Resilient Resolutions, Part 1: Re-Defining The Story of Success
The upcoming New Year provides a natural inflection point for lifestyle design. And since we know everyone wants to hit the ground running, we asked our in-house lifestyle coach and registered dietitian nutritionist Zach Wehmeyer to shed some light on how he recommends approaching New Year’s Resolutions if the goal is to create change that lasts. Take it away, Zach!
To truly understand where we are heading, we first need to confront a pretty dismal statistic: research suggests that only 9% of new year’s resolutions succeed long-term. In fact, the additional research suggests nearly 64% of resolutions fail within the first month.
Today, I want to offer a slightly different perspective: most resolutions are doomed from the outset, not because they are too vague or too lofty, but because they are too often based on a faulty story we tell ourselves about what it means to achieve a particular goal. And in order to change our outcomes, we first need to challenge that story.
Why we (usually) fail at the outset.
Imagine it’s your first day on a brand-new job.
You walk into your new boss’s office and after greeting you, they sit you down and say, “Starting today, we’re going to hit the ground running. You’re in charge of sales for the northeast region, and we need you to hit the following targets.” The next 10 minutes are a dizzying array of projections, timelines, and customer research insights, then you’re whisked away to start executing the gameplan. No easing into the new role; no ramping up performance over time, or guidance from a coach, or strategic planning. No developing new structures to help you and your team achieve the targets. Never mind whether you have extensive experience in management, or whether you know the product or service you are selling. Just hit the ground running. Just will yourself to succeed. Just do it.
This seemingly extreme example holds a lot of parallels to how we approach change in our lives, New Year’s Resolutions in particular. We tend to view making life changes as a matter of willpower, rather than a combination of skill development, strategic planning, and smart environmental design.
Setting a goal to be a regular exerciser? WILL yourself to go to the gym every day.
Looking to lose weight? WILL yourself to eat more salads, and fewer burgers.
Trying to save money? WILL yourself to cook at home more often.
No easing into the new behavior; no taking time to familiarize yourself with the tools you’ll need to use, or the schedule changes you’ll need to implement to make time for the new task; no ramping up your weekly performance over time, or guidance from a professional coach, or strategic planning around how you’ll deal with different life contexts that are bound to crop up. Never mind whether you have any experience in successfully implementing your desired behavior in the past, or whether you even know how to [insert verb of choice here: cook, lift weights, manage a calorie deficit without feeling like you’re constantly starving, etc. etc.]
Just hit the ground running. Just will yourself to succeed. Just do it.
Willpower is a muscle, and all muscles fatigue.
You may have heard that, “willpower is a muscle; the more you use it, the stronger it gets.” If that’s true, the flipside is that, “all muscles fatigue; so, pick your battles, and save your strength for the moments you truly need it.”
Remember the arm hang in middle school gym class? How many people do you remember staying on that bar forever?
The truth is, no matter how strong you are, gravity always wins. Given the choice between making yourself stronger, or turning down gravity, you should choose the latter. Make the task EASIER to complete, at least in the beginning, and you’ll complete the task a lot more often.
Re-defining your resolutions.
At Men’s Health Boston, we don’t consider willpower the dominant force necessary for success. Instead, we view “making changes” as “developing new skills”, the same way we would approach starting a new job.
No one expects you to do a brand-new job perfectly on day one. When done right, you are given time, resources, and guidance to develop the skillsets to do that job particularly well. You don’t wake up one day and will yourself to do the job better. You arrive at doing your job well by becoming the person with the particular skills to succeed in a multitude of different contexts that job requires.
That development is progressive, so we build a roadmap to help you achieve it. Part 1 is picking a goal to serve as our endpoint. We’ll work backward from here in Part 2 of this series.
Crafting an effective New Year’s Resolution.
- Start with a visualization. Imagine what you want to achieve in 2023. Take 5 minutes to actually think this through – what do you see yourself doing? What have you accomplished? What do you imagine feeling most proud of?
- Write down each idea on a piece of paper. Aim for 5 different goals.
- Choose your highest priority from the list, systematically. Compare goal #1 and goal #2. Imagine you could ONLY achieve one of these – which is more important to you? Cross off the loser, and compare the winner to #3. Repeat this process until you have definitively chosen your highest priority.
- Transform this idea into a goal with clear metrics. This is where the SMART framework for goal setting belongs. Goals related to daily habits often work best, but aren’t mandatory. The key is defining the goal clearly, so that it is easy to know whether you achieve it our not.
- For example: “Lose weight” or “exercise more” are not clear goals, because they don’t tell us how to know if we are successful. Instead, “Fit into my old pair of jeans from 2015” or “Add 5 pounds of lean muscle” are both easy to quantify.
- Pick a (realistic) timeframe. The shorter the timeframe, the more aggressive the approach necessary to meet the goal. Since most progress happens more slowly than we expect, I recommend taking your initial timeline and multiplying it by 150%, or 1.5.
Once you have chosen your main priority and a timeframe to achieve it, write it out completely on your paper. Then, let it sit for several days. If it still feels like the highest priority when you return to it, you’ve probably chosen the correct target.
A key feature here is that we aren’t choosing to pursue several overarching goals at once. Remember: making change is context specific. The solution that works in one context (i.e. “Work from home days”) will not always work in another (i.e. “Work from the office days”), and that’s okay.
Subdividing your attention into too many fragments is a common misstep. It makes it really challenging to follow through on specific tasks, because willpower WILL get fatigued. Instead, pick your battles wisely. When it comes to sustainable change, consistency is much more important than intensity.
This is the end of Part 1 of this blog series on creating sustainable change. Stay tuned for Part 2, where Zach will break down how he recommends designing a system for achieving your selected goal – and how to keep it going long-term.
If you or someone you know is struggling with nutrition and lifestyle habits and looking for a personalized approach, we can help.
For more information on our nutrition counseling program at MHB, click here. Most major insurance plans cover Medical Nutrition Therapy (MNT), but coverage may vary depending on plan specifics. Contact our office for more information or request to schedule a nutrition consultation today.