Resilient Resolutions, Part 2: How to Create Sustainable Change
In Part 1 of this series, Men’s Health Boston registered dietitian nutritionist Zach Wehmeyer shed some light on why many New Year’s Resolutions fail in the long-term. We highly recommend reading that write-up before proceeding below.
In today’s article, I want to walk you through the process that I use regularly with patients to design a system for change based on their lifestyle and personal preferences.
It’s important to note at the outset that today’s goal is to help you to get started with a program that is strategic and progressive, not perfect. There are always going to be a thousand different tweaks and changes that might make the system more effective. Most of those tweaks are going to be things you discover once you get started, but you have to turn it on before you can turn it up.
Change is not a switch. It’s a dial.
The classic colloquialism about behavior change goes something like this: “One day, a switch just flipped in my head, and I knew I had to do things differently.” This might be the way we describe change to each other, but it’s rarely reality.
Most people who are successful ease into it over time. So instead of a switch, I want you to think of change more like the volume knob on your car radio. I favor this analogy for two reasons:
- Nobody gets into their car and immediately turns the volume knob up to 10 (at least not if you’re over the age of 20). This is a pretty good way to blow out your speakers.
- Most of us intuitively understand that different volumes are appropriate in different situations. If you’re riding in the car on a sunny day with the windows down, volume up might be right. Having a sober conversation on your way to dinner? Metallica on 10 probably isn’t the mood.
Long-term change shares many parallels to this analogy. For one, people who start with the most intense version of their goal rarely last very long (i.e. “blowing out the speakers”). For two, life throws a lot of different challenges at us, and learning how to dial up and dial back to match the current situation matters tremendously if you’re planning to stick with something for longer than 3 months.
This point is best illustrated by Precision Nutrition in their recent blog post titled, “Never press pause on your health and fitness again” (which I highly recommend reading).
Creating your own personal “change dial”:
Before you proceed, I want to strongly encourage you to actually write out your thoughts below, on paper. I understand it sounds tedious. Most people won’t do it. But then again, most people won’t succeed in making their desired changes either. What is written is real. And getting a different outcome requires taking different actions.
- Take the goal you crafted in Part 1. Transform it into a “behavior-based goal”. (Note: behavior goals tend to work best, because they are directly within your control. “Exercise for 60 minutes per day” or “Eat 5 servings of vegetables” are much more controllable than “Lose 10 lbs”. You can’t will your weight down, but you can behave in ways likely to lead to weight loss.)
- Next, make a scale of numbers from 10 down to 1. Take your ultimate goal and place it on a scale as the number “10”. This is the culmination, the final iteration.
- Working backward, imagine what your goal looks like at each stage below, represented by a different number. (Ex: “If a ‘10’ is ‘Eat 5 servings of vegetables per day’, what does a ‘9’ look like? What about an ‘8’?). List out what you imagine next to each stage, until you get to ‘1’.
- On day 1, set out to achieve “stage 1”. Do this consistently for 2 weeks, then move up a stage. Continue in this fashion every 2 weeks.
- If you miss a week, or aren’t as consistent as your plan dictates, no problem. Restart the following week at your current stage, and delay moving up the scale until you’ve had two straight weeks of success.
Why the ‘Dial Method’ Works
A bit of simple math will easily illustrate why this approach works better.
Let’s say you set out to go to the gym 5 days a week starting January 2nd. This is a pretty aggressive goal, but often one that new gym goers set for themselves. Afterall, we want to get our money’s worth out of that membership, right?
If you completed this goal with 100% fidelity, 5 days per week for the month of January translates to about 20-22 gym sessions. Now, remember our statistics from last time? Up to 64% of people will abandon their goal within the first month. So for the majority, those 20 sessions might be all that they get.
Compare that to someone who uses our “dial method” instead to build up to the harder levels of their goal over time.
Maybe the goal for the first month is simply to go to the gym once per week. Almost seems too easy, right? If they miss their typical day, they still have 4-5 additional opportunities to complete the goal and stay consistent. And during that time, they are likely to learn that some days/times work better for them than others. That’s valuable insight for when they start to ramp up the program.
In month two, maybe the goal is to go twice per week. Now they’re up to 8 sessions/month and 12 sessions total.
Then in month three, instead of adding another day, maybe they go from 30 minutes to 45 minutes per workout. Now each session is 1.5 times as long. By the end of month three, this person will have already racked up just as many sessions as the person in example one, all while keeping it “almost too easy”.
Even if they never increased the intensity from here, the person in Situation 2 would be on pace to complete nearly 100 gym sessions this year, a five-fold increase over our “every day” exerciser in Situation 1.
This is because of one of the fundamental laws of changing behavior: over time, consistency will always trump intensity.
“Almost too easy” is the best place to start, because “almost too easy” gets done.
Bonus Tips for Success
For those of you looking for the “extra credit”, here are two thoughts to help make your system even more effective.
- Start with nights, shift to mornings. With only so many hours in a day, the temptation to carve out time for new behaviors by “waking up early” is extremely attractive. Counterintuitively, I recommend resisting this at first. Here’s why: changing your sleep schedule is a tedious task. Waking up an hour early once or twice a week is a lot harder than it seems, often a lot harder than waking up earlier consistently.
- The solution: Incorporate new tasks into your afternoon or evening to start, a few days a week. While you build your consistency, simultaneously walk forward your daily wake-up time 15 minutes earlier, week by week. Within 1 month, you’ll have carved out a consistent hour every morning with which to perform your new task.
- “Just In Case” (JIC) Plans. Let’s face it – even our best laid plans go awry, more often than we’d like. This can serve as a major momentum blocker if you let it.
- The solution: Once you have built your change dial, determine your JIC plan. This is the “everything-else-today-went-wrong-but-I’m-still-going-to-make-progress” plan. A good JIC plan is a highly simplified version of your ultimate goal, one you could complete by default if you needed to. The purpose isn’t to move you closer to your goal. The purpose is to keep you from falling off track. Remember, consistency is key.
- Ultimate goal = exercise for 300 minutes per week.
- JIC plan = 10 minutes of squats, pushups, and jumping jacks in a rotating circuit.
- Ultimate goal = cook at home 5 nights per week.
- JIC plan = pre-selected list of 5 restaurants with healthy meal options pinned to the refrigerator….for nights where cooking isn’t on the table.
- Ultimate goal = exercise for 300 minutes per week.
There’s no way around it; change is hard. And you shouldn’t have to do hard things alone.
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.