Committing to a New Year’s resolution challenges my ego every December. I tell myself, “I can do better this year.” Innately, I know the odds of ‘failing’ on my resolution are high, (as they say) but I’m determined to think differently in 2017. I’m attributing my change in mindset to a chance meeting with Dr. Bill Howatt, an expert in behavioural change. He taught me that I can ‘succeed’ so long as I begin to develop micro-behavioural changes toward accomplishing my end goal. I’m going to share this learning with you because I think it’s a good approach to becoming successful with your own resolutions.
Let’s use one of the most common resolutions people take on in the New Year –losing weight. Logically it’s really simple: burn more calories than you ingest. So why do so many people fail at this resolution?
“It perhaps has less to do with motivation than awareness of how the mind works,” says Howatt. “A person can have a clear plan to lose weight, but the demands of life don’t stop; stress and pressure continue to challenge your priorities and energy. It makes it that much harder to follow through and break bad habits.”
The coping skills conundrum
Howatt often talks about “the coping skills conundrum”, which I rephrase to the “change conflict.” At the centre of this behavioural change theory is how a person manages their internal psychological stress or pain while learning a new, healthy behaviour. When given a choice, most of us would choose a path that escapes discomfort and seeks pleasure. Too often, these ‘feel good’ choices such as drinking alcohol, smoking or overeating are not the healthiest. The bottom line is, if something feels good instantly, it reinforces the behaviour and we do it again. These reward behaviours are often ingrained into us as early as childhood and are very hard to break. You literally need to develop superpowers to overcome them.
Having said that, do not lose faith. There is a solution. It lies in creating micro-behaviours for yourself that are simple enough to follow through with, and at the same time not too painful. Let’s revisit the weight loss resolution example, so we can identify what micro-behaviours we can build into our lives for the next three to six months. That’s how long it takes, along with focused determination, to have a new habit become more automatic. At this stage it’s common for people to relapse, as the brain automatically sends thoughts to revert to an old behaviour. During this period, learning a new habit is difficult. The new behaviour has yet to prove its rewards or benefits.
Hence, I cannot stress the importance of setting simple, almost mindless tasks – one or two at a time. It allows you to be in a better position to cope with your everyday work and home challenges and not fall back on old behaviours that can still feel like the right choice – don’t give in to instant gratification.
Train your brain with these simple tasks
Try to consciously take on some of these tasks for three months, to work towards a healthier you in 2017:
Being always active every day is key:
- Park far enough away from the entrance every time you are at a parking lot
- Walk down two flights or up one flight of stairs if your office is in a building
- Set up some walking conference calls with your cellphone and headphones
Make wiser choices with your nutrition:
- Have oatmeal instead of a muffin or bagel for breakfast, and if you don’t have breakfast as a habit, try grabbing an apple to-go instead
- Drink herbal or green tea in the afternoons rather than coffee (don’t add sugar). Caffeine in the afternoon makes for a poorer quality sleep
- Say NO to pop and sugary drinks at lunch; rather, have water (flavoured fizzy water will improve the experience). Cutting out the sugar reduces the caloric count!
Being ‘Mindful’ means a lot of different things. To start, try to get more sleep and rest your mind:
- Listen to calm music during your commute (change the tunes to Classical or Jazz – no words)
- Buy a fun book (a real one) and read it 30 minutes before you go to bed, but not on your electronic device because the background lights keep you awake and it is too tempting to surf the internet or read your email
- Block off 15 minutes every day to walk around with no device – just with you alone
All of these activities above promote weight loss. Getting and staying active throughout the day, making healthier choices at breakfast and lunch, and getting some brain rest. Losing the weight and experiencing the benefits follow the same path. If you stay focused, on average a person will lose 1.5 pounds a week with a responsible diet and exercise plan; therefore, it will take 20 weeks to lose 30 pounds, and perhaps another 20 weeks to ingrain this new lifestyle habit. The key is to develop behaviours you can keep long-term.
“In the end, overcoming the coping conundrum requires a super decision,”Howatt asserts. “Accepting your situation and the consequences that come from short-term pleasure compared to long-term health is a powerful decision that can lock in a (transformative) state of mind.”
Ready to take on your resolutions
Now, as you reflect on your New Year’s resolution, ask yourself if you are ready to create some changes in your life. Are these changes bite-sized? If not, try again. You need to ask yourself for small changes that may be uncomfortable and unrewarding at first, yet tolerable for at least three months. It doesn’t have to be losing weight, it can be anything you want to accomplish. Once you set up these small tasks correctly, you’ll be on your path to making your resolution a successful reality in 2017.