The most common new year’s resolutions are to exercise more or eat more healthy. Yet every year it seems more and more people are exercising less and eating even more unhealthily.
Clearly there are external factors such as the fact that the fitness industry is failing and there seems to be a Mcdonalds on every street corner. However, what about internal factors that are causing this cognitive dissonance.
Why is it that many people want to eat healthier but don’t? And what can be done about it?
Why new year’s resolutions are pointless
The problem with new year’s resolutions is that they tend to be big, bold but vague goals. They require motivation (willpower) to create and carry through with. This works against the unconscious minds tendency to be a couch potato.
Internally, you feel like it’s a resolution for a whole year and this seems far too distant and challenging.
It relies on willpower to sustain.
Unfortunately for big resolutions such as exercising more and eating healthier, psychologist Roy Baumeister has consistently found our willpower is a finite resource. Therefore, willpower alone cannot be relied on.
Hence, it’s no surprise why many people can’t sustain their resolutions much beyond January. They are forcing themselves to do something they don’t really want to do. Relying on willpower that will inevitably run out.
So what’s the alternative to make positive changes in your life?
Make a new lifestyle habit instead
The answer is to instill a positive daily habit into your routine.
Habits become automatic and they can be easy and simple to begin with. A habit that can be completed today, not in a years time. Then you can do it the day after. And the day after that.
Before you know it you’ve instilled a habit into your life that is easy to do and that can be done consistently.
And consistency is the key to achieving any resolution or goal you make.
Also, this is not mentally stressful because it becomes automatic. You save mental energy because you don’t have to think about it anymore. Any action immediately alleviates anxiety. All it requires is you doing one thing today, tomorrow and before you know it you don’t have to think about it anymore.
Any action immediately alleviates anxiety
For example, say you wanted to exercise more. Most people approach this through a perspective of willpower. I will force myself to go to the gym. I will force myself to go for a run.
This might achieve short term temporary results for some people, but because willpower is finite it will inevitably fail because it doesn’t focus on building a lifestyle habit.
It’s not about forcing yourself to go to the gym and do exercise you hate. It’s about gradually participating in an activity (any activity) that you enjoy.
Similarly, it’s not about forcing yourself to not eat certain foods. It’s about gradually developing taste for new foods and realising you can live without some foods.
How to make a habit stick more than a stick insect stuck to sticky tape with superglue
Habit researchers have found that in order to make a habit stick we should focus on the cue rather then the actual behaviour. The cue being our environment that triggers a habit. It is also beneficial to have a reward to reinforce the feelgood factor of performing the habit.
This seems counter-intuitive because we think it’s the behaviour that matters. However, it’s what goes on just before and just after the behavior occurs that seems to really matter.
Let’s say you want to exercise more. The key is on having a cue to initiate exercising. Choose a cue that already happens in your daily life such as finishing work. Take your workout clothes with you to work and focus all your effort on getting changed at work before you leave. This will develop the habit of putting yourself in a position to exercise regularly, hence making it more likely that you will exercise regularly.
After a while you’ll realise it starts to become automatic (a habit) and start to miss it or not feel right if you don’t do it. That’s the power of habit over willpower and motivation.
The reward component for this example may be a healthy snack or an episode of your favourite TV show.
Initially, make the habit easy and simple such as a 15 minute run or just 15 minutes at the gym (or even better by choosing an exercise you enjoy). This helps because how you perceive the habit is likely to have a big influence on how well you do.
If it seems impossible (like a big bold and vague new year’s resolution) then it will seem much harder and you will likely give up. Whereas if you commit to just 15 minutes of any form of exercise after work 3 days a week (finishing work being your cue) then it feels easy to accomplish. Especially if you have a healthy snack to look forward to afterwards.
The best bit is that once you master the easy habit, it’s a snowball effect and you can ramp it up and are more likely to stick with it because it’s a habit.
Also, be adaptable and flexible. While consistency is key, missing completing your habit a handful of times is no big deal. Don’t be hard on yourself for not sticking to your habits 100% of the time.
There is no concrete number of days to form a new habit. Everyone is different.
Don’t focus on developing a new habit as quick as possible. Focus on carrying out that habit today. Then carrying it out tomorrow and so on.
The real gold and real value is in the experience of life, NOT in focusing on a distant end result.
Forget the goal, focus on the habit
When it comes to exercising more or eating more healthy, it’s not about willpower or forcing yourself to follow a strict plan. It’s about building lifestyle habits.
Instead of focusing on a resolution or goal to achieve, focus on the habit that will actually get you there. In order to initiate and reinforce the habit, focus on the cue (finishing work, going to bed, eating dinner etc) and the reward (healthy snack, TV episode etc).
Forget the goal, focus on the habit.