Vail Health Insights column: Do you really want a new you in 2017?
Ah, 2017. People are excited about new beginnings. As an owner of a fitness-training center, you would expect me to be excited about people’s New Year’s resolutions. What we really hope to help people achieve are lasting behavioral changes. This is what has a positive impact on one’s life.
Perhaps it’s all of those cocktails, but often New Year’s resolutions look something like this: I want to be 30 pounds lighter, fit and less stressed in 2017. Sound good? Well, as far as a resolution, no. These are what we call outcomes, not behavioral goals. They paint a picture of who we want to be but provide absolutely no information on the steps needed to get there.
Goals need to be SMART — specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic and time-bound. For every outcome you want to achieve, be as specific as you can in spelling out exactly what you’ll do to get there. For example, to lose weight, you could write a goal that your new behavior is to go to the gym three nights per week (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday) to attend a one-hour cycling class after work with your spouse.
The more detailed you can get with outlining the behaviors you need to reach your desired outcome, the higher probability you can keep your goals in check and measure success. Since most people make resolutions focused on outcomes versus the behavioral patterns needed to create change, almost all of those resolutions end unsuccessfully and lead to frustration.
Somewhere between 81 percent and 92 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail. Translation: At least eight times out of 10, you are more likely to fall back into your old habits and patterns. Behavior change is hard, there is no doubt about it. But it is very possible if you employ some evidence-based steps to create lasting change.
Below I have listed the key problems and solutions for success as you move into the new year.
Problem 1: Trying to change everything at once.
Solution: Pick one thing and do it well. The general consensus among behavior-change researchers is that you should focus on changing a very small number of habits at the same time. The highest number you’ll find is changing three habits at once, and that suggestion comes from Dr. BJ Fogg at Stanford University.
Let’s be clear: Dr. Fogg is talking about incredibly tiny habits, such as doing one push up per day, or saying “I am going to lead a great day” when you wake up in the morning.
Personally, I prefer to help my clients build one new behavior into life at a time. Once that habit becomes routine, then we move on to the next one. For example, I spent three months helping a client stop snacking after dinner each evening. The behavior was “I am finished eating for the day.”
The residual outcome was the client lost 8 pounds of body fat throughout the three months. Then we move on to doing 50 minutes of cycling cardio three mornings per week before work. The residual outcome was an additional 5 pounds of fat loss and increased strength and output on the bike. Then we introduce a new behavior. And so on. You get the idea.
Bonus solution: Pick a keystone habit. Still struggling? When in doubt, pick something that could potentially be a keystone habit.
A keystone habit is a behavior or routine that naturally pulls the rest of your life in line. For example, strength training is my keystone habit. If I do a good workout at the gym, then it creates a ripple effect in other areas of my life. Not only do I get the benefits of exercise, I enjoy a wide range of secondary benefits. I focus better after the workout. I am in a better place for others. I tend to eat better when I strength train consistently. I sleep better at night and wake up with more energy in the morning.
Notice that I didn’t try to build better habits for my focus, my mood, my nutrition, my sleep or my energy. I just did my keystone habit and those other areas were improved, as well. This is why keystone habits are powerful. They cascade into other areas of your life. You’ll have to figure out what your keystone habit is for you, but some popular examples include exercise, meditation or budgeting your monthly finances.
Problem 2: Starting with a habit that is too big.
Solution: We like to say, “Make it so easy you can’t say no.” If you were to map out the motivation needed to perform a habit, then you will find that the initial motivation to begin must be large, but once started, positive momentum kicks into play. In other words, the most difficult part of a new habit is starting the behavior.
It takes a lot of motivation to head to the gym for a workout after an exhausting day at work, but once you actually begin the workout it doesn’t take much willpower to complete it. For this reason, one of the best things you can do for building a new behavior is to start with a remarkably small habit. New habits should be nonthreatening. Start with a behavior that is so small it seems easy and reasonable to do it each day.
• Want to do 50 pushups per day? Start with something easy, such as doing five or 10 per day.
• Want to run four days per week for 30 minutes? Start with one day per week for 15.
• Want to finally start meditating? Meditate for two minutes each morning. After a month, you can move up to five minutes.
Seek a ritual
Problem 3: Seeking a result, not a ritual.
Solution: Focus on the behavior, not the outcome. Nearly every conversation about goals and resolutions is focused on some type of result. What do you want to achieve? How much weight do you want to lose? How much money do you want to save? How many books do you want to read? How much less do you want to drink?
Naturally, we are outcome focused because we want our new behaviors to deliver new results. Here’s the problem: New goals don’t deliver new results. New lifestyles do. And a lifestyle is not an outcome; it is a process. For this reason, all of your energy should go into building better rituals, not chasing better results.
