Well, here we are; December 28 and another year coming to a close. Lucky, I guess, if you were spooked by the prospect of the world ending along with the Mayan Calendar. I guess this was another of those Y2K things (sorry I reminded you, eh?). Speaking of hoaxes and other “can we forgot we even thought about it” issues I’d like to make some comments about the season. Sorry, no religious or family or spirit-of-the-season comments. My comments are much darker.
Here’s the context. We all know it well. Sit back and watch the most reliable natural phenomenon of our culture. At least as reliable, I would suggest, as the Old Faithful Geyser in Yellowstone National Park in the US (considered, by the way, as the most predictable geographical feature on Earth (at least according to Wikipedia; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Old_Faithful)). I am not talking about water – I am talking about the natural eruption of motivation to change. So much motivation that I bet it drives a significant component of the January sales of spandex, exercise equipment and gym memberships. Of course I am talking about the dreaded New Year’s Resolution (notice I capitalized it out of respect for its enormous power). Why dreaded? Well, that’s my main message.
What do we know about New Year’s Resolutions, other than they are powerful and reliable? I think they are damaging. I think they do more harm than good. Let me explain. Let’s start with the beginning. Why is the number 1 New Year’s Resolution weight loss? It’s because people feel badly about themselves and hope to achieve a new look. It’s because we have just spent the last 4-6 weeks eating too much of the wrong foods, drinking too much of the wrong liquids, spending more money than we’d like (or have), socializing with people we wished we liked and sleeping too little. Sorry for the caustic view, but I’ve been a psychologist long enough to know what many people experience.
So all this leads to the development of the New Year’s Resolution. New year; new leaf. I feel bad about myself. So bad that I am willing to pay a lot of money with the view to becoming a new me; a better me. But motivation based solely on feeling bad is short-term motivation. Once we take action one of two things happen; either we are successful (we get more fit, eat healthier) or we adapt to our current situation (we humans are good at adapting – you weren’t born with a device in your hand, you know, although you can’t live without it now). Either way, the bad feelings fade and with it the behaviour. If I was motivated because I feel bad when that feeling goes away so does my motivation.
Another problem here is my expectation. I’ve already blogged about the problems of weight loss expectations but, oh my, do we ever set ourselves up again. And if that wasn’t bad enough. Although we take on a New Year’s Resolution because we feel bad, why did we do all of those things that we want to undo? We did them because our culture demands it. Just try hosting a social gathering at this time of year…without food! Good luck…you’d lose friends for sure. Our behaviour is part of what it means to live in our society. So we need to figure out how to manage this and protect our self-esteem. So if you are going to take on a New Year’s Resolution, against my advice by the way, then do so for positive reasons. As a way of balancing the social parts of our lives by celebrating health; not punishing yourself for your bad ways.
Now let's look at the execution of the New Year’s Resolution. How do people typically go about their Resolution? With hopeless abandon. The expression “biting off more than you can chew” (no pun intended) fits perfectly. You see people spending huge amounts of effort, time and money for 4, 6, 8 weeks. Then…..crash. Why the crash? Because this “go big or go home” attitude is not an effective way to modify behaviour. Behaviour shaping, which starts with SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely) and continues with “next step” goals (enough to push me but not enough to be unachievable) is the best approach.
And then we get to the end. The spandex sits in a corner of the closet, the treadmill discover’s its true purpose as a laundry aid (aka, clothes hanger), and you even forget where the gym is. And now how do you feel? Well, let’s just say this isn’t a great way to build self-esteem. A recipe for eroding self-esteem is more like it.
So my advice. Forget about making dramatic changes. And if you’ve engaged in behaviours that you are now not so happy about…..well, welcome to the club. For me the questions are; why did this happen – can you explain it? How does this fit with your principles…what is important to you and how hard are you willing to work to stay true to these principles? And, finally, what would you like to do differently and why? Then consider some behaviours that will make you feel good about yourself and become the stepping stones to a healthier body and mind.
Ok…I’m done. Happy New Year!