Do you want to be at your healthiest this year? The trouble is, you’ve made New Year’s resolutions in the past, and you’ve not had much success in sticking to them for very long.
You might have thought that last time you just didn’t try hard enough, or you weren’t dedicated enough. Let me break it down into why it’s not quite as simple as that, then I’m going to give you the 5 steps you’ll need work through this time, so that you can stick to your goals.
Here are the 3 obstacles that made it so hard last time.
First obstacle to overcome – Your Brain
This might not be the first thing you think of but let me explain why understanding this can make all the difference. Your brain is not really great at changing without the environment changing first. In fact, neuroscience research has demonstrated that our brains work in a protective way to resist change. We’re programmed to do what feels good, secure and comfortable.
Lots of neuroscience divides areas of the brain into the X system and C system. The X system is reflexive. These areas are responsible for things that we do naturally, like smiling when we’re happy or putting your leg into your pants when you get dressed.
The other system, the C system, is reflective. It’s slower, and more methodical. This is the system we engage when we are doing something unfamiliar, that requires concentration or motivation, like learning new behaviours. And all goals are about following new behaviours.
Our X system has been shaped by training and experience. Adding new behaviours to this system takes concentration, effort and time. This can be psychologically uncomfortable. So it’s no wonder that it feels hard to do things that are different.
In addition, our brains are geared for survival. We evolved with a need to be ultra-aware of potential danger, so the brain is great at picking up on anything that doesn’t meet expectations. It’s useful when you want to be aware of whether the rustling in the bushes is saber tooth tiger or just the wind, but less so when you are trying to have less glasses of wine at social gatherings. This fear or anxiety is not the state your body wants to maintain. So naturally we return to familiar habits that make us feel secure and comfortable.
Most of us are also wired with optimism bias. This is the tendency to optimistically feel as though negative things are less likely to occur to us. Like cancer, or being robbed, we know they are going to happen, to someone, anyone, but we just don’t feel like we are going to be one of those few. This is a problem for behaviour change because when we have to choose between an action that requires substantial behaviour change over what comes naturally, we don’t perceive there to be any real gain or threat worth changing for.
Second obstacle to overcome – Your Priorities
Realistically, if something is important to you, you’ll make it a priority, right? Whether it’s going to work to pay the mortgage, caring for your children so they don’t get sick, or staying up to find out what happens in the season finale of your favourite TV show.
So why does implementing healthy eating or mindfulness or working out often seem so hard to prioritise?
Its hard to prioritise an activity we don’t actually want to do (even if we know it’s good for us) over something we do want to do when we don’t get instant gratification from it and threat or gain are so far away. For example, no matter how enthusiastic we are before going to bed, it’s hard to get up that alarm clock a little earlier and workout, when the instant gratification of going back to sleep is so much more appealing than the rewards of better fitness that are many months into the future.
Third obstacle to overcome – Life
Perhaps last time you were on a roll with your changes and things were going great. Then life happened. It got in the way. It always does and always will. Holidays, sick family members, work. The time/energy you intend to put into the new you will nearly always be taken away by something you weren’t prepared for.
What you need to accomplish is to move your new healthy behaviour from the C system to X system, reduce the fear/anxiety of the new behaviour, overcome optimism bias, prioritise something elusive over instant gratification and overcome all the life barriers? This can seem like a lot, and I’m not saying it’s simple, but check out my 5 steps to overcoming these obstacles, and it might seem a little easier.
STEP 1 – REPEAT AND REPEAT AGAIN
This may seem obvious, but you have to repeat the behaviour several times for a long time for it to become your new normal. It’s going to require willpower, attention and mindful action. Not just sometimes, but consistently.
Think about your brain as a forest full of tall trees that are your usual behaviours. You keep watering them and they get bigger and stronger. What we need to do is plant a new behaviour seed. And water. Keep on watering it. Give it lots of attention and it will start to grow. The more attention you give it, the bigger its going to get. What starts to happen simultaneously, is the big tree behaviours that you’re not watering anymore start to die. This is retraining your brain to adopt new behaviours into that X system.
Now, following through on that planned behaviour is going to feel great initially, but after a while, it’s going to feel like more and more like chore, because trees take a long time to grow. This is where step 2 comes in.