Rituals are what turn behaviors into habits. In the words of behavioral specialist Tony Schwartz, “A ritual is a highly precise behavior you do at a specific time so that it becomes automatic throughout time and no longer requires much conscious intention or energy.” If you want a new habit, then you have to fall in love with a new ritual.
Change your environment
Problem 4: Not changing your environment.
Solution: Build an environment that promotes good habits. I have never seen a person consistently stick to positive habits in a negative environment. You can frame this statement in many different ways:
• It is nearly impossible to eat healthy all of the time if you are constantly surrounded by unhealthy food.
• It is nearly impossible to remain positive all of the time if you are constantly surrounded by negative people.
• It is nearly impossible to focus on a single task if you are constantly bombarded with text messages, notifications, emails, questions and other digital distractions.
• It is nearly impossible to not drink if you are constantly surrounded by alcohol.
And so on, and so forth. We rarely admit it (or even realize it), but our behaviors are often a simple response to the environment we find ourselves in.
In fact, you can assume that the lifestyle you have today (all of your habits) is largely a product of the environment you live in each day. The single biggest change that will make a new habit easier is performing it in an environment that is designed to make that habit succeed. For example, let’s say that your New Year’s resolution is to reduce stress in your life and live in a more focused manner.
Here is the current situation: Every morning, the alarm on your phone goes off. You pick up the phone, turn off the alarm and immediately start checking email and social media. Before you have even made it out of bed, you are already thinking about a half-dozen new emails. Maybe you’ve already responded to a few. You have also browsed the latest updates on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, so those messages and headlines are swimming around in your mind, too. You haven’t even dressed yet, but your mind is already distracted and stressed.
If this scene sounds familiar and you want to change your habit, then the easiest way to do it is to change your environment. Don’t keep your phone in your bedroom. The phone is the source of the problem, so change the environment. Buy a regular alarm clock (shockingly old school, I know) and charge your phone in another room.
If your environment doesn’t change, then you probably won’t, either.
Changes add up
Problem 5: Assuming small changes don’t add up.
Solution: Get 1 percent better each day. If you listen to nearly anyone talk about their goals, then you’ll hear them describe the minimum that they want to achieve.
“I want to save at least $5,000 this year.”
“I want to read at least 30 books this year.”
“I want to lose at least 20 pounds before summer.”
The underlying assumption is that your achievements need to be big to make a difference. Because of this, we always talk ourselves into chasing a big habit. “If I want to lose at least 20 pounds, I need to start busting my butt and working out for 90 minutes a day.”
If you look at your current habits, however, you’ll see a different picture. Nearly every habit you have today, good or bad, is the result of many small choices made over time. It is the repeated pattern of small behaviors that leads to significant results. Each day, we make the choice to become 1 percent better or 1 percent worse, but so often the choices are small enough that we miss them.
If you’re serious about building a new habit, then start with something small. Start with something you can stick with for good. Then, once you’ve repeated it enough times, you can worry about increasing the intensity. Build the behavior first. Worry about the results later.
Make it public
Problem 6: You never made a public commitment.
Solution: Tell the people in your life what your new behavior will be. Are you willing to shout your resolutions from a rooftop? No? Shyness is not an excuse, my friends. Making a public commitment is a first step in making you accountable to your goals. By putting yourself out there and announcing your intentions, you are translating what was once a general desire — to be healthier, happier, more productive, etc. — into something concrete and tangible.
It also invites other people to help you refine those goals and keep you on track. If you haven’t been willing to make a public commitment, then it probably signals that you’re not ready to take action, not motivated or not confident enough. Whatever the reason, it is a signal that you should stop, step back and reassess your resolutions. What behaviors are you willing to make public? Those are the ones that you should focus on pursuing in the future.
Hire a coach
Problem 7: You have never hired anyone to support you.
Solution: Hire a coach. Data shows that people who have had the most success in creating new positive behaviors worked with the guidance of a coach. In the Vail Valley, we have some wonderful fitness coaches, life coaches, behavioral therapists and leadership coaches. Coaches provide tactics, accountability and support. They will help you make the plan and keep you to task while the new behavior takes hold. The results can be life changing.
Don’t skimp when it comes to a coach. You are trying to make a successful, important change in your life. Great coaches (regardless of their field) are valuable. At this time of year, when you see there will be some changes of head coaches in college and NFL football, you hear the same names being brought to the forefront. The great coaches are the ones who create the tactics, the culture and the behaviors in the players to produce winning results. It’s not by accident that the same coaches get to the playoffs each year.
Do your research. Hire the best coach you can afford to support you on your new endeavors.
Rod Connolly is an exercise physiologist and owner of Dogma Athletica in Edwards. He and his team focus on behavioral patterns in health, exercise and nutrition. He can be reached at http://www.dogmaathletica.com or 970-688-4433.