:36) So the habits that I want to improve, habits around movement, habits around meditation, habits around fasting, and also for me habits around getting my whole family together for dinner each night. So I make it obvious, that is a really, really simple thing to do initially. I want to do some meditation each morning, and I always make a cup of coffee, I make a cup of coffee possibly before I've even woken up. And so having a little sign above my kettle, “five minutes meditation” means as I flick the kettle, I just sit there, or stand actually in my kitchen and do five minutes of mindfulness. It's really easy, I've just made it obvious. Reducing resistance is getting prepared. So on my fasting days, I'll make sure that I've got some bone broth available because that's what I like to do, on days that I want to exercise I might key up a friend to go for a walk. That kind of preparation is really useful, although it can be a trap you don't want to get stuck in preparation mode where all you do is think about, plan, prepare, create beautiful star charts, do all these things without actually taking action.


Dr Lucy Burns: (8:53) Yes, that's the “clean up your desk before you get ready to study”.


Dr Mary Barson: (8:59) Yeah, absolutely. That's right, yes, I can't possibly start writing on this blog until I make a cup of tea. Oh look, my kettle’s quite dirty. Yeah, better wash that and yep. Yes, no.

Dr Lucy Burns: (9:14) Well,  I can actually I can honestly say I have never fallen into the clean desk trap because I'm just currently looking at my desk. And it does it looks like the desk of, of… Well, it's actually the desk of Dr. Lucy. It is completely chaotic. It's disorganised, but I know where everything is. And it just, I don't bother cleaning it up because I just get into my desk and crack on. So you did say implementation.


Dr Mary Barson: (9:41) Action! Action! That's right! There is, the perfect moment doesn't exist! If you're waiting for, you know, to have a perfectly organised desk, a moment when the children are being completely quiet, when absolutely everything, the planets have aligned and the moon is in the right phase before you actually do the thing, then you’ll never do the thing. So yes, the perfect moment doesn't exist, you just do it! That’s the difference between being in motion and taking action.


Dr Lucy Burns: (10:09) Absolutely. And I think that's a really important point. Because when you're in the planning phase, planning, planning feels quite nice. Like it's this hopeful phase where you go, yeah, I'm gonna do all these things. And your brain’s feeling good. And it's, you know, it's a pleasant state to be in. And, you know, you might, people go and buy things or buy journals, they buy the stickers to do their sticker chart, and you get your little bit of dopamine doing all of that. But then you've got, then the rubber hits the road, you actually have to do it.


Dr Mary Barson: (10:40) Yes.


Dr Lucy Burns: (10:41) And you're not actually doing it.


Dr Mary Barson: (10:44) Yeah, you're not doing it.


Dr Lucy Burns: (10:45) Yeah, you're not doing it

Dr Mary Barson: (10:46) It’s scary taking action because you can fail. You can't fail. If you don't start. If you're in planning motion. You're not a failure. Yes, yeah. It's great. It's lovely. You're imagining this future self that's so calm and organised and fit and doing all these things. And it feels great, but it's not real.


Dr Lucy Burns: (11:06) No. And in fact, we can, you know, lovely listeners, you hear us often saying that your thoughts create your feelings and your feelings create your actions. And I hear people saying that they don't wait for motivation, that they just need to do discipline. And I'm going to be a bit controversial and say that, actually don't agree with that. So your thoughts do create the feelings and so if you're not motivated, that's a feeling so motivation is a feeling. “Why aren't I motivated?” Well, it's your thoughts that will determine why you're not motivated. So your thoughts can be anything. They can be, “Well, you know, it's a bit cold today, I'm not motivated.” Or it's, you know, “I'm too tired. So I'm not motivated”. Discipline is just your thoughts that will come in and go, “Well, it doesn't matter if it's raining, I'm going to do it anyway”. So there are still thoughts. Discipline is just thoughts. Motivation is just thoughts, they're all thoughts. So working out, again, coming back to making, you know, thoughts that are going to help you achieve what you want to do. To make the thing easy, you can again, that's all just your thoughts. So your mind, oh, my god Mares, how powerful is our mind!


