By now resolution season – that period of bold proclamations about changes to be implemented shortly after the big ball drops – has largely given way to doubt, loss of motivation, and reversion to shopworn habits. Often envisioned fireside during a break from the regular routine, resolutions are often the stuff of big changes:
“I’m going to lose 25 lbs. by Valentine’s Day.”
“I’m quitting smoking cold turkey as of January 1.”
“Starting Monday, I’m going to get up an hour earlier every day to exercise.”
All things are possible while sipping hot chocolate and nibbling cookies at four o’clock on a weekday. Exacting, ambitious, and difficult? Pfft. In the soft glow of twinkling holiday lights, we boldly envision the new era.
Inevitably, something derails the plan: January 2nd. Schedules revert back and we’re up to our elbows in first quarter projects, impending tax season, the new semester, and a reminder of how we got here.
Neither global enough to inspire nor specific enough to stimulate change, resolutions exemplify the difficulty with long-term behavior changes. While a goal to lose 25 lbs. may seem quite specific, it neither describes a path from current weight to current weight minus twenty-five, nor does it link in any obvious way to our beliefs, values, or overall vision.
Then there is the issue with how the brain works. Where change is concerned, awareness that change is needed taps into a different area than the mechanism for actually changing it. Simply willing an outcome won’t elicit change.
In his excellent book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Pulitzer prize-winning reporter Charles Duhigg explains that behavioral change is really the process of changing habits. Like trees with root structures that extend in all directions, habits are ingrained and complicated. Simply attacking a perceived problem–too much weight–without understanding the context surrounding eating habits is an invitation to weight loss failure.
Duhigg describes habits as Cue-Routine-Reward, a cycle largely responsible for their persistence. We’re pretty good at identifying the routine: Grab the ice-cream carton, a spoon, and remote. Eat till the show’s over and the carton’s empty. But often when we indulge in such a routine, the object of consumption–ice cream–is not what we actually crave–comfort, community, decreased anxiety, etc. The reward may simply be the part where we allow ourselves to momentarily zone out. So as we pile on the pounds, the unwanted habit does provide some benefit.
Modern neuroscience tells us our brains are perfectly capable of forming healthier habits. But without understanding what’s driving the full cycle, particularly the actual cue and reward, our good intentions to cease and desist a particular pattern don’t stand much of a shot.
So how can we start to create healthy new habits? I’ve got five suggested first steps and a plan B for the inevitable setbacks. They’re listed in order, but adopting even one or two will help direct the winds of change:
1. Get smarter about the mechanics of change. To gain a better understanding of the inner workings of habitual behavior, Duhigg’s book is an excellent place to start. It’s written in laymen’s terms and available in audio format. Also, check out his website for additional resources.
2. Create an intention. Last year I wrote about a yogic practice, Sankalpa, as an alternative to setting resolutions. This is a practice of crafting a lofty intention rather than describing a specific behavior or outcome. These are short, powerful affirmations that serve as touchstones or personal mission statements:
“I nourish my body with healthy, wholesome foods.”
“Keeping my body active is an invigorating reminder that I’m alive.”
“I honor the gift of my life by cultivating healthy habits.”
Can you see the difference between those powerful affirmations and the narrowly focused resolutions? Returning to the 25 lb. example, the idea of loving nourishment replaces a fixed number on a scale that may not be achievable for a variety of reasons with the idea of creating a healthier, happier relationship with food and, by extension, your body. We consciously envision a life filled with purpose that is more joyful and, much like the amaryllis pictured above, expansive, vibrant, and robust.
3. Become mindful of the triggers that feed your unwanted habits. This tricky business requires patience and compassionate awareness. To fully recognize the people, places, and situations that drive our habits the best tool I know for developing awareness is the practice of mindfulness. Even a few minutes a day can net big results. To show you how, I’ve provided a five-minute practice to help you get started.
4. Forge a new habit. Change is a process of replacing an undesirable habit with one that serves us better. Creating action steps toward the new habit builds a ladder to change, rung by rung. It’s not necessary to lose an entire 25 lbs. to feel accomplished. Every small step that you can turn into a new habit–chewing each bite 30 times, using smaller plates, eliminating sugar in your coffee–brings you progressively closer to that larger intention (sankalpa) of more healthful nourishment. Small victories feed motivation and keep you going.
To explore this area a bit further, have some fun with Charles Duhigg’s power of habit flowchart.
5. Enlist help. It’s true that you’ve got to do the hard work yourself, but how much more pleasant would the process be with someone to encourage, support, or even join you in a shared goal? This can be as simple as enlisting a friend as an accountability partner or creating an online support group. Of course, hiring a coach is a nifty idea, and I just so happen to know one who is running a special offer at a drastically reduced rate, but I may be biased.
Other helping pros include personal trainers, behavioral therapists, nutritionists, ministers, and teachers. Support groups like Weight Watchers, AA, or any of a number of in-person and online groups allow you to benefit from shared wisdom and a sense of community. And of course, there’s an app for that: There are food and fitness journals, habit-enabling sites, meditation apps, and gadgets you can wear on your body to track your every move.
(6.) Redefine failure. Strategize around drooping confidence or motivation. How you handle setbacks can protect your progress. Seeing yourself on a continuum and holding on to the big picture will get you back on track quickly with minimal self-recrimination.
Happy New Year!
Can you recommend some mindfullness books? I need something really basic to help me turn off my brain for a little while.
Hi Jim, As a first read, I love Jack Kornfield’s A Path With Heart. There are so many entryways into quieting the mind and he gives you quite a few things to try. It took me a long time to read because I stopped reading each time I wanted to try out one of the many meditation scripts he includes. For a real instruction, you can’t beat the gentle approach of Thich Nhat Hanh on audio. This is a recent recording that I am not sure I’ve heard, but everything he records is awesome: Body and Mind Are One: A… Read more »