It’s November! Only two months until January first. Now is a good time to start planning your New Year’s resolutions. Wait – before you groan or howl at me in outrage and click away from the page, hear me out. Reading this post will increase your chances of success, as well as making it easier (maybe they are one and the same thing?) to follow through on a resolution. If you read on, you will be given some really useful knowledge, strategies and tools to win in the resolution game. Also, there is fun involved.
Since diet and healthier lifestyle are consistently the most common New Year’s resolutions, I will use them as the example in this post, but the principles apply to most any resolution involving self-change (which is really the only kind of change we have any control over anyway, isn’t it?).
Habits tend to spiral one way or another to become entrenched, and lifestyle habits are the same as any other. If you are comfortable with a set of behaviors, you tend to surround yourself with people and pleasures that reinforce those behaviors. Those extra reinforcers make it harder to change, and so the behaviors are entrenched even deeper, and so on. But- once you break out of one set of behaviors and start to ingrain new ones, the same spiral process happens in a new direction.
Beware, though! Your body and brain still remember the old habits fondly, even as they are reaping the benefits of the new. When you develop a habit, it creates neural pathways in your brain. Pathways that are followed more frequently get smoother and deeper, and just like a real path, they become easier to follow. Conversely, unused pathways become fainter the longer they are left, so the longer you follow a new habit and resist an old habit the easier it becomes. However, the old neural pathways never go away completely, so you may need to guard against slipping back onto an old familiar path for a very long time.
Here are the key strategies you need to follow, and how they are important:
1. Create a new pathway and then stop using the old one. How does this look in real life terms? Rather than just trying to stop an old behavior, replace it with a new behavior. If we continue with the analogy comparing neural pathways with real-life pathways, the logic of this is plain. In real life, paths get us to destinations. Unless we have an alternate route, we can’t just stop using the existing path to our destination. That is one reason (though by no means the only reason) that deprivation diets fail. We need to replace our old foods with new ones, rather than simply cutting back on the amount we eat. Similarly, quitting smoking “cold turkey” has a phenomenal fail rate compared to using replacement nicotine gums and tools.
2. Strengthen the new pathways to keep from falling back onto the old ones. Dopamine production plays a part in this, and you can use this knowledge to help you keep on track. When you engage in pleasurable activities, your brain is prompted to produce dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical. Our bodies crave dopamine (it even plays a part in addictions). So, if you want to reinforce a new habit (eg. exercise) and strengthen the pathway associated with it, increase your dopamine production. To do this:
- Find new healthy activities that are pleasurable. You will be more likely to keep exercising if you like it. This might seem like a no-brainer, but I can tell you from experience that I dislike going to my gym in January because it is filled with people who took out a membership to punish themselves for a month before giving up. All the machines are full and you don’t need to be a scientist to realize that there is noooo dopamine production happening there! Is it any wonder that by February it is like a ghost town? So don’t waste your willpower forcing yourself to do things that you hate. Start by finding healthy replacement activities that you enjoy doing (even if they only seem to be a small change) and use that willpower to keep doing them long enough to create a new path.
- After you have gained some momentum, mix things up. Your brain also responds to interesting challenges with dopamine, so continue finding new (healthy) ways to get your d-fix, by going for novelty and challenge. Now is the time to try new things, (and now may even be the time to try the gym with a new outlook). You may be surprised to discover healthy activities you had no idea you’d like. I resisted taking a drop-in boxing class for a long time, assuming I’d hate boxing, but it was the only thing offered on a dreary night that I really didn’t feel like doing the treadmill or going outside, so I tried it. Surprise! I was hooked (no pun intended), and now it is a class that can always bring me back when I feel myself slipping into my old ways. If you drop all your assumptions and see every healthy choice as a possibility, you may discover your adventurous side, and start to crave a little adrenaline along with your dopamine! If you run out of ideas, check out my A-Z Activity list here, and throw a few of these ideas onto your Resolutions List.
3. When you want to make lots of life changes, begin with what scientists call “keystone” habits. These are habits that tend to snowball and create other changes because you perceive yourself in a new way. Exercise is a keystone habit because once you have a regular exercise habit, your brain is more likely to judge other behaviors comparatively and help you to choose behaviors that match the new persona (for example, you may think “athletes- like me- wouldn’t eat that second piece of cake”). Dieting, on the other hand, is not a keystone habit because we don’t make the same connection in reverse. We think of an “athlete” as a type of person, complete with a set of matching habits. But we see a dieter as any person who is changing their eating (usually temporarily). Or to put it another way, to be an athlete, we assume a healthy eating component, but to be a dieter, we don’t need to assume an exercise component. So, if you are thinking of making several resolutions, begin with keystone habits and the rest may follow naturally.
4. Even if you are a loner at heart, try to find some activities to do with a group- and make sure they are a fun group so that you laugh with them while you work out. This tip involves efficiency- working in a like-minded group makes your effort more effective (you can see my post about this here), and it also allows you to share your experiences, making them more meaningful.
5. Finally (while we are on the topic of meaningfulness), to ensure your changes become lifelong habits, try to connect them to a deeper part of you. Aim to weave them in to your existing belief systems or moral structure, or your emotional core. People do this in different ways, so you will have to spend a bit of time reflecting on how you will do it. Some runners dedicate their runs toward raising money for their favourite charity, and there are countless runs already set up for this. Other athletes may offer some volunteer time coaching others in their chosen sport. These are both ways to hook in to a moral belief system of giving back. Some people come to the “bigger picture” realization that taking healthy time for them alone enables them to connect better in other areas of their life. Yet others put such concentration and effort into their activity that it becomes a spiritual-like experience itself. See “A Good Challenge” here and here for more on this.
All of these (very different) approaches are ways to help you internalize your new resolution and make it second nature. To help you with your resolutions, feel free to use this template:
New Year’s Resolution 2013
1. My resolution is to: _______________________________________________________
2. The behaviors I need to replace are: _________________________________________
3. I will replace them with these behaviors: ______________________________________
(the best replacement behaviors will replicate the same feelings as the original behaviors, though this is not always necessary- sometimes you want to stay far away from the original feelings. That decision is up to you)
4. I will promote dopamine production by (hint- find FUN activities for your replacement behaviors): _______________________________________________________________
5. How can I make sure these are “keystone” changes? (not always possible): _________
6. What groups can I do this with? _____________________________________________
7. How can I make this a more meaningful part of my life? __________________________