As we round the corner and hurtle into a new year, ‘tis the season for self-reflection and contemplation … New Year’s resolutions time.
We hear it time and time again: people don't change. Change is hard and in order to illicit REAL change one must put forth the sort of commitment many are not willing to give. At the same time, here we are again peeking at the incoming new year and we’re asked by every friend, relative and email ad what our resolutions for the New Year are going to be. So it begs one to ask: which is it? Is change really impossible or can one change a habit or behavior to become more (or less) of (insert flaw/characteristic here)? And if change IS impossible, are we just setting ourselves up for failure with New Years resolutions?
Two schools of thought.
Change is NOT impossible.
Through hard work, dedication and focus, you CAN indeed achieve change. You can break old habits and create new ones. Especially when one has the support of friends and loved ones, it is definitely possible to adopt a new 'norm'.
How? Change comes about through deliberate replacement behaviors over a period of time. Experts disagree on just how long one should focus on the new behavior/mind-set/habit; 21 - 45 days is generally recommended. During this period, one should focus their energy on doing the new thing as much as they can and NOT focus on not doing the old thing. Makes sense? Yes, you are substituting one for the other, but think about what you can and are doing instead of what you are not. In order to set yourself up for success, it is recommended to get appropriate accessories (e.g. good shoes and easy access to classes and/or instructors/trainers if one wants to start an exercise regimen); get rid of notable and apparent barriers (e.g. lack of apparent time – read: excuses – by putting the exercise right on the calendar); and by surrounding oneself by those who support gaining the change (positive peer pressure is a good thing). Internal motivators, clearly, are the key to success but it never hurts to have a cheering section and the support of those who are willing to keep you on the path to success (e.g. those brave souls who would be willing to questioning your need for the entire bag of Fritos or block of cheese, or literally remove said food items from the house entirely and block your attempts to buy more).
Change is impossible.
The human body is an amazing creation. It can achieve unbelievable feats, and one should marvel at all that is possible merely because we are human. Besides having that enviable opposable thumb, the human body is also highly resistant to change, because by its very nature, change will impact negatively homeostasis (also known as ‘stability’ and ‘normal’). Homeostasis is the preferred state by human bodyies. Change is new, and the body does not always do well with 'new'. In fact, the human body can go to great lengths to maintain 'normal' rather than accept change. You only have to look at any restrictive diet, and the lack of successful long-term results to see how great that resistance can be. The human body likes to keep things just as they are, thank you very much, and will go to astonishing efforts to maintain ‘normal’. It will deliberately slow metabolism, slow normal body functions and reduce blood circulation to critical organs rather than shed pounds. It will trick your mind with urges and cravings for your old favorites rather than let you eat your newly adopted diet regimen. It will be so pitifully slow to accept new physical skills that any increase in ability or strength will seem glacial or even invisibles to the human eye. The one seeking change won't see any improvements in the mirror; these minute shifts are invisible to the eye that sees the same visage each time they look in the mirror. Instead, the body will trick the change seeker into believing their efforts are pointless and should be abandoned at the earliest convenience. The human body does NOT like change.
So, in other words, in seeking change one is actually fighting a basic human process, called positive and negative reinforcement. In less scientific terms, we see food, we eat food, our body processes for energy and we live through the day, we repeat. Positive: we see food, we eat food, we like food and feel good, so we repeat. Negative: we see food, we don’t like food (or we get sick); we don’t repeat. A learned response and corresponding behavior. Our natural instinct dictates that we equate calories with survival, and when those calories taste good (yum, pizza!), then our bodies send feel-good signals to the brain to note what you just ate and where to find it as well as the response you gave; you’ve just learned a response that your body wants to repeat and repeat. Because the body is rewarded (Yum, pizza! Tastes good. I feel good. I will eat more pizza!), the behavior is reinforced each time you repeat, making the behavior more and more enduring, and difficult to change or eliminate. So. Change becomes harder and harder to initiate and maintain. Not only does your body not want to give up the pizza, it also remembers how good it is and how happy it is when having some, so … it doesn’t want to give it up. I mean, it’s pizza, for crying out loud; who would want to give up pizza, amiright?
