Originally published on 12/4/2013.
The starting bell
The arrival of the new year comes with millions of the least effective training plans on the planet: New Year's resolutions. During this time, many of us mull over ways we can improve our lives in the coming year.
- I want to lose 50 pounds
- I want to spend less money
- I want to be happier
- I want to do more with my children
- I want to clean my house
- I want to eat healthier
- I want to quit smoking
- I want to train my dog
According to the Journal of Clinical Psychology, approximately 50% of the population will make such resolutions. And, according to a study from the University of Scranton published in the same journal, only about 8% of the population will manage to follow through on their resolutions successfully.
Despite the enthusiasm we have for making resolutions, the follow-through is the challenge. Resolutions rarely result in permanent improvements in quality of life. Why the lackluster success rate?
A road map with details
Resolutions are fundamentally flawed when examined through the science of changing behavior. They are like road trips without a map. Knowing your destination is, of course, important, but it is not easy to get there without a step-by-step picture of the route to take.
The person who says, "I want to lose weight next year," reminds me of dog-training clients who say only, "I want my dog to behave." The trainer response to that statement is that anything a dog is doing is a behavior. Therefore, the dog is always behaving. Whether the pet owner likes the behavior is a different story. When client say they want their dogs to "behave," what exactly does that mean?
In my work, we delve into the details, finding out more of the specifics: what behaviors does the dog do that the client dislikes? In what situations is the dog likely to offer these undesirable behaviors? More importantly, what exactly would the client like the dog to do instead of the unwanted behavior? A statement like, "I want my dog to be better," is ambiguous; a trainer needs much more information to develop a comprehensive and effective plan.
Failed resolutions, re-examined
Similarly, if your goal for a resolution is, "I want to lose 50 pounds," the what of your resolution is substantially less important than the how. While losing 50 pounds is a great goal, what path will you take to get there? It's important to take the resolution and turn it into a plan.
To lose weight you need to reduce the amount of calories your body takes in while increasing your caloric output through exercise. Sounds simple enough, yet it is a formula that many struggle with each year.
I had a friend (we'll call her Suzie). Suzie had been struggling with her weight for years and was frustrated by a lack of results from a variety of fad diets and exercise plans, all of which she found too challenging to maintain. Suzie had made many resolutions to lose weight in the past, without success. She admitted, "It seems that each year I resolve to lose 50 pounds, I end up making the same resolution the next year—the only difference is I'm generally 5, 10, or 20 pounds heavier than I was the previous year."
I asked Suzie a few questions…
- What are the obstacles to exercising?
- What kind of exercise do you enjoy best?
- What are the "food traps" you get caught in?
- What are your favorite healthy foods?
- Are there particular times when you struggle to stay on track? (Are you a late-night snacker, for example?)
Suzie didn't really enjoy exercising unless she was hiking with her dogs. Whenever Suzie made a new resolution, she would aim to spend more time walking with her dogs, but each morning she would slip into her slippers and into the same daily routine that left little time for exercise. Suzie had joined gyms and wasted money on classes she didn't attend regularly. She lived in an urban environment and while she liked to go biking, she did not like to bike through the city streets.
Her "food traps," the situations and temptations that made it challenging to stay on a weight-loss track, were decadent desserts and creamy cocktails. To say that Suzie had a sweet tooth would greatly understate her fondness for sugary confections. Luckily for Suzie, she also liked fruit quite a bit, which is nature's "dessert." "I could eat a whole watermelon by myself," she laughed. Suzie was most likely to succumb to a sugary craving right after dinner and right before bed. Sugary, cream-filled cocktails beckoned to her the most strongly at t those times as well.
Developing success with a plan, sneakers, and fruit
Last year, as we sat sharing some sugary, creamy, calorie-laden cocktails prior to New Year's, I asked Suzie, "Would you be willing to ditch the old resolution and try something new?" She laughed, nodded, and said she had little to lose, except for the 50 pounds she hadn't lost in ten years.
"What if, instead of resolving to lose 50 pounds this year, you resolved that, 'My sneakers now sleep by my bed. Every morning in January, I am going to roll out of bed and put my sneakers on immediately. I will also eat one piece of fruit each night after dinner.' Would that work?"
"It just doesn't seem like enough," Suzie replied. "I feel like I'll never lose 50 pounds that way. Just wearing sneakers doesn't make you lose weight. You didn't even mention actually exercising."
I explained to Suzie that she was thinking about resolutions, and how she can train herself to behave differently, in entirely the wrong way. Trainers are very familiar with the phrase, "split, don't lump." To change behavior, you want to break a goal behavior into many tiny pieces or criteria that are then trained individually. I knew that each morning when Suzie woke up, she had a choice to make—put on her sneakers or her slippers? The answer to that one question would set the tone for the day's activities.