STEP 2 – KNOW YOUR WHY
There has to be incentive to performing the behaviour. You need to know what gets you to persist at something you don’t want to do, to achieve your goal. But from experience, you probably know that motivation isn’t infinite. Just because you’re motivated now, that doesn’t mean you’ll be motivated next week, or even tomorrow.
If your goal doesn’t have real meaning, then it’s not going to be hard to feel motivated and prioritise the new behaviour when you don’t get instant gratification anymore.
What motivates us can be on a scale from extrinsic to intrinsic.
- Extrinsic motivators are rewards like good grades, praise from others, or fear of others opinions.
- Intrinsic motivators are genuinely valuing or enjoying the behaviour, even if there is no apparent reward, like valuing nourishing your body, or enjoying how you feel when you workout.
For long term motivation and participation in a new behaviour, you want to tap into your intrinsic motivators. They will continue to be undertaken with great initiative, less anxiety, more enjoyment, more effort, better performance and can cope better with failure.
This is rarely described as motivation anymore. At this stage, the behaviours align with your sense of self. Some people would describe these intrinsically motivated behaviours as habits. This is when that new seed is now a pretty decent tree.
But, it’s ok if you don’t have any intrinsic motivators to start off with. However, don’t settle with telling yourself ‘I know it’s good for me’ if that doesn’t feel important enough. Think about why you would care about it being good for you. Does it mean you’ll be able to do more on holiday, be able to play with the kids or be able to go out to restaurants comfortably? Then, think about why THAT is important. Keep digging, and you should start to feel why it’s important to you.
Then write it down.
STEP 3 – GET SOME ACCOUNTABILITY
You need to get to that intrinsic motivation stage where your new behaviours are becoming habits, but you know it’s easy to lose motivation before you get there. A really important element to support the continuation of the new behaviour whilst developing intrinsic motivators is accountability.
Think about when you tell your boss that you will have the project done by the end of the week. You are more likely to stick to it and do it now that you’ve assured someone you would. Despite life getting in the way, it increases in priority. Because now it says something about us if we don’t follow through. We’re adding in extra extrinsic motivators.
If you’ve just decided for yourself that you’ll do something new, you are less likely to actually start it, let alone sustain it, if you haven’t said it out loud. It’s easy to choose those things that are easy and familiar instead when motivation is low.
So it’s important to put structures in place to measure and record your progress (of behaviours, not outcomes …. Stay tuned for later blogs on this) with an extrinsic source, like a spouse, a friend, or a professional.
STEP 4 – SET INCREMENT GOALS
Remember, the brain is wired to resist behaviours that aren’t familiar, and motivation is finite until its intrinsically driven. So as well as adding in extra motivators, how can you make sure you sustain your new behaviours?
If a goal is too big and requires new competencies, you might need to be good at something you’ve not done before, or not in some time. Therefore, you are likely to experience failures. Failures demotivate us. When the goal is not attained, it generates thoughts about being not capable enough, and not worthy of the life that are trying to create. Who feels like continuing with something if they feel they’ve been working hard but not been able to succeed?
You need to ensure that your goals are achievable. But we need to break that down into what are reasonable, realistic chunks that you can do in your life at the moment. You only want to stretch yourself outside of the zone of things that are familiar enough, that you don’t exhaust your motivation.
Once that new behaviour is adopted and moving towards that self-determined intrinsic motivation, we’ve given ourselves more capacity to take on new behaviours.
Even the smallest successes, like trying one new vegetable per week, can help in driving motivation. Have you ever written down an item you’ve already completed on your to-do list, just for the satisfaction of crossing it off and getting that sense of progress? Feelings of success will help to sustain your changes.
STEP 5 – HAVE COMPASSION
This one is important for dealing with the life part of it. Realistically, we can’t control the world. We can’t control what other people serve when we go to dinner, we can’t control the weather, and we can’t control other people bringing chocolate into the house.
So you need to develop compassion for yourself. If you can set goals that don’t require you to control the entire world around you, you will find it much easier to sustain them.
Things may still go wrong and you might not be able to follow through one day.
Have you ever screwed up, decided the day is ruined, that you aren’t capable of changing and gone back to that comfortable behaviour? With compassion and patience, you’ll be able to assess what could have been done differently (if anything) and you’ll be able to overcome it next time.
I hope that these 5 steps make a difference to you in 2019. Sometimes it can be hard to prioritise working through these in the first place. If you need help in working on any of these steps, don’t hesitate to get in touch. You can even book an appointment online here.
All the best in your pursuit of better health!