In this post I want to address the all too common problem many of us face in regards to New Years Resolutions. The lack of sustainability. We are so desperate for change after the Holidays. In fact, we've probably been wanting to make some of these changes in our lives for years. But somehow, year after year, they find themselves back on the table January 1st. "This year is THE YEAR!" We promise ourselves we will not let another year go by without making these changes. So why do we get a faint feeling of deja vu? Part of the problem lies in not recognizing that the true challenge facing us is not specific to the actual lifestyle change we are making. The true challenge, and the skill we want to cultivate through the process, is becoming proficient at change itself.
For most of us, the list of diet, exercise, and other lifestyle changes we want to make has been growing for the last few months. As we helplessly watch what feels like a downward spiral of stress, overeating, lack of sleep, and lack of exercise over the Holidays, we find some small part of us is cueing up the Rocky theme song and readying ourselves for battle.
The first few weeks of January are often inspired. We are doing it, REALLY doing it!! "It wasn't that hard after all. And it feels so good. Why didn't I do this ages ago?"
And then a child gets sick. Or a deadline looms. One of the many plates most of us are spinning at any given time goes flying, taking with it our new commitments and young routines. By March, most of us are looking around and wondering where all the inspiration and confidence went. Apathy seems to have replaced those, along with negative feelings around having let the positive changes go.
Unfortunately, many of you reading this will identify with this pattern all too well. Others of you will be in that inspired part of the cycle even now, and may be decrying my cynical view. Do not misunderstand me. I wish you all the success in the world! But my perspective comes from years of working with patients making lifestyle changes. Its also informed from even more years of working through lifestyle changes in my own life.
Of all the prescriptions I recommend in the clinic, lifestyle changes are by far the hardest for the patient to implement and maintain. I've had a patient suffering from multiple metabolic disorders look at me like I was crazy after I suggested that he did not need any medical intervention at all, simply a change in diet and exercise habits. I never saw that patient again.
So how do we avoid the seemingly inevitable backslide from the new choices we really want, to a habituated life that looks quite similar to the life we were living just a few months before? Here are a few tips that may help:
1) Start Small!!! Most of us are so anxious to make positive changes in our lives that we plan big changes in multiple areas of our lives at once. This is perhaps the biggest pitfall this time of year. Changes in lifestyle require engraining new habits to replace old ones. It takes a great deal of energy to shake us out of one habit and to continue choosing something new until we don't have to think about it anymore. CHOOSE ONE THING, or a couple of things. Commit to this one change at all costs. Stabilize it. This is how we set ourselves up for success. Once this change has been stabilized, then we can choose the next challenge.
2) Prioritize. This follows on number 1. If you are just gonna choose one thing, what is the thing that will send out the most positive ripples in your life?
REMEMBER!: Choosing one thing is not an admission that you don't need change in other areas of your life. But change itself is a skill. And we're going to kindergarten.
3) Ease into it!: This applies to exercise most specifically. If you are out of shape, its gonna take some time to get the body used to a new work load. CONSISTENCY is key. Intensity can be built later. If you go too hard and injure yourself, time off for healing, especially so early in the game, is not going to do much for consistency.
4) Expect some discomfort. Many people think that eating better, or exercising more, is just gonna feel good. Well, cleansing reactions to changes in diet can feel uncomfortable in the short run. Exercise when you are out of shape can feel uncomfortable when you're doing it. Denial of cravings can be uncomfortable. It is often in response to these uncomfortable feelings that we go back to our old ways. Expect SOME discomfort along the way and know you must persevere. If discomfort is severe or persists longer than one week, seek the advice of a health-care professional.
5) Get a coach. So how much discomfort is too much? And what are my priorities anyway? And what should I expect once I begin this path of self-improvement. These are very important questions to have clear answers to in order to feel confident going forward with engraining new patterns. It can also be helpful to have some accountability to someone that has your best interest at heart. Your best friend who has also given up sugar for New Year's is NOT the most reliable source of accountability. Obviously we have wonderful people here at Thrive, but there are other great folks in your community that you can employ in this role. You may have to spend a little money, but the investment is a sound one!
Sometimes a simple change in thinking can make all the difference. If instead of thinking that somehow this moment (New Year) is the one that makes the difference, lets instead think that this is the first moment, in a long string of moments, that will carry us steadily and sustainably forward toward the lives we truly want. That instead of focusing on the specific changes we long for in our lives, we focus more on the art of change itself. As we cultivate skill in this art, we set ourselves up for a lifetime of success.