New Year, New You
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written the “New Year, New You” mantra throughout my many years as a Marketing Consultant for nutrition and wellness companies. It’s true that January is the perfect time to start afresh with goals and visions toward better health. But good intentions are just words without a plan to turn desire into realistic and meaningful action. Whether this is the year you finally commit to losing weight, eating healthier, exercising more, sleeping better, giving up smoking or soda or nail biting, etc., your chances of achieving long lasting results are improved with stickiness…. the idea of creating and sticking to a new habit. If you can learn to stick to a new habit, you can achieve almost anything.
Understanding Why we Fail
Understanding why we fail is the first step in overcoming obstacles in our way. Here are the most common reasons people cannot stick to a given change (referred to herein as a habit) and thus fail to keep their New Year’s resolutions.
- They don’t enjoy doing it
- They made too many habits at once (habits are hard!)
- They are distracted by too many other things going on in their life and around them
- They are faced with competing changes in their routine (due to illness, travel, visitors, big project at work)
- They are not really motivated to do it
- They allow excuses, think negative thoughts about their ability to change, or talk themselves out of it
- They miss a day or two and get discouraged
- They overdo changes in the beginning and then rapidly run out of enthusiasm
- They unknowingly allow others, especially family and friends, to actively discourage us from changing
- They believe the habit is too difficult for them; they expect change to be easy and they wish to avoid discomfort
The Zen Buddhist notion that suffering is inherent and alleviated by its very acceptance is related to habit stickiness. If good habits were as easy as bad habits, we’d all be at our healthiest and not in need of chance. Considering the list of why we fail, we can understand why sticking to a good habit requires resolve and a little discomfort. But we also know anything worth doing requires some work. And the good news is that the very hardest part of forming a good habit is getting out of the pre-contemplation, contemplation, and preparation stages and diving into the action stage (see the Prochaska & DiClementi’s Stages of Change diagram). Once we’re comfortably cruising in Action we can feel good that the heavy lifting is done.
Ten Suggested ‘Rules’ for Sticking to a Habit
I find many of my nutrition clients want me to tell them what habits they should adopt, as a set of ‘rules’ or sort of prescription to follow, knowing I will hold them accountable as they are working with me. You can try these 10 rules as a starting point to see how they work for you, and I encourage you to tweak them as you see fit to figure out what works best for you.
1. Focus on One Habit at a Time
This is incredibly important — most people ignore it because they underestimate how much focus it takes to actually stick to a new habit. It’s easy to start a habit, or even 5 of them at once. Sticking to them is another story. Start with one unique habit in your life and only one habit. This is a key one to follow!
2. Just Start
The only thing you need to do is start. That’s the part of the habit that matters in the first month or so. Later on, you’ll run a marathon. For now, just put all your effort into lacing up your shoes and getting out the door. If you’re meditating, just sit on the cushion. If you’re eating more healthy, just cut up fruit and vegetables and take the first bite. If you’re writing, just type the first sentence. The important thing – and this is the hardest for me too – is to just start!
3. Go Easy
With a little success under your belt, you’ll feel empowered to keep going. So start with the easiest possible habit to build your self-confidence. Make a list of easy habits you can do and refer to the list whenever you need some self-confidence and encouragement. Some examples of easy habits are to drink a glass of water each day, eat at least once piece of fruit, write a sentence everyday, floss one or two teeth, practice gratitude by vocalizing one thing you are grateful for everyday. If you fail at one of your other habits, go back to your “Go Easy” list and rejoice in your success here.
4. Build Upon a Tiny Habit
Do not focus on results as you are forming the habit. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to restart my yoga practice after a prolonged hiatus. Let’s say I will do 3 yoga poses every morning in my apt — doing more than 15 minutes is too difficult for me and I tend to quit when I try to do anything longer. Will I get a good workout with only 3 yoga poses? No! I’m not trying to get a good workout, get flexible, become more mindful, or get in shape. Eventually, yes, those results will probably come. But for now, I’m only doing one thing: forming the habit of doing yoga each day. Make the habit as tiny as possible. Whatever you think you should do, cut it in half. Then, if possible, cut it in half again. Maybe once more if your time to do it is longer than 2 minutes.
5. Do it Once a Day
You might think you can change your entire diet all at once. That’s a recipe for failure. How about going from 2 cups of coffee daily to 1 cup? Only do the habit once a day, and again, if its a duration exercise, just for a minute or two each day. Once the habit is ingrained, you can expand the activity, but wait at least 3 weeks before you even consider that. After 3 weeks, you may want to switch to decaf coffee or cut back regular coffee to 1-2 times/week.
6. Celebrate Success As You Go
It’s really important that you get positive feedback for doing the habit, right away. Many people do a habit they hate, which is built-in negative feedback, and then wonder why they can’t stick to it. Do a habit you love, or find a way to enjoy doing the habit. Focus on the positive aspects of it. Also, praise yourself for doing it. Feel good about doing it. This is immediate reward, and it’s necessary.
7. Observe Your Thoughts
If you start to avoid the habit, feel discouraged, or feel like quitting, pay attention to these thoughts. Where are they coming from? Are you rationalizing quitting? Are you engaging in negative self-talk? Those thoughts aren’t real — they’re just defense mechanisms your brain uses to avoid discomfort. Let them go, and don’t let them have power over you. You can beat them with positive self-talk.
8. Don’t Miss Two Straight Days
This is the key. If you let yourself miss a day, be absolutely and powerfully sure that you don’t miss a day again. Don’t beat yourself up for missing the day, mind you! Allow yourself that one day miss. Then be sure to do everything possible to not miss the 2nd day. Missing that 2nd day increases your failure potential exponentially and keeps you from getting good at creating new habits. Don’t do it.
9. Be Accountable
Tell at least one other person about your habit change, and ask them to keep you accountable. Forming a group of 4-5 friends who are also working on habit changing is another great way to keep you on track. So is working with a Registered Dietitian for lifestyle changes you are seeking. Being accountable increases habit stickiness exponentially!
10. Never Ever Give Up
Kudos to you for taking the first step and trying. That’s more than most people will ever do. Learn to practice a little self-compassion and positive self-talk when you think you are failing and remember that nothing work having is easy. Take a break if you need to but be sure to come back to the rules list and restart again.
As a longtime, avid hiker, I can attest that the most beautiful views I have ever experienced were not from viewing a photo or driving up the side of a mountain but by hiking hours on steep and difficult terrain in the back country where most people would never venture. The hard work is well worth the reward.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step
– Chinese philosopher Laozi
Practicing What I Preach
When I launched my new website last year to include this blog section, I had the intention of blogging all the time. I had all of these great ideas of what I wanted to write about, and assumed that my good intentions would translate into a fantastic monthly posting. What I didn’t plan for was how difficult it is for me to actually write for fear that I may not be a good writer, may not measure up to my reader’s expectations, etc etc. All irrational fears that have been holding me back. One of my New Year’s Resolution’s this year, then, is to commit to a regular blog posting every quarter in 2015. Would I like to be able to write more? Of course I would! But it is also a good pratice to follow my own advice and start small. Once a quarter feels like something that is doable and I can easily commit to. So there you have it — Voila, my blog posting for Q1 2015 and you, my readers, get to support me in creating and sticking to a good habit!
So what are your New Year’s Resolutions and how can I support you in meeting them? I’d love to hear from you if you want to share.
Wishing you a Happy and Healthy New Year,