Dr Mary Barson: (12:27) It is very powerful, and you can work with it, it doesn't have to be that hard, it is doable. The thing about helpful habits is the habits that are going to lead your health and your life in beautiful, helpful directions, is that in the short term, they generally tend to not necessarily be unpleasant, but certainly not flood your brain with dopamine. And in the long term, they're fabulous. Like in the long term, you've got a beautiful, calm, clear mind when you meditate regularly. You've got a healthy, fit, strong body, when you move it regularly. You've got decreased inflammation, and normal sugars and decreased fat in your body when you eat low carb, real food regularly. These are fabulous things. But in the moment, you don't necessarily get a big dopamine hit. And the thing with unhelpful habits is the opposite. 


(13:25) So unhelpful habits generally speaking, in the moment, that's where you get the reward. You get fed, you feel pleasure, you get satisfied, you get entertained. You know, the chocolate on the couch is entertainment, it's pleasurable, you get a big dopamine hit, you feel soothed. All of these things in the short term are rewarding. But if you ate chocolate on the couch every night, it could really lead your health and your life in an unhelpful direction. So that's the bad news. The good news is though, that you can flip it. And I'm not saying you're necessarily going to be able to get as much of a dopamine sort of pleasure hit as you would from eating an entire bar of white chocolate on the couch, whilst bingeing Netflix, but you can, you can absolutely bring the reward into the present moment with the helpful behaviour. There are lots of ways and one way is the star chart. 


(14:15) So I've got, you know, my adult star chart and, when I do my five minutes meditation, I get to colour in my star chart, I don't have stickers. My daughter has stickers, but just colouring it in, I get this wonderful little sense of achievement. And it is, it’s a lovely little dopamine hit and I feel good about it. And I can look back at all the days that I did my meditation and feel good about it. Very importantly, is I do not expect perfection. And if I miss a day I don't throw in the towel. In fact, what I challenged myself to do is to not miss twice. This is a tip I got from James Clear’s book Atomic Habits. I love it. So if I miss a day, that's fine, but I just try not to miss twice so I won't miss the next day.

Dr Lucy Burns: (15:00) Yeah, absolutely and it's interesting, I remember one of my gorgeous patients saying to me, and again, this is where we're navigating that path of perfection. So for lots of us, we've been on, you know, the perfect diet and if we break it, then we've ruined it and we’d eat everything in the cupboard. What she would do would be to recognise, it doesn't have to be perfect, it can be good enough, but something that she's doing is becoming one of those habits that, you know, is a slippery slope. So this is where it does get tricky in our brain, because our brain will give us lots and lots of stories, and it will say, “Well, you know, Dr. Lucy said, it doesn't have to be perfect. So if I have this ice cream tonight, it'll be alright.” And in truth, that is absolutely true. One ice cream doesn't cause metabolic syndrome. One ice cream doesn't put 10 kilos on. One ice cream doesn't ruin your previous six months progress, absolute truth. However, when you have that one ice cream, Monday night, Tuesday night, Wednesday night, all of a sudden, it's no longer the one ice cream. And in fact, it's starting a pattern and the longer that pattern goes on, the harder it can be to reverse it. So she would be just curiously watching herself and a bit like you, not missing two days, if she did two days of something that was unhelpful. She then realised, right? I'm forming a pattern, this has got to stop. And she would never do more than two days in a row. And I think that's a great theory. I like the two day theory.


