For many years I was intoxicated by the promise of a New Year, with all its potential for fresh starts, magical transformations and turning over of new leaves. To maximise the effect I would sometimes deliberately ‘run things down’ through December. Chocolate biscuits for breakfast? Pfft, why not? It will make my Big Decision to eat well all the more impressive, come 1 January.
On New Year's Eve I would settle in, notebook in hand, to map out my grand vision for the coming year. New Year's Day would see me launch in with great enthusiasm, implementing my Big Decision to get my life on track.
You can probably predict what happened next. By the end of the first week, many of the plans were becoming ragged around the edges. By the end of the month they were in tatters. All of my beautiful visions unravelled by laziness, procrastination and distraction. Sigh!
A few years ago New Year's Eve was approaching and I found that I simply could not bring myself to jump on this futile merry-go-round again. What I felt wasn’t defeat, however. It was more a clear-sighted awareness that I didn't need dramatic, transformative changes. I just had to get the basics right. No fanfare or miracle cures or 'brand-new-me!' delusions. Just the quiet, steady focus on getting the little decisions right over and over and over again.
The single most important quality of lifestyle behaviours is consistency. We can’t exercise for a week and claim that we have ‘done’ fitness, or get to bed early for a few nights and claim to have sleep deprivation beaten. We have to keep doing those things repeatedly to maintain the benefits. It is a steady slog, not a quick fix.
Working in the field of addiction, this is an issue I regularly address with my clients. Many arrive at the rehab clinic with a sense that the hard work has been done in making the Big Decision to stop using their substance of choice. But recovery is not a single decision to stop. The decision has to be remade every time the substance is on offer, every time the habitual thoughts of using show up, every time the siren song of the substance tries to lure them back. Recovery is thousands of decisions made over months and years. One day at a time. One decision at a time.
So how can we use this knowledge to make our lifestyle changes stick? First, instead of thinking about plans, think about the decisions you want to get right over and over again. Plans feed into the myth that decisions can be guaranteed in advance. But planning to go to the gym at 6am is one thing; actually making the decision to get up and go, rather than hitting the snooze button, is quite another.
Secondly, assume that you won't always feel like doing the right thing. Articles on lifestyle change often stress the importance of motivation, and by motivation they almost always imply a sense of drive and enthusiasm. This is easy enough at the beginning of the process, when we have made the Big Decision to change. However as time goes on the novelty fades, the benefits plateau and the boredom kicks in. This is normal and natural – the chemical of motivation is dopamine, and its job is to get us started. Once we have established a pattern of behaviour our brain doesn’t waste its resources by rewarding us each time.
This is where is becomes particularly important to switch our approach to a steadier focus on good decision-making. The motivation that matters is making the decision to do the right thing, whether we feel like it or not. Without dopamine to drive us on, we need to implement more practical strategies to support good decisions.
What would help you to get a lifestyle decision right, over and over again, after the initial buzz has worn off? Options might include:
· Reminders of the decision you want to make, if you are getting forgetful
· Reminders of the long-term benefits of the behaviour change
· Reducing the effort involved
· Setting your environment up in a way that assists good decisions
· Limiting access to unhelpful factors (eg. blocking internet access after 10pm to facilitate a healthy bedtime)
· A buddy system
· A level of accountability, such as paying ahead for classes
· Adding elements of enjoyment, novelty or challenge to entice you
· Multiple-choice plans, for variety and flexibility
· A fall-back, better-than-nothing plan for low-energy days
Here is an example from my own life. I hate exercise. HATE IT! I have started dozens of exercise routines over the years and they rarely last a fortnight because I just find the entire process to be boring and unpleasant and too much effort.
However, I am also getting to the age where I need to look after my body if I want to keep doing things I love. For practical reasons, the morning is the best time to exercise, but I am not a morning person so I will find any excuse to get out of it. My most consistent gripe was the effort of getting changed into my exercise clothes and then having to shower and get changed again. What a pain! The solution? A rowing machine that I can use in my pyjamas, with a radio beside it so I can catch up on the news, which I look forward to. I do five minutes of rowing, then 5-10 minutes of yoga exercises, chosen to work as many muscles as possible in the shortest time. I have a large sign saying ‘EXERCISE!” on my dressing table, so I don’t forget. With this combination of strategies I have stayed on track for a whole month – a record for me!
Have I fallen in love with exercise? Do I burst out of bed with enthusiasm and race to get started? Do I glow with self-righteousness and energy? No. But I am making the decision to get my bum on that rowing machine day after day, and that is what matters.