There’s a switch in each one of us. It’s the one that is fully connected not the one that just triggers a piece of us. It’s the switch that when turned on helps us lace up our sneakers and walk out the door to the track, gym, or trail even when there’s a suffocating mess of excuses tugging at our ankles. “I’m going to the gym three times per week so that I can lose 20 pounds.” is a great first step. You’ve defined a goal and a path that will get you there. And, now you’re talking about the goal which makes you feel good. Talking about a change can cause a release of dopamine (which is often advertised as the “feel good” brain chemical, but, does a lot more than just that). Talking about a new, improved, thinner, stronger you with adoring fans constantly telling you how good you look - opening you up to more friends, greater power, more dates, better sex - can make you feel great. It’s the image of a changed you and all that comes with it that can trigger a really powerful emotional response which is what actually makes you feel really good. So you repeat it to everyone because each time you do, another drop of that good feeling hits you. A small fire is ignited and you visit the gym three times a week that first month. You watch what you eat. Then by week four, maybe two visits to the gym (because work has been too busy since that new boss was hired). Nutrition was ok, but, you HAD to go out with your work friends more than you planned in order to complain about a work project so drinks and fries were digested. Month three and only one visit to the gym for a few weeks. You felt too tired. Work, again. That project is stressing you out so you’ve been skipping lunch and dinner goes out of control. Pizza and wine seem to be the best options given tough days.Month six and no visits to the gym recently. Nutrition is totally back to its original state. But, you’re still talking about how you’ve been going to the gym (because, technically, you did go). And, drop, drop - here comes the feel good feeling. Work hasn’t helped because it has become too busy. Your friends are still going out and drinking. You’re too tired to cook so the thai restaurant is feeding you. Six months later, life and all of its stressors continue and you fall right back into the trap. Yet, you are able to elicit feel good feelings just be emotionally re-visiting your first few weeks on this journey.
The real work with any habit change, particularly a change to become healthier, really begins months after you make your first goal statement. According to brainstatistic.com a mere 9% of us are successful with our new year’s resolution goals. 68% of us start off kicking ass. And, 44% of us make it past six months. But, then either the goal is too difficult to follow, it’s too hard to get back on track or hard to continue to find the time become the reasons we drop from 44% of us succeeding to only 9% of us reaching that goal later in the year.
Check this out - of that 9%, 37% of those people are in their 20’s and only 16% are 50 or older. As we age we gain more excuses to stop. How can you become part of the 9%? Well, glad you asked! Let’s break this down to 4 keys:
Understand your habitual brain
Celebrate victories smartly
Understand your habitual brain
Our brains are lazy. Existing habits and routines are incredibly efficient and require very little energy for our brains to follow. Creating a real change requires loads of energy and our brains HATE it. We were so good at living, just doing the same thing day after day. Now we want to change a routine or habit and we have to work. Our brain has to pay attention. We have to work our way through those outside forces trying to stop our progress. We have to regroup and re-think and re-commit in order to make new routines stick and waste less energy. Our brain really just wants us to get back to where we were before. Things were easier then. Less tiring. Make things easy and predictable. Understand that any change to your routine requires a lot of effort. There will be lots of external forces trying to get you back to your original routine. It’s easy to go back, especially at the beginning. That’s what your brain wants. Less work please. But, keep fighting. Keep telling your brain “NO! This sucks but I need to keep trying.” Commit to not giving up. There is no magic formula to determine when a new habit will become automatic. Since research shows that only a few of us make it to 12 months let’s use that number as the time goal. “I am going to commit to eating healthier and will go to the gym or do something active three times per week for this entire year.” Choose a realistic time goal that will better predict your chance of creating a new habit in your brain. Now that you know why your brain will try to pull you away from your goal, hopefully you can use that knowledge as a tool to help keep your focus.
Changing too many things at once creates chaos for your brain. We now know how much our brain loves to be lazy. Even one change creates a ton of extra work for the brain. Throwing 3 or 5 additional things on top of that means waaaaaay more work. Make one change. Have that stick. Then, a few weeks or months later make another change. Have that stick. Be realistic with what you can take on at any one time. Understand that creating a really large goal can put us at risk for failure because a big change is harder to get to than smaller changes. Rather than the goal of losing 40 pounds, aim to lose weight each month. If you are more active and eat healthier, you’re likely to lose .5-1 pound a week. This almost guarantees you a monthly victory to celebrate.
Celebrate victories smartly
After 2 months, you lost 6 pounds and have been consistently going to the gym or doing something active 3 times each week. Celebrate your consistency with great nutrition choices and visits to the gym by leaving work a little early next Friday to get a massage, go to the Red Sox (or Giants, I guess) game or just sit in the park enjoying the sun with friends. Celebrate the new habits that will help you get to your goal rather than the weight loss number itself. And, please don’t celebrate health goals with food or shopping sprees. Rewarding yourself with a piece of chocolate cake because you lost six pounds elevates the cake to become a really powerful object (when you really want to decrease the power of the connection to the cake). And, spending sprees can release dopamine which sometimes make you feel better for a very short while, but, doesn’t actually help you intrinsically make changes. This can make it hard for you to get back on track. Plus, in either case, you’re not really celebrating success - you’re kind of cheating as a reward. And, that’s not very sustainable.
Build your team
It is really hard to eat healthier and go to the gym three times per week when people in your life don’t respect your commitment to your goal. A partner who demands your time rather than supporting you. Co-workers who give you a hard time about taking the time to eat your homemade lunch rather than work through lunch and commiserate with them. Friends who get upset because you aren’t drinking with them after work anymore. These are not your support people. You already have to battle yourself as the number one skeptic/non-supporter. Having additional external forces pulling you away from your goal makes it even more difficult to stick with it. Saying no is tough. But, commit to forward progress by finding people who can help you get to your goal. Is there someone else at work who is also interested in eating better? Can you two commit to each other to bring your own lunch and take the time to eat it? Is there someone at the gym who goes during the same time as you? Can you talk to them and find out if they could be a new gym friend? Can you show your partner how happy you are when you reach your small goals? If they are still not supportive, do they want to join in or are you confident enough in yourself to have a tough conversation with them? You don’t need to do this on your own and will be much more successful when those around you support you. Reaching out to a therapist or a personal trainer or nutritionist can help add those positive people you need to help keep you on track.
I hope these 4 keys have given you a little more knowledge to help get you to your goal of being healthier. Understand your brain, start small, celebrate victories and build a supportive team and any change is possible!
PS - Don’t wait for New Year’s to make a resolution. It’s really, really hard to change behavior and really hard to lose weight when you’ve already gained more than you want. Trust me. Do it now.
Image copied from www.thevirtualinstructor.com