What is the very first step of taking a walk? Putting on your sneakers! At my house at least, sneakers receive a positive CER (Conditioned Emotional Response) from dogs. Through classical conditioning, my dogs have learned that sneakers = walking. If I pick up my sneakers, my dogs start dancing and spinning and singing. They are like a cheerleading team for exercise! While I sometimes disappoint them and wear sneakers for reasons other than walking dogs, there have been many other times when I put on sneakers for another purpose, only to find myself thinking, "Might as well walk the dogs since they're ready to go and I already have my sneakers on."
Suzie could put on her sneakers, and then choose to go or not go on a walk. Her dogs, like mine, were masters of the guilt trip, so Suzie did find that even without resolving to exercise she wound up getting out of her house and walking more often.
Suzie also started having her evening serving of fruit. Notice that the new resolution I suggested did not even mention that Suzie stop drinking cocktails and having dessert. Why would I even point out that these items were not doing Suzie any weight-loss favors? Suzie already knew that. What we discovered, though, was that the addition of post-dinner fruit gave Suzie some of the sugar she craved. Without even addressing the cocktails or dessert directly, Suzie's consumption of those items gradually slowed.
When March came, I invited Suzie over to celebrate. Her weight was down 12 pounds—almost on track for losing 50 pounds in a year!
When Suzie came over, we made chocolate-covered strawberries together. I often make this treat to bring to parties because the strawberries are lovely and decadent. And, as far as desserts go, you could do much worse in the calorie department. I suggested to Suzie that she could make similar chocolate dips for all kinds of fruit.
I had also purchased a bottle of wine. It was sweeter than what I generally prefer, but I thought it would appeal to Suzie. She was surprised at how much she liked it, although she was not really a wine drinker. She said, "I could see myself enjoying a glass of this wine in place of a White Russian occasionally." While a glass of red wine is an alcoholic beverage just like a White Russian, it certainly is not as calorie-heavy as Suzie's creamy favorites.
"What is your April resolution?" I asked Suzie. She looked at me, puzzled. "What April resolution?"
Revisit often—and take one more step
Enter another lesson from the training community! Set small goals. Once you achieve them, refine your goals to make the exercise more challenging. When you shape a new behavior, if you are achieving success with the criteria you defined, it's time to up the proverbial ante. "You are doing so well, what's next for you?"
Tuesdays and Saturdays are Suzie's days off from work. On those days, she liked to spend extra time with her dogs. Rather than their typical walk around the neighborhood, Suzie would pack up the dogs and take them for a nice hike in the woods. Unlike Suzie, who had been getting out more and more frequently, her mountain bike had spent the winter in a lonely dark corner of the basement. Suzie liked to bike, but didn't go often because of her aversion to biking in city streets. Her dogs had already been trained to use a WalkyDog attachment, and they liked biking as well as she did.
One weekend, Suzie hooked the bike rack onto her SUV. She resolved that each Monday and Friday the last thing she would do before going to bed would be to place her bike behind her car. The next day, she could hook the bike to her SUV, drive out to the woods, and bike with the dogs—or not. There was no obligation. The bike would be there if she was interested. If she chose not to bike, the only "consequence" would be that she would need to move the bike in order to back her car out of the garage.
"It's almost too easy!" Suzie said when July arrived. She was down 35 pounds! (Having not lost any weight myself, I was asking myself why I hadn't followed my own advice—a topic for a future article, perhaps?)
Suzie was biking on nearly every day off, and walking at least four mornings per week. Each night, she began changing out of her work boots and into her sneakers instead of her slippers. What she found was that more often than not the act of changing into her sneakers motivated her to go out for a short, 15-minute walk. (Her mid-May resolution!)
In August, Suzie switched to red wine at night, choosing her favored White Russians only on the evenings that preceded her days off. In September, Suzie began pureeing fruit and making her own fro-yo confections to replace the cheesecake, truffles, or ice cream she had favored in the past.
In October, Suzie bought a pair of cross trainers. She'd jog for a bit on her outings with the dogs, stop when she felt her breathing become labored, walk until she had slowed her breath and felt more comfortable, and resume jogging. By November, she was running for half of her walks. By December, she jogged for most of her walks. She was also down 65 pounds!!!
"I think my resolution for April next year might be to enroll in my first 5K," Suzie told me as we prepped chocolate-covered strawberries and drank wine in preparation for a New Year's celebration.
New Year's news
You can change your life. The same techniques that are successful helping dogs develop new and more socially acceptable behaviors can help you change your own behavior as well.
- Identify a goal.
- Break it into lots of itty-bitty, teeny tiny goals.
- Don't raise your criteria until you find success where you are.
- Be patient with and kind to yourself.
- If you make a mