Every New Year millions of Canadians set goals - resolutions for self-improvement. The goal, I would imagine, is for a better future and a better future self. The most common resolutions relate to health and wellness, but they may also include financial goals, dropping a bad habit, learning a new skill, or connecting with others.
I have never been a fan of New Year's resolutions. Working at fitness and health clubs for many years has made me a cynic. Every January huge swaths of new members would crowd the gym, and occupy all the machines, benches, mats and weights, in hopes of turning over a new leaf. Getting in shape. Shedding a few pounds. Then, one by one, these new 'exercisers' would go missing, never to be seen again... or at least not until the next New Year.
Sadly, the vast majority of us don't last the year with these new and potentially life-changing habits intact. Research would suggest only 1-14% successfully maintain them.
"See, I told you those New Year resolutions don't work!" the cynic of me will say.
But how many of us successfully improve ourselves or our habits without setting an intention to do so? Most likely zero.
So perhaps the cynical me can step aside, just for a moment, to consider not whether we should create resolutions but rather how to best maintain them.
I don't think we can set fault to the notion that once a year we collectively pause to reflect on who we are, and how we behave, interact with and treat ourselves and others. An annual prompt to self-reflect and introspect is a good thing.
At the core of self-improvement is self-discovery and self-love. There's no room for self-deprecating thoughts in the pursuit of improvement. This does not mean we only smell the roses. None of us are perfect, and we cannot improve if we don't see those things which we ought to or want to improve upon.
Nonetheless, the most notable determinant of changing behaviour is the belief that we can, i.e. self-efficacy.
"Self-efficacy - Confidence in the ability to exert control over one's own motivation, behaviour, and social environment."
It is pertinent to note that self-efficacy tends to be domain-specific. We might have a high degree of confidence in our ability to perform at work, but, a very low degree of confidence in our ability to exercise or change our evening eating habits. If we do not believe we can, we will not.
With that in mind, here are some thoughts to consider on changing and sustaining new habits:
Step 1: Evaluate, identify and reconcile self-limiting beliefs.
Step 2: Consider the way you want to be.
When we aim to create a new habit, for example, starting an exercise program or changing our diet, we are by default in need of creating multiple new behaviours, as well as a new way of thinking and being.
If we have limiting beliefs about exercise, such as "I don't do exercise because I am not coordinated" or "I can't exercise because of my knee" or "I don't like exercise" or my favourite, "I don't have time". We need to reconcile these beliefs, which are untrue, to move forward.
We don't just start to exercise regularly, we become a person who exercises. This isn't just a new habit. This is a new way of being.
Sometimes we have an identity of self that is limiting and self-deprecating, and almost always, not true. We may have created our identity out of our past behaviour(s), failed attempts, our body type, athletic prowess or lack thereof. That however is not who you are. We are not equal to the sum total of our habits. Our value as humans is not tied to whether we exercise or not; eat healthy or not. Our self efficacy may indicate we believe we can, but, our self-worth determines whether we believe we are worthy of it.
We exercise because we want more for ourselves. More vitality, strength, resilience, quality and quantity of life. Not because we need to change our inherent value.
We become a person who exercises because it is good for us; because we want the best for ourselves; it is an act of self-love.
Step 3: Reframe
Many years ago my Mom, after many failed attempts, quite smoking. What I noticed as distinctly unique in her final and successful attempt was the language she used to describe herself and her relationship to smoking. She wasn't a smoker trying to quit smoking; she became a non-smoker. She no longer craved cigarettes; even the smell of second hand smoke repulsed her, and she never looked back.
17 years ago I learned with certainty and with significant symptoms including back pain, irritable bowel, and eczema, that I was highly sensitive to gluten. Yet despite knowing this it took me 5 years to consistently eliminate gluten from my diet. Initially, I told myself it was okay in small quantities and some of the time. I was a person who was sensitive to gluten, but yet ate it sometimes. I was focused on all the tasty things I would miss and what I had to say "no" to. I wasn't even considering what I was saying "yes" to, i.e. lost sleep due to pain, cracking and painful skin, recurrent acute episodes of inflammatory back pain. Over and over again I would expose myself, always with repercussions and propagation of self-limiting beliefs, i.e. "This is hard", "it's only once in a while", "It's not that bad".