Dr Mary Barson: (16:37) Hmm. The other way that you can work with your brain is to bring a negative consequence in, to not engaging in any helpful behaviour. There are lots of ways you could do this. And you do need to be careful, because you don't want to hate yourself, or berate yourself, that's going to be ultimately unhelpful. But there are ways that you can bring in a negative consequence if you're not doing what you want to do, if you're not keeping your promises to yourself. So what I do, I've started it this year, it's actually the first time I've done this, and I like it, is I review my progress with, because I love to journal. I review my progress at the end of the day, at the end of the week. And same with meditation, if I haven't hit my goal of meditating, I'm not missing twice with meditation throughout the week, I have to put 10 bucks in a piggy bank, and I will donate that money to charity later on. It's like it's a negative consequence, which is enough of a trick to keep it front of mind for me to want to do it. And it just sort of pushes through that resistance of, I can't really be bothered, oh, but I actually want to not have to put the $10 in the piggy bank even more. So I will be more likely to do it, just flipping it, you bring a negative consequence for not doing it and a positive consequence for doing it.


Dr Lucy Burns: (17:59) Absolutely. And you know, I mean, it goes back to the old carrot and stick. And again, getting a balance, you know, you don't need to just use a stick,  a massive stick to flog yourself. But sometimes we know that positive reinforcement is not always enough for our very, very clever and complex brains. So it is, it's a beautiful, beautiful way to I guess just work, you know, as we talk about, work with your brain. The other thing I love, which you've been speaking a little bit about Mares, is this rocks and sand theory. And this can be a reason why we don't always do the things that we know are important, like we know they're important. And you know where you can hop into bed at the end of the day, you go “Oh, I just ran out of time to do that. I didn't have time to go for my walk,” or, “I just didn't have time to go to the shops,” or “I forgot to do my online order,” or whatever it is. We've all done that. So tell us about the rocks theory.


Dr Mary Barson: (19:01) I love this. I got this idea from reading Greg McEwan's book, Effortless. It really rang true to me, personally, I could feel quite busy, borderline overwhelmed, sometimes, you know, feeling like there's way more to do than I can reasonably do in a day. And it's so easy for all of those pressures to sort of push in on me. And for me to not do the important things, the things that are actually really going to help me personally live the life that I want to live. They’re gonna help me, help my family. So this idea of rocks and sand. Imagine time is like a jar. It's a glass jar. It doesn't stretch, it doesn't shrink. That's your time. You've got 24 hours in a day. That's it. You cannot make time, that's, that's a fantasy. All you can do is take time and you've got this finite amount of time. And all of these things that you could do that you might want to do that you wish you were doing. But you need to put first things first, to use another fabulous book by Dr. Steve Covey The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Put first things first. 


(20:14) So you might, you know, want to care for your parents, for your kids, you might want to ensure that you cook good food and that you do a meditation practice and all of these things. They're like the rocks that you want to fill up with in this jar. And they might be sort of slightly jagged shapes, and they might sort of push in against each other. But if they're the important things, you put them in first. You make sure that you put in your self care rock, you put in your I'm going to see my friends this week rock, you put in your rocks first. And then everything else, all of the, the, you know, potentially unhelpful habits like Netflix and scrolling on social media, all other people's priorities that are pushing on you that you don't necessarily have to prioritise yourself. All of those things are like little pebbles and sand. And if you allow all of those things, you put them in first, your time jar just gets filled up with pebbles and sand of things that are unimportant or unhelpful to you. Or less important and less helpful, and you can't fit your rocks in. But if you put those rocks in first, then with whatever remaining space there is, you can sprinkle in the pebbles and sand. And that is a much better way to view your time and your life. Because it's all finite. And if we don't put our first things first, then other people's pebbles and sand will take away all of our time.


Dr Lucy Burns: (21:38) I love that. I do love it. Because it's so tempting, isn't it just to, you know, start your day. This is my habit that is firmly cemented in. And it's very unhelpful, it’s a really unhelpful habit. So in fact, I'm going to add this to my list of intentions, to ditch this habit, which is to wake up in the morning and pick up my phone. And, you know, there's many ways in which I could be improving that habit. But basically, it takes up a good chunk of my time, like probably an hour, like it's ridiculous, I don't need to do that. But it's basically an hour of sand that then means I run out of time to do something else that is actually going to be useful to me, not unuseful. Yes.


