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Anatomy of the New Years Resolution

Change.  It’s so hard!  My tendency is to keep doing all the things I’ve always done-including bad habits.  Taking the safe road is so much easier than changing direction. As we approach the new year I've been doing a lot of thinking about what motivates us to change bad habits. I’ve been overweight for a while and have a tendency to emotionally eat in response to stress. I’ve been contemplating change for a while but have been hesitant to take the plunge to really try to change my eating habits. I’ve read about the SOBC, the Science of Behavior Change. It’s a group of researchers trying to figure out what actually works for helping people change behaviors. I looked at what has worked for me in the past. I’ve lost 70lbs before just to see it creep back on. I know I can do it and I know what to do but I’m confused as to why my habit changes don’t stick. Why can’t I do what I know I need to do to be healthy? What is it going to take for me to make a change and actually stick with it?

With all of my reading and experience I think the answer is different for everyone. I always ask my patients who have been successful with quitting smoking what made them quit. I get so many different answers. One patient told me that his grandchild telling him that he needed to quit caused him to lay down cigarettes and never pick one up again. Another patient had a heart attack and laid them down forever. I have plenty of other patients who keep smoking after heart attacks and keep smoking after their sweet grandchildren beg them to quit—so clearly there are multiple factors contributing to patients decisions. What motivates one person doesn’t motivate the other. Also, just because my patient doesn’t take action to quit because his grandchild asks him to doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about his grandchild. Also, the patient still smoking after the heart attack does really care about his health. They both love their grandkids. They both want to live with healthy hearts.

So what is the answer? How do we change habits for the long haul that we know are harmful? How can we be successful?

I still can’t answer for sure. I do think it has something to do with finding out your “why”. Why do you want to quit smoking? Why do you want to lose weight? Finding that why can be the motivator we need, but keeping that motivation requires a ton of discipline and focus that extends beyond the new year.

One very interesting book I am currently reading is Grit: The Power and Passion of Perseverance by Angela Duckwotth. In the book she points out 4 layers of “Grit” that make up the actions successful people take. I think we can all apply this to trying to change a bad habit. These layers can give us some further insight into what really helps us change.

The 4 layers of grit are interest, practice, purpose, and hope.

Interest in the subject. In other words, we need to feel that what we are doing is meaningful. If our goal is to lose weight it’s important to do it in a way you enjoy. Choose healthy foods you like. Focus on exercises you actually like. Desire and passion for the goal you are working toward won’t come if you hate doing something. You can’t force interest and you can’t maintain habits if you hate doing them. You may need to experiment with different methods of weight loss and healthy lifestyles to find something you are really interested in. Having interest is important in being successful. Don’t like yoga? Try boxing. Don’t like keto? Change to Mediterranean. The key is to keep trying until you find something that you like and you will be more successful in the long run.

Capacity to practice. This is devoting yourself to an action. You have to be committed to taking action and not doing the thing you know you shouldn’t be doing. A big part of that is resisting complacency. We get bored and we then lose that passion to change. We have to have the resolve to keep practicing and improving no matter what it takes. We have to keep eating the healthy foods. Keep taking the time to exercise. Keep going and going until our bad habit just isn’t part of our life anymore.

Purpose: this is where the “why” comes in. You must have a conviction that what you are doing matters. You must have a personal interest in what you are doing and it must serve other people. How can me not smoking help me be there for my family? How can me losing weight bring more joy to my kids because I’m able to get in the floor and play with them? Your why can be the motivator that gets you through the pain and monotony of practicing your changed behavior.

Hope: likely the key to prolonged behavior change. I wrote a 15 page paper on the concept of hope in college. It has so many layers and so many important aspects in the human condition. Learning to keep going when things get hard is the key to success. When you fall off the wagon and eat that pizza you turn around and keep eating healthy the next day. When you buy that pack of cigarettes you throw them away the next day. When you start thinking you can’t do it you ignore those thoughts and focus on the truth that you are capable. We can’t buy in to the boredom or the thoughts that we can’t do it. If we entertain those thoughts we will fail.

Hope defines what we are fighting for. It is the reason we fight to make changes that benefit us and our family. It is the motivator.

“Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things…and no good thing ever dies.” -Shawshank Redemption

That’s a ton of info and a lot to take in for a New Years resolution. It may not all be exactly applicable to your resolution. However, my wish for you in 2023 is that you can really understand your motivation and hang on to hope that the resolutions you set for the new year will stick and will become a permanent part of your life, health, and success. Just remember to stay interested, constantly practice, remember your “why”, and passionately hang on to hope.

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