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How to Change Any Diabetes Habit, Part 3: Time Warp

By Adam Brown

When the benefits seem “long term,” it’s easy to deprioritize habits today. How to overcome the time perspective challenge – and it costs nothing!

This is Part 3 of a series on changing diabetes habits.

Part 1: Environment Beats Self-Control focused on why the surrounding environment beats self-control. (“Vacuum in the kitchen.”)

Part 2: Think Mini was about shrinking the size of the task – mini! – to motivate action and get started. (“Five minutes beats zero minutes.”)

Here in part 3, I want to share with you a different kind of habit change reframe: time.

One of the most difficult aspects of diabetes habits – or changing any behavior – is the time delay between effort and reward. For example, “Work hard to care of your diabetes now so that you have a lower risk of long-term complications.”

This “WHY” is certainly important, but it’s not a great motivator in every person over time, or even within the same person over many years. I certainly did not find this motivating as a teenager.

“Long-term complications” can sometimes feel fuzzy, distant, and negative, particularly in someone young or newly diagnosed. High blood sugars have an invisible quality to them, which can result in little energy or enthusiasm to make a different decision right now. In fact, I can rationalize my way out of making optimal decisions very easily: “Just this one time I’m going to make an exception” or “I’ll start next week, or next month, or next year…” In fact, these kinds of exceptions fit really well into a “long-term” model of motivation.

Instead, I’m a huge advocate for moving negative long-term WHY’s to positive, short-term WHY’s. Here are a few examples from my book, Bright Spots & Landmines (free PDF, Amazon, Amazon mmol) to illustrate how this time reframe actually works!

1. Why should I take care of my diabetes today – whether that’s food choices, medication taking, glucose monitoring, exercise, etc.?

When my blood sugar is in range (70-140 mg/dl), I know that:

  • I’m a kinder, more patient person with the people around me – especially those I love the most.

  • I have more energy to do things that make me happy.

  • I smile more and am far less stressed and preoccupied.

  • I can think more clearly, and thus, help more people with diabetes through higher quality work here at diaTribe.

In other words, “I’m my best self!” when my blood sugar is in range: it makes me a better human being today and maximizes my limited time on this planet. That is priceless!

Out-of-range blood sugars, by contrast, make everything in my life harder and less enjoyable – I’m tired, grumpy, lightheaded, a worse sleeper, an impaired thinker, and an all-around worse human being. I deserve better, and so do the people around me.

I find these compelling reasons to take care of my diabetes TODAY, especially because they focus on being “my best self” to those I love the most. Note there is not a single mention of “long-term complications.”

Plus, TODAY benefits are not only nearer-term, but they are more motivating and positive. And of course, the longer-term goal is more likely to care of itself if I’m able to stick to TODAY reasons.

This is also why continuous glucose monitoring (CGM) is such a powerful behavior change and habit tool – real-time glucose data shrinks the time gap and quickly teaches users to pair in-range vs. out-of-range levels with moods, behaviors, foods, habits, etc.

2. For exercise, my WHY’s similarly focus on all the terrific TODAY wins:

  • Reduces my blood sugar (most of the time; see benefits above!).

  • Immediately lifts my mood and optimism.

  • Improves my relationships.

  • Reduces my stress levels, which in turn benefits my BGs and makes life more enjoyable (stress can cause higher blood sugars).

  • Increases my productivity, which brings me great joy as an achiever (one of my StrengthsFinder themes).

  • Helps me sleep better, which also helps next-day blood sugars and mood.

  • Helps me generate new ideas and solve problems, especially if I feel stuck.

I love that these reasons so much more than the typical “do exercise to live longer” motivators. When things are busy today, it’s hard to prioritize the “long” game, and very easy to make “I don’t have time” excuses. But when I reframe exercise as a productivity enhancer, for instance, I make the time even on crazy-busy work days!

From “Unmotivated” to “Wrongly Motivated”

The word “unmotivated” is thrown around a lot in diabetes, particularly at those who are struggling to manage their blood sugars. I think this is unfairly dismissive!

Instead, I’d argue many people with diabetes are “wrongly motivated” – a fear-based, far-in-the-future reason to take care of an invisible disease simply isn’t compelling. Instead, I wish TODAY reasons were more widely used – they are more inspiring, more immediate, and more motivating.

Next time you undertake a new diabetes or health habit, ask yourself:

  • How might this habit benefit me in some way TODAY, especially my mood, energy, and ability to do things that make me happy and feel fulfilled?

  • How might this change benefit my loved ones TODAY? Am I closer to “my best self” when I do this habit?

  • How would this habit help in other areas of my life TODAY? For example, more productivity on a work project I’m really excited about, less stress, etc.

  • What do I care about deeply (emotionally) that would benefit from this new habit immediately? For example, could I do this habit and spend more quality time with loved ones and friends?

Then, remember your TODAY reasons when life feels overwhelming and your brain is saying, “I’ll do it next week!”

Previous articles in this Changing Diabetes Habits series: 

We’ve distributed over 65,000 copies of Bright Spots & Landmines: The Diabetes Guide I Wish Someone Had Handed Me. If you would like one, get it here:

Appendix: For related reading, I recommend The Time Paradox by Phillip Zimbardo and John Boyd. There is a whole line of psychological research on how different people experience time. Some people can actually make the short vs. long-term tradeoff – what the authors call “future-oriented” individuals. People who have this time perspective would find it easier to save money, exercise, or go through the daily diabetes hassles to experience long-term benefits. But not everyone is like that! Those who tend to be more “present-oriented” would not see “avoid long-term complications” as a compelling motivator. Instead, such present-oriented individuals would be more likely to prioritize the present, which can lead to counterproductive health decisions (e.g., eating junk food, smoking). The book is weaker on strategies to change time perspective, but the underlying framework is insightful and illustrates why we need a bigger diabetes motivation toolbox.

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