After several acute episodes of back pain I asked an internationally renowned and well-respected mentor of mine to evaluate my back. He pointed very clearly to the fact that my back pain was inflammatory by nature and not mechanical. I was not surprised; I knew this all along but was avoiding reality like the plague. I knew this to be true but I told myself otherwise... because it was easier to ignore the truth.
I was poisoning myself.
I was intentionally and repeatedly consuming a substance that resulted in a toxic immune and inflammatory response impacting my gut, my skin and my joints. I thought to myself "Rationalizing that I can eat just a little gluten is equivalent to rationalizing eating a little poison".
And you know what, once I made up my mind, I realized it's easy! There are TONS of delicious foods to eat that don't contain it. I don't miss it at all (and I don't miss the episodes of acute back pain, either!).
I changed from a person who was sensitive to gluten, to a person who doesn't eat it. That is who I am now. And it's great.
Step 4: Build a mental map of what this new habit will mean to you and your lifestyle.
There are many layers to forming and sustaining new habits. How will our new exercise habits fit into our busy work week? How will our family routine change to accommodate this new lifestyle? Sleep habits? What happens when we have a busy week at work, or when we travel? What will we say or do when something comes up that threatens to throw our routine off course?
If the goal is related to a consistent routine of exercise, I recommend creating a plan 'A' routine and a plan 'B' whereby our exercise schedule can fit into a busier week at work or during travel. The Canadian and International Guidelines for exercise discuss recommended daily and weekly durations of exercise for both cardiovascular and strength training exercise that are not tied to any specific schedule.
For example, the recommended total time of moderate to vigorous cardiovascular activity per week is 150 minutes. That is about 20 minutes per day. It makes no specific recommendation on how you accumulate this time, and there are no rules to say you cannot perform 10 minutes of activity twice a day or 5 minutes of activity 4 times a day. Strength Training recommendations are to perform a whole-body strength training routine two times per week. This takes approximately 40-60 minutes and may include 8-10 exercises performed for 3 sets each. But there is nothing to say that you could not micro-dose your strength training so that you get a little bit in each day. We can get our weekly dose of strength training in less than 15 minutes per day, and this could even be split into 3 x 5-minute sessions.
This includes developing support systems and social structures to support the change we aim to make. It also includes doing the mental imagery and plan to map out how we will respond when we simply don't want to (go to the gym, go for a walk, choose the healthy meal option, etc).
Having a support system is essential. It may be unreasonable to expect everyone in your life to initially love your new habits, some may even despise them. Ideally, we have someone in our life to follow up with and talk about our new habits. An accountability partner. The best-case scenario is to have someone join you on the journey.
The structure and dynamics of our social support systems can be incredibly valuable. Research demonstrates that we do better when we engage in exercise that includes others. This may mean group exercise or small group training, or this may be just meeting a friend at the gym at the same time each week. Just having someone to look forward to saying "Hey, how's it going" can go a long way.
Lastly, do an audit of your social groups and the people you spend time with. Spending time around people who inspire and encourage us through their actions or words can be incredibly powerful, as can spending time with those who disempower us.
Step 6: Try Again
It takes the average smoker (tobacco cigarettes) 7 attempts to successfully and permanently quit smoking. So when or if you fail to succeed, try again. Most importantly, drop the self deprecating internal dialogue that perpetuates and prolongs the period of time between failing the 1st time and the 2nd attempt. If you fail, use it as an opportunity to learn. Consider the pitfalls and traps that held you back or pulled you down. Evaluate them and make a new plan that considers them, and try again. Remember, failing to succeed is not equivalent to being a failure.