So, change. Which is it? Are you one to see the glass empty or half full?
Let me tell you a secret: there are specific things you can do to help ensure a greater chance of success when trying to adopt new habits.
1. Make it a conscious action. Think about it: why do you have this habit? When is it triggered? Taking a mindful look at why you have this habit and what brings it on (e.g. you are nervous about something at work, so you snack on chips; you drink too much when you are with particular friends; you spend too much time on the computer at night so you can’t get up in the morning for regular exercise sessions.) can help you come up with a plan how NOT to do it, a game plan, if you will. Mindfully focusing on why you are resisting change, why the habit exists, and what you feel when you do the habit (or don’t do the habit) will help you to see what you can do to extinguish the habit finally and firmly. Mindfulness is the key, though, rather than mulishness. Even better: track your changes in a way that you can refer back to (see #6 below).
2. Set a goal. Now you’ve identified why you get the urge, and what triggers it, so you can be aware of what’s happening in that moment, and really consider WHY you have the compulsion to do the habit you are seeking to change. This is your chance to break that endless habit loop, step out of it. Word of caution: the more reasonable the goal, the more likely you will succeed in attaining it. The more outlandish? The smaller the chance of success. Baby steps are good. Baby steps forward are a much greater forward movement than one giant leap which turns into several large steps backward as we stumble and fall. Sure, we all want to lose 40 pounds in a month, but the chances of being successful in that endeavor are slim to none. A pound a week? You can definitely nail that goal. Keep it real, keep it simple, and you’ll likely succeed. The more often you succeed, the more likely you will be to stick with it and even try harder.
3. Find a replacement. I know, easier said than done. But not impossible. You’ve identified when you have the urge, what triggers it, and how you feel when you do the habit. So you can take a very educated guess what you could do that would help for you to replace it. You smoke. How many each day? Can you reduce it by one? Replace one smoke break with a 10-minute walk? You snack. Can you cut up carrots and crunch on those instead? Or have 1 chip and savor it instead of 15? Breaking up the goal into smaller, easily attainable steps will help you by giving you small successes, which in turn give you encouragement to keep trying for the whole enchilada. Set yourself up for success by keeping easy-to-access tools for success on the ready. If you have to work to get the replacement (and those darn chips are still handy), I guarantee you will still be reaching for those chips.
4. Tackle them one by one. Repeat from above: keep it real, keep it simple, and you’ll likely succeed. Making several grand sweeping changes at one time will likely not lead to success, because A) that is too many things to keep track of; and B) you push too many things at once, then likely one aspect will fail, and that may lead to an avalanche of sorts. Focus on one habit at a time, so it’s easier to keep track of your progress.
5. Trigger, behavior, rewardThrow out everything that triggers your vice. From that ash tray to your secret stash of chocolate to your computer games (yes, all of them. Every.single.one.) You.Will.Win.This.Battle.
6. Keep track so you know the truth. Keep a journal, noting successes and failures. You will NOT remember what caused that trigger to reach for the snacks. You will NOT recall what you did two nights ago that made it so hard to get up in the morning. Not 3 days later, not the following week. Your brain is very very good at not letting you remember your triggers. It is up to you to take the time to write down what you do that is helping you gain successes, and what it is you do that is causing stumbling blocks. Be your own champion and write it down.
7. Surround yourself with positivity. Pull in your reinforcements. Try to do the change with a friend. Tell your partner about your goal, and ask them to support you and how they can do that (be very specific about what you need from them). Post it social media so you get positive feedback that way. Join a running club. Or a gym. Or a walking group. Share the load, because it’s easier to win in numbers than it is to go about it alone.
You can do this. It may be ‘just’ a New Year’s resolution, but it can be a lifelong positive change if you go about it the right way.
For further reading: