How to translate outlandishly great intentions into pretty good change
Every January, like lambs to the slaughter, we set ourselves up for a fall.
From year to year, we grasp on to the arbitrary date, January1, to begin our new lives and with our highly improved selves. At 12 midnight we have another chance at a do-over. At the first notes of Auld Lang Sine we flick the switch and begin the dive into our pursuit of total reconstruction.
We aren’t alone. Research demonstrates that weight loss and fitness fill the top slots for resolutions, with quitting smoking and drinking right up there. Jobs and money are important. People want to read, travel, and learn new things. Interestingly, the top ten are all focused on ourselves, rather than behavior towards others. Eighty percent survive till mid-February, with a measly 8% making it to the end of the year.
If this resolution stuff really worked, psychotherapists like me would be out of business. We aren’t. That’s because we know some painful truths about how people change. And it’s usually never fast, pretty, painless, or complete.
Where do we go wrong?
- We’re delusional
We overestimate the amount of change that’s reasonable to expect. For example, every year I vow to lose between 50–75 lbs. in six months. I join organizations. I make elegant graphs. I weigh myself twice a day, removing everything including my rings. I assume that by making great plans, I will magically change my behavior. I fail to consider plans or strategies, like how to pass the Golden Arches without my car veering in that direction.
- We start like gangbusters, then run out of steam
Flying blind I head into battle. I starve myself. It’s starts out so well, I consider fasting on a permanent basis. I am “over the top” vigilant. For a little while I lose a pound a day. No problem. But by January 5th, it’s less than a pound a day…or God forbid, nothing.
- We fall down
One mistake and I’m “toast.” I lurch into a series of rationalizations. “OK, I’ve already screwed up this hour, this day, this week, so I might as well do what I want and start fresh tomorrow.” I smoked that one cigarette. What the hell, the day’s ruined, “I’ll do better tomorrow, or next week, and I won’t smoke anything. At all. Ever. Oh, the hell with it”.
- We can’t get up.
Nothing changes, except I feel even worse about myself than when I started. At the worst, we resolution victims are eating more, smoking more, spending more and working out less, and convinced we are doomed to a life of ruts.
So what are we do?
Back up and Reflect
Resolutions are promises. When we don’t keep our promises, we feel like liars. I don’t think that’s the way to go. Change involves giving some thought to basics like these:
- What is important to me? My health, my financial security, my relationships? Why is it important?
- What would I have to do to change? Some health behaviors are one-shot deals, like getting a flu vaccine, a mammogram, or a fitness evaluation. Increasing our exercise, for example, has to take into account our preferences, its availability, and your access to what you need to do it. I imagine the staff at the gym next door, licking their chops right now at all the suckers who are plucking down bigs bucks for year-long member ships that will last only a month.
- Sometimes we have to get smarter first. Before we throw ourselves into weight loss, we could consider starting off by investigating the research on how people actually lose weight, and what are reasonable expectations for rate and amount. Before we invest, we should decide what we like. I bought an expensive bike for exercising in my living room. But the thing is, I’ve hated bikes since I was a kid. Therefore, I have a roomful of exercise equipment doubling as clothes hangers throughout my apartment.
- What will I have to do to save money? How much money is reasonable for me to save? I’ll have to have some sense of my patterns of spending. Identify what I have to work with. What are the non-negotiable costs in contrast with “discretionary” money? Is my money being spent in a way that’s consistent with my values and preference? For example, if I want to start paying off my student loan or credit cards, that will involve shifts in the way I allocate my financial resources. A reasonable budget will involve time and thought before I launch into a new plan.
- What’s my history when I’ve tried to change? How have I succeeded or messed things up in the past? How did I run out of gas when I was successful? What is realistic for my lifestyle right here, right now?
Goals, not promises
A resolution is usually vague and involves wishful thinking, superhuman capabilities and a good bit of dumb luck. It is something that just happens. Resolutions are based on outcomes — Lose weight, get fit, quit smoking. They are tied to results.
But resolutions say nothing about how we are going to get from Jan.1 to Dec. 31.
A goal, on the other hand is a target. It’s something your want to reach for or change by adjusting your behavior. A resolution might be, “I will change my eating next month.” A behavioral goal would be, “I will eat 3 moderate meals a day.” Or, “I will go from whipped cream latte specialties to skim lattes at my local coffee cafe.
At the end of two weeks, our evaluation should have less to do with our dance with the scale and more to do with our eating behaviors. You can evaluate that behavior and institute further changes. Weight loss is also measured by how we feel, how our clothes fit differently, we feel more flexible, energetic and healthy.
Above all, you focus on what you do, rather than what you dream.
And if we ate well six out of ten days, that’s better than what we were doing before. We can finesse our behavior, identifying habits that we want to strengthen or change. We even need to tweak things we never realized about ourselves. I am currently unable to walk into my apartment and turn on the light, without immediately opening the refrigerator and staring at it like some magic is awaiting me. The longer I stand there, the more likely I am to eat, even if it’s crap. It’s really embarrassing when I do it at someone else’a house.
There are so many “chains” of behaviors that we can discover. Every time we lift the remote to the TV, we head to the kitchen and find a “snack.” If we go to a party and pour a glass of wine, we automatically light up.
Breaking it down
Losing weight is a huge undertaking if our goals are unrealistically high. However, as we look at the task, we can consider all of the steps to eating differently so that we lose weight and keep it up over time.
- What is our “relationship” with food, or cigarettes or alcohol? Certainly comfort and anxiety management are central to our over use. Before we launch into just stopping, we need to examine the extent of our attachments.
- How strong is it? How do we change these habits? How do we take our need for comfort and substitute other behaviors that are more positive and likely to help our goals? Sometimes the group supports can be helpful in gaining insights into our selves and help in instituting changes that are reasonable and sturdy.
- In our attempts to change, we may join forces with someone else. A “buddy system,” for example, is often very useful in goal setting and meeting fitness goals
It is important to set rewards for maintaining goal setting and better behavior.
- I don’t wait for perfection before giving myself a reward. There should be small things to look forward to.
- We should not reward ourselves with the very thing we’re trying to change. We may include “treats” in our eating plans. But after we’ve done well, we can easily think that we need a blowout hot fudge sundae. Instead, we may reward ourselves with a movie, or a shopping -imagining trip where we look at the kinds of clothes we will wear as we get more control over our eating and fitness.
Change is an uneven process. It really is. We cannot use “backsliding” as am excuse to give u[. We need to prepare for ups and downs and be resilient for all of our reversals, seeing them normal, rather as an aberration as a sign that you give up.
Think of next December. I am going to try being happy with minimum to moderate changes in my behavior, rather than be sad about the failure of my super ambitious wishes and scratching my head at the failure of empty resolutions. In the end, I’ll have something solid and real. I may even build on it the next year.
For the New Year, out with the magical resolutions, and in with the new, reasonable goal setting! Find a way to enjoy changes in your behavior and the benefits they will reap!