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.
I recently heard a popular media doctor talking on the radio about making dietary and exercise changes to promote optimal health. He gave some sound advice.
“Write down your goals. Think about why you want to lose weight and get more fit.”
So far, so good. But then he added a suggestion which flies in the face of what we psychologists know about behavior change: “Thinking about what you want to avoid is the best way to motivate yourself.” He went on to explain that a family history of diabetes keeps him on the straight and narrow. In other words, he’s motivated by fear.
Maybe this approach works for him ( though given his success, I suspect he’s more disciplined naturally than most of us anyway, so he probably doesn’t need much of a motivational boost). But it’s not the most effective way for most people to stick with a diet or exercise plan.
If scare tactics worked, wouldn’t those gruesome, anti-smoking PSAs impel more smokers to quit? Knowing something isn’t good for us—potentially fatal, even—usually isn’t enough to make us stop.
Thinking about what we want to achieve is much more motivating than envisioning the dire consequences of unhealthy habits. So if you want to get in shape, don’t imagine yourself in ten years, three sizes larger and insulin-dependent. Instead, picture yourself six months from now, crossing the finish line of your first 5K.
If you point yourself in the direction of where you want to go, you’ll get there faster than if you run the other way.
As I promised in my last post about SparkPeople, I’m going to share my reservations about one of their motivational techniques: streaking. I’m not talking about college students or sports fans dashing naked in front of large crowds in public venues. In fitness circles, streaking means exercising every single day.
There’s actually an association for running buffs (as opposed to runners in the buff) called the US National Running Streak Association. It keeps records for the numbers of consecutive days and years its members have run. Former Olympic marathoner Ron Hill, 73, has maintained one of the most famous running streaks in the organization’s history. He hasn’t missed one day of running since 1964. He even jogged a mile the day after he fractured his sternum in a head-on collision, and he kept his streak going while in a plaster cast after bunion surgery by hobbling a mile on crutches every day for six weeks. Granted, he defines running pretty loosely. But, still, his accomplishment is mind-boggling. Most of us average mortals who aren’t made of Olympic material wouldn’t be capable of pulling it off.
Which is why I have my reservations about streaking. You might find it motivating to see the days and weeks add up. But what if you’re derailed by illness, injury, or just plain life and, unlike Ron Hill, end up missing a day or a week of exercise? You might just throw in the towel, especially if you have any perfectionistic tendencies. The concept of a streak lends itself too easily to all-or-nothing thinking.
Instead of aiming for a streak, I recommend shooting for consistency, making sure to allow for occasional lapses. Because life happens.
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