Catalytic Habits

Catalytic Habits

Catalytic Habits

The Routines that Change Everything

Have you ever heard that if you make your bed in the morning, you’ll have a more productive day?

This is what I would call a “catalytic habit” – a routine, whether overtly “healthy” or not, that leads to other good decisions.

Catalytic habits are usually small details, not giant commitments. However, they’re the hinges on which the rest of your day (and your mindset) turns.

Sometimes, I see clients trying to make improvements to their body and health by exercising ferociously or depriving themselves of food that they love. Even though this can lead to short-term progress, it doesn’t create a lifestyle that’s sustainable, because they’re working on habits in isolation. In order to address lifestyle, you have to take a look at the synergy of how the whole day flows, and how you feel about it.

I try to coach people on smaller and smaller changes, so that exercise and good nutrition are a natural and intuitive part of the day, proceeding from a flow of smart and mindful decisions.

This reminds me of the saying, “Outer order, inner calm.” Sometimes, when your life seems the craziest, that’s when you most need to turn down the temperature by simplifying and focusing on the smallest details, like when and how you go to bed at night. That’s when you need to clean your kitchen. That’s when you need to go of your daily walk, or meditate. When it seems like you can’t make time for it, it’s even more important.

Here are a few of my own small catalytic habits, which help me to live a healthy lifestyle that brings me joy and long-lasting results. I know they’re important, because my life gets harder when I don’t do them. Eating healthfully, exercising, and generally being able to handle normal challenges all become more difficult when I’m not following my routine.

These specific routines may not be right for you, but I have observed that when people embrace outer order, they often experience inner calm, and have an easier time making healthier decisions for themselves. I hope you enjoy the peek into my routines, and I also hope you’ll try some of them!

Waking Up Early

Disclaimer: I’m a natural early bird (and I crash hard at night). However, I find that starting the day at least 90 minutes before I need to see anyone helps me to start the day calmly. If you find yourself often late to work or rushing around in the morning, start peeling back your wake up time by setting your alarm for fifteen minutes earlier each morning until you reach a point where you feel that you have a calm morning, with enough time to get ready without feeling panicked. Also, make sure to put your alarm either across the room or in another room, so that you start the day by getting out of bed. That little habit seems simple, but I’m amazed at how many people don’t do it. My suspicion is that it’s because many people go to sleep with their phone either in bed or nearby, which I’ll get to later!

Embracing a Peaceful Morning Routine

I do the same thing literally every single morning. I get up, grind coffee beans, make coffee in my French press, and do yoga with music on. I do this with my husband, which is a fantastic way for us to spend time together before the day starts. It’s not an intense yoga routine, either, for those of you who are picturing me getting my exercise in. It’s just about mindfulness, and having a movement routine that is not based around calorie burn or high octane energy. It’s a lot of sitting on yoga mats with coffees, and sometimes a lot of talking. It’s a sweet and quiet way to start the day. I also have the exact same thing to eat every morning – I have a banana, and then later in the morning I have a more “balanced” breakfast of eggs and vegetables, a smoothie, or something similar.

Having a Nighttime Routine

I do almost the exactly same routine every night, too. I try to have what I call a “runway” of at least two hours to take off into sleep. We try to go for a walk to end the day, and then we watch TV. One important part of our routine, however, is that we do not have the TV in the bedroom, and we don’t have any phones or electronics in the bedroom at all. I also have the exact same nighttime snack every night – Greek yogurt with raspberries, peanut butter, and a sprinkling of chocolate chips. Having a consistent nighttime routine has been demonstrated to improve sleep (this is called “sleep hygiene”), which is why I’m so dedicated to my evening habits.

Morning Exercise

For most people, morning exercise is the only time they can guarantee they’ll make it to the gym (or outside for a run). Why? The day often gets away from us. Good intentions start to sink under the mudslide of life obligations, emergency errands, and last-minute meetings at work. Morning is often sacred. While your boss/kids/co-workers/clients are still waking up in the morning, you can get your workout on in peace. People are less likely to urgently need you in the morning, especially if you can manage to wake up before your kids. Plus, willpower and self-discipline are also strongest at the beginning of the day. I don’t exercise right when I get up because I have clients first, but I always hit the gym as soon as I have my first break. I’ve learned from experience that if I use that break to answer e-mails, I’ll lose the whole morning and have a harder time getting into the gym at all.

Cleaning Your House Regularly

This is starting to sound very Marie Kondo, but I swear this works for me. Having an uncluttered, clean house – especially the kitchen – helps me to make better decisions. You don’t need to be able to eat off the floor, but it is truly mentally calming to have your kitchen peaceful, neat, and clutter-free. Put away everything except fruit, and keep your sink and counters as empty as possible. Several studies have shown that having a cleaner kitchen improves eating habits, and I have found this to certainly be true in my own life experience. Plus, it is easier to keep a kitchen clean than to get it clean, so one big clean-out can get you on track for an easy maintenance routine. In general, I find that having my house clean and beautiful helps me to feel in the flow.

Practicing Sobriety

This is a big one (and not for everyone), but most of my clients know that I don’t drink alcohol at all. While this can be a complicated decision for a lot of women, I find that practicing complete abstinence gives me clarity about a lot of other health decisions. For starters, I’m never hung over, so mornings are always easy and I feel great most of the time. Also, I never have to worry about how much or how often or what I’m drinking, which is an area of anxiety for many women. Finally, I also do not make tipsy food decisions. When I go out, I’m sober, which means I’m running on all eight cylinders in terms of decision-making, including eating. To use Gretchen Rubin’s language, I’m an abstainer instead of a moderator, so I find it that abstinence makes life clear, easy, and less stressful. It’s a catalytic habit that translates into better decisions in other parts of life.

Setting Rules On Your Screens

As I’ve told my online coaching groups, your diet is more than what you eat. There is also, in the age of information, a digital diet – what articles, news stories, images, and impressions you take in from your phone and computer on a daily basis. In general, I find that there are three “rules” for screens that have been enormously helpful to me – (1) no screens at all in the bedroom, (2) unfollow someone if they ever post something that is scary, overly-sensational, anxiety-provoking, or macabre, and (3) do not sit down on the couch to surf on the phone. Computers, and especially phones and smaller devices, have a tremendously mesmerizing effect that no book could ever exert. You sit down to check your calendar, and 30 minutes later you’ve posted to Instagram, replied to an e-mail, and Facebook stalked someone. In that amount of time, you could have gone for a run.

Grocery Shopping

Finally, what every single one of my clients knows is my favorite routine: I am all about grocery shopping. To be more specific, I am very committed to buying some of the same products every single week, because when I have those products in my kitchen, I am more likely to make more positive food decisions overall. For example, it is essential in the Trotta house that we have a ridiculous amount of Greek yogurt for the week. We eat it frequently as a snack, but we also use it as sour cream and as a butter replacement in many recipes. It goes fast. And when I run out of Greek yogurt, I look for other (less healthful) alternatives. Greek yogurt keeps hunger at bay, fuels me up on protein, and stops me from snacking unnecessarily. Other imperatives are bananas, apples, frozen berries, protein powder, and lettuce. Note – when you grocery shop, it’s more about what you do buy, and not about what you don’t buy. That’s the nature of catalytic habits.

The power of “outer order, inner calm” is that the way you do one thing is the way you do everything. If your life is rushed and frantic, your health, fitness, and nutrition will suffer, no matter how hard you try to work on it. But if you can manage to slow down and structure certain, important parts of your life to generate peace and wellbeing, you will find that sustaining healthy choices is almost effortless. My focus on lifestyle has not only had a positive impact on my own health and fitness – it has also yielded me the ability to start my own business in one of the most competitive cities in the world, and to successfully manage dozens of clients and add value to their lives. I have to put my own oxygen mask on first. So do you!

What habits in your own life would make the biggest difference? Feel free to let me know in the comments!

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Rachel Trotta
Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist

Rachel Trotta is a Certified Personal Trainer and Fitness Nutrition Specialist. She lives and works on the Upper West Side of New York City. With a focus on physique and weight loss for women, long-distance running performance, and injury prevention, Rachel creates training plans that are unique to each client’s needs. She has also written for MindBodyGreen, Tiny Buddha, Work Awesome, The Epoch Times (NY), and more. Rachel lives with her husband, composer Michael John Trotta, in NYC.


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