Dr Mary Barson: (22:21) Yeah, totally. A rock for me, it seems a bit strange, but a rock is to get to the monkey bars each day with my daughter, that exercise, that, yeah, it's being out in the sun, it's good. It's nature, it’s bonding time with my child, but actually really materially improves our day for both of us. And it is so easy, that you know I’m a bit tired or a bit stressed, you know, I could just give her a screen and I could just go in, you know, watch a screen myself, or clear the cobwebs off the roof or just do something that probably doesn't lie down. I probably should, that should probably be one of my rocks, but it isn't at this stage. Yeah, it's so easy to do something that's not that, but if I do it it just improves our life, our relationship, our day, in tangible ways. There is just something quite magical about our backyard and our monkey bars,


Dr Lucy Burns: (23:17) Not to mention adding a little bit of strength training for you.

Dr Mary Barson: (23:21) Oh, absolutely. Yes, yes. I suppose for the listeners out there. I can't actually properly do the monkey bars like my nimble, nine year old, but I do do like push ups and pull ups and I climb on them. And yes, it is definitely strength training. It is. And it's fun. It's fun!


Dr Lucy Burns: (23:39) Do you know what this is leading into, which is a little analogy that Katrina Ubell, who is one of our I guess, inspirations. So she's a weightloss doctor from America. And she uses this analogy a lot about monkey bars. And she will talk about, if you've got a habit. Say you want to start a habit and it feels really hard. Then sometimes that's like trying to do three poles on the monkey bar, three rungs. Hard. So yeah, too hard. So your brain goes, “I can't do that”. And so you do nothing. And so she talks about well bring it back, do one run, what can you do that's one rung? It's very much the same as make, you know, make the right thing easy, make the wrong thing hard, shrink the change, all of that beautiful picture that we've seen of the ladder with the big rungs far apart versus the ladder with the little rungs. It really is that, so it is much much better for your brain if you can cement a small habit regularly, than aim for a big habit that you may not achieve. You can always add another monkey bar rung in. But it's very hard if you start with, “I'm going to do you know five, five rungs”.


Dr Mary Barson: (25:00) Yes, I love meditation. It's something that I'm definitely sold on and my habit, it goes in and out. But I would consider myself a pretty seasoned meditator. I meditate five minutes a day, sometimes I do more, but that is my aim. And that's extremely doable. I don't start off by saying I'm going to meditate for one and a half hours every single day. No, that won't happen. Five minutes. Yes. And you can still get a lot of benefit from small, doable changes. Your one little rung on the monkey bars.


Dr Lucy Burns: (25:31) Absolutely. That is the power of habits because when it's cemented in, five minutes, if you do five minutes, most days, you will get benefit. If you do half an hour, twice a year, you get no benefit. It will do nothing. So you're far far better to do the small small changes and your brain is gonna go, “Oh it's hardly worth it”. No, it is. It is, when it says it's hardly worth it, It is worth it.


Dr Mary Barson: (25:56) Yes, that's right. That's when you get a little dopamine hit from colouring in a square in your diary and you have the negative consequence of putting 10 bucks in a piggy bank, that helps overcome a little resistance that your brain will put up.


Dr Lucy Burns: (26:11) Absolutely make the right thing easy. Make the wrong thing hard. All right, lovely listeners. We might wind it up for today, but wishing you a most wonderful day. Don't forget to sign up for Dr. Mary's masterclass. The links are in the show notes or you can go to our website and beautiful peeps, enjoy your gorgeous selves.


Dr Mary Barson: (26:32) Goodbye everybody.


Dr Lucy Burns: (26:39) So my lovely listeners that ends this episode of Real Health and Weight Loss. I'm Dr. Lucy Burns.


Dr Mary Barson: (26:47) And I'm Dr. Mary Barson. We’re from Real Life Medicine. To contact us, please visit www.rlmedicine.com


Dr Lucy Burns: (26:57) And until next time, thanks for listening. The information shared on the Real Health and Weight Loss podcast, including show notes and links provides general information only. It is not a substitute, nor is it intended to provide individualised medical advice, diagnosis or treatment, nor can it be construed as such. Please consult your doctor for any medical concerns.


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