It’s that time of the year again – time to take stock of what’s not working in your life and make a solemn (and sometimes inebriated) commitment to change your behavior. The tradition apparently goes back at least as far as the Babylonians who at the beginning of the year vowed to the gods to return borrowed objects and pay their debts. Let’s hope they were more successful than we are in pairing the beginning of a new year with a behavior change vow. They probably weren’t, however, because we know that behavior change of any type, no matter how desired, is hard work, even for an indebted Babylonian.

Motivation is necessary but not sufficient for effective change, which is why the problem with a commitment made on January 1st, is January 2nd. Okay, your commitment might last longer than a day but all the evidence is that within a few weeks most people have forgotten, given up or simply failed at implementing their resolutions. The scientific literature suggests that effective, maintained behavior change occurs somewhere between 10% and 15% of the time and there’s no reason to suppose that resolutions made on New Year are any more successful. It might be more accurate to call them New Year’s Motivations and recognize that motivation is not the same as change.

In the 1980s two psychologists, Jim Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente suggested a five stage process of behavior change. Working with addicts amongst others, these two researchers suggested that there were different stages of motivation. Their proposed five stages are:

  • Pre-contemplation, in which there’s no awareness of the need to change
  • Contemplation, where there is recognition that change might be a good idea
  • Preparation, where the person prepares for and considers what is required for change
  • Action, where specific actions are taken to manifest and establish change
  • Maintenance, in which new behavior is maintained and reinforced.

New Year’s resolutions are mostly at the contemplation stage, often with no real follow through on how change will occur and no effective preparation to make it happen. The exuberance of Jan 1st gets replaced with the indifference of the more mundane dates on the calendar.

New Year’s resolutions, however, do tell us a lot about the behavior change process.

Of course, we need motivation to make any changes in our lives, and a new year betokens a new start and theoretically a new beginning. The prospect of new possibilities excites us, stimulation that is enhanced by increased dopamine, which both motivates and fires us up. A fleeting level of enthusiasm inspires us to feel confident and bold, elevating our expectations, and temporarily obscuring practicalities and logic. It’s very similar to getting high.

This heightened motivated state is what we need to embark on any activity that requires significant effort. The keys are to keep the motivational state going, so that it can fuel the drive for change, and use the motivated state to actually plan the necessary action steps that are required to reverse what might be a lifetime of a particular habit. Most people like to focus on this cool, exciting part of behavior change, getting fired up at the prospect of a successful outcome and that’s no surprise — dopamine is addictive. Unfortunately though, behavior change is mostly hard work and the effort and practical steps required tend to be ignored in this honeymoon phase of change.

The problem is that the excitement of the motivational phase or experience, while necessary for real change to occur, can also be the reason why we fail so much. Fired up by the possibilities and images of a “new you” there’s a good chance you will set unrealistic and unattainable goals.

“Yes, this is the year, I’m finally get in shape. I’m going to start exercising and lose those sixty pounds. The time is now.”

Cue the inspiring, motivational music and images of that beautiful, fit, skinny, person you want to be. The problem is that motivation might completely obscure the realities of behavior change, lead you to set unrealistic expectations and unmanageably restrictive behaviors so that by Jan 30th you have gained another five pounds in the wake of a major disappointment and have decided to wait until next year to give yourself an overhaul. It might be better not to try to change behavior at all if your effort is so unrealistic that it reinforces a sense of helplessness and failure. You’re just training your brain to expect failure.

In contrast to the headiness of motivation hatched at the beginning of a new era, behavior change is actually slow, painstaking and yes, even boring. It takes repetition, discipline, and sacrifice. And the effects you want are going to be realized in the distant future which is a problem for the human brain which engages in “temporal discounting” which means that we are much more influenced by the present than the future. So when you are trying to avoid today’s candy because you want to look good in six months time, the candy has all the odds in its favor.

So while that motivation is critical for your success it can set you up for failure by giving you grandiose ideas about the outcome instead of helping you focusing on the less exciting necessities of the process.

The key to effective behavior change is to have the motivation and frame it in such a way that it drives your efforts without sabotaging them. Yes, have an image of success. Write down all the advantages of meeting that behavior change goal and review them regularly. Use other people as support to hold you accountable, to reinforce your success, and help you stay focused. Then use it to set simple, manageable goals. That’s another problem with getting too carried away with the outcome rather than process, we actually overestimate what’s required for change.

The best way of losing those sixty pounds is to focus on small changes. For example, faced with the weight loss task you might vow to eliminate all desserts from your diet, become a teetotaler, avoid all processed foods, and only eat twice a day.

It will never happen.

However, if you just cut out those two sodas a day, you would save 300 calories a day and lose more than 30 pounds in the year. And, by the way, 30 pounds is about 5 BMI points. So if you went from a BMI of 32 to one of 27, not only would you have dropped 5 BMI points you would have significantly reduced your risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, diabetes and even dementia. Just by cutting out 2 sodas a day. And we haven’t even talked about exercise, yet.

And talking of exercise, most behavior change is going to focus on the five key lifestyle areas that we describe with the acronym NEURO.

N for Nutrition
E for Exercise
Unwind as in Manage Stress
R for Restorative Sleep
O for Optimal social and cognitive engagement and challenge.

Not only do we encourage you to focus on change in these five key areas, but we encourage you to use the excitement of motivation to plan and guide you through the repetition of simple, practical steps because they are what is going to get you to the promised land — even if you’re an indebted Babylonian.

Moreover, there’s another huge bonus in devising sensible strategies that work — you’re training your brain and your self how to effectively change habits. When you are successful at reversing a longtime unhealthy habit, you are developing a critical skill that transfers to other situations. So you’re not just losing weight, you’re developing self-control. Now, that’s pretty cool.

Your brain will be shaped by how you act, so to be successful you need to focus on the process not the outcome. Your brain will respond well and you will achieve success if you give it the following, which just so happens to be another NEURO acronym:

Now…. the brain lives in the present so focus on the here and now not the future
Execute…brain works on what you actually do — actions rule
Usual…the brain responds well to repetition
Reasonable…there needs to be some logic the brain can embrace
Orders…The brain will do what you tell it to do.

So, next time, whether it’s January 1st or some other date, don’t make a New Year’s resolution make a NEURO resolution by focusing on the five key lifestyle behaviors and by increasing your chance of success by feeding your brain repeated, realistic and manageable action steps.

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