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We have all done it. January 1st arrives and the pressure is on to declare your mighty resolutions for the new year. Then February comes and neither you, nor anyone else you know, can remember what they resolved that previous month.

A resolution is a bad method of changing behavior precisely because it is so non-specific and so not tied to any consequences. Even if you have the WILL of Hal Jordan, without some kind of plan, some kind of structure and some kind of accountability, you’re going to probably fail. Let’s take this snippet from a pretty great and lengthy article in the Wall Street Journal as an example:

Setting a specific goal is more effective than vague vows to work out more. A new habit should be realistic enough to be reachable but challenging enough to be worthwhile, experts say.

If you really want to make meaningful changes in how you eat, how much you exercise, how much sleep you get and so on, it’s going to take some time and some effort.

The old saw that it takes 21 days to change a habit is pretty much nonsense. For some people that may be true, but for most folks we’re looking at between 60 and 90 days before you can actually say that you’ve made something resembling a permanent change.

All the things you do every day are patterns of behavior that have been programmed into your brain over what are very likely years of repetition. That you have a cup of coffee every morning when you get up is as much about the coffee as it is about the daily behaviors that surround that act that trigger you brain to say, “Time for coffee.”

One strategy for sticking to a workout resolution is to create plans specifying when, where and how you will take action, says Peter Gollwitzer, a psychology professor at New York University who studies how goals and plans affect behavior. An example, he says, is thinking, “After I have my cup of coffee every Saturday morning, I will put on my shoes and go running.”

“What we find is that it’s no longer you who controls the behavior,” Dr. Gollwitzer says. “The situation triggers the action.”

There’s also the WHY factor. Why are you trying to make a change or swap old habits for new habits?

Simon Sinek travels around the world give speeches to business leaders, educators, government policy makers and pretty much anyone who wants to guide and shape the choices of others. His conclusion from his research and what he tells his audiences – the What and How don’t matter. These are post-action justifications that we make to rationalize our actions and choices after the fact. What actually drives the choices we make are our emotions.

It doesn’t matter so much if I intellectually know I need to lose weight, improve my fitness or make better nutritional choices. Personally, I know that I need at least 7 hours of sleep every single night in order to maintain my health and keep myself mentally sharp, but that intellectual knowledge does me no good when I’ve worked hard all day, been pulled in multiple directions and want to watch The Walking Dead (itself a questionable before bedtime choice, but that’s another subject altogether). Emotionally I’m feeling a need to indulge myself and I cannot conquer that emotional driver with an intellectual argument, no matter how sound.

How do you beat back this rampaging heck beast?

The answer is two-fold. First, you need to find an emotional driver that will out WHY the emotional driver that is pushing you to make a poor choice. Knowing that going to bed earlier is good for me isn’t enough, but believing that I’m shortening my life span by choosing The Walking Dead over sleep is a different matter altogether. Believing that by shortchanging myself on sleep I am jeopardizing the chance to see my kids grow up, to play with my grandkids and to explore the world with my wife later in life – all of those things are worth more than zombies.

Second, you need a plan and a set of consequences. Saying, “I want to exercise more this year” is so non-specific as to be meaningless. Likewise saying, “I need to eat healthier.” Saying “I’m not going to put sugar and cream in my coffee anymore” is specific, actionable and measurable. If you want to exercise more, make a schedule, and as the WSJ article’s experts suggest, tie it to some other activity that can act as a trigger to get you going, like – “On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays I’m going to go for a brisk walk every morning during my break.” That might not seem like a lot to commit to, but if you follow through it could be life altering.

I also love accountability. For me, it’s the secret sauce that has made all the difference in the world for my health and fitness. Join a fitness group, or start one with likeminded friends. Agree to check in daily and keep each other on track. Join a fitness challenge group (I can think of a few you could sign up for right here) and let the coach know how much accountability you need. I also love reward systems. When I achieve one of my goals I treat myself to something on my Amazon wish-list.

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