There’s no shortage of advice this time of year about eating clean and getting ripped. And while the prospect of a new you in the new year can be seductive, especially after a month of overindulgence, I’m not a fan of restrictive diets or New Year’s resolutions. They simply don’t work over the long haul.
Any rigid regimen carries with it the whiff of deprivation, of restraint, of saying “no” when your mind wants you to say “yes.” The key, we’re told, is willpower.
Just say no. Just do it.
Let’s be real. If it were so easy to turn away from that donut or force yourself out the door on a dark, frigid January morning to go to spinning class, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.
We know from research that willpower is a limited resource. Over time, with repeated use, it becomes depleted, just like any energy source. And the moments when we most need it—say, after a stressful workday at Happy Hour when the margaritas are $5 and the queso and chips beckon—it’s gone.
So I suggest changing the narrative. It’s too easy to throw in the towel when you tell yourself, “I don’t have any willpower.” Those words render you powerless in the face of overwhelming forces beyond your control.
Instead of recruiting willpower to help you pursue your goals, consider building willingness power.
Willingness starts with motivation. Begin by looking at the costs and benefits of the behavior you want to change. If you want to improve your diet, for instance (notice I didn’t say “eat clean”), pay particular attention to what you get from the undesired habit. The costs will be readily apparent to you. But the benefits? Not so much.
To get you started, here are some real-life examples of the benefits of overeating (continuing to eat past the point of satiety or even to discomfort) I’ve heard over the years:
Then look at the costs (I’ll bet you won’t have any trouble coming up with a long list) and review them daily or more frequently if necessary. Remind yourself why it’s worth it to forego all the positive associations with the behavior you want to change in order to achieve your goal.
In a nutshell, willingness means being open to feeling short-term discomfort for long-term gain. It’s a useful skill to cultivate, and not just for sticking with a diet or exercise plan but for all the challenges life brings.
So in 2018, ditch the idea of willpower and practice willingness power. You’ll be laying a more solid foundation for success.
Here’s an interesting statistic: 45% of Americans will kick off the New Year tomorrow with a list of resolutions for self-improvement. Only 8% will succeed, and their chance of success will go down with every decade past 30.
By far the most popular resolution (45%) is to lose weight and get fitter. Others in the top ten include getting organized, being happier, learning something new, quitting smoking or drinking, finding love, and spending more time with family and friends.
I’m all for setting goals. But most people fail to achieve them because they go about it all wrong. Instead of focusing on the process of living in a way that’s compatible with what’s really important to them—according to what they most value—they’re fixated on a specific vision of an end point that may or may not be achievable.
Take losing weight. There are countless plans for the dieter to choose from, all claiming to take off 10 or 20 pounds or more in a month. Just 30 days! And they all probably work, more or less, but only for a short time (or why would there be so many diet recidivists come January 1?).
A more effective and sustainable approach would be to consider why you want to lose weight. And if you can tie in the goal of weight loss with your other resolutions, even better. Is it to have more energy so you can get organized, learn something new, and spend more time with the important people in your life? Is it to prevent or control a chronic health problem so you can enjoy your family into old age? Is it to be more attractive so you can feel more confident and find love? Is it to feel more in control of your life so you can get organized and look for a more satisfying job?
If you’re taking steps—“committed actions”—leading you in the direction of what you truly value, you don’t have to wait for a month, or two, or six to fulfill your resolution. And you can work on several at once. Feeling a sense of accomplishment along the way will help head off the inevitable frustration causing so many to abandon their best intentions by Valentine’s Day.
So my advice is to make only one resolution this year: let your values guide your actions.
In the bustle of the holiday season, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. We all have too much to do and not enough hours. So this isn’t the optimal time to start a diet (or work on getting more sleep or initiate a new exercise regimen or stop smoking or cut down on drinking or make any changes you’ve thought about and tried unsuccessfully to implement in the past).
Or is it?
Contrary to conventional wisdom, there’s no perfect time to begin building healthier habits. In fact, the very notion of a “right time” often prevents would-be self-improvers from taking the first step. If you’ve ever told yourself, “I’ll get back on track tomorrow” (after you’ve eaten the package of Oreos and are about to dig into the pint of Ben & Jerry’s) or “I’ll start my diet and exercise program on January 2,” you know what I mean.
Right now—whenever now happens to be—is the best time to lay the groundwork if you’ve decided you really want to change.
Thinking about how modifying unhealthy behaviors would improve your life is the first—and most important—step. Most people skip over this part. They jump right in and try to make drastic changes without really considering the costs and benefits of the work involved. This all-or-nothing approach inevitably ends up backfiring because, if you’re not absolutely convinced the outcome is worth the effort, you won’t stick with it.
So take out a piece of paper or your favorite electronic device and start making a list. Ask yourself, “How would my life be different if I could reach my health goals?” Be as specific as possible. So, for example, rather than saying, “I’d be happier,” itemize the reasons you’d feel better: “I’ll feel proud of myself for sticking with this commitment,” or, “I’ll be able to play with the kids without getting breathless,” or, “I can save the money I spend on cigarettes and buy the iPad I’ve been wanting.”
After you’ve come up with as many reasons you can think of, read them every day for the next week. In my next post, I’ll share my Five Minute Rule for developing new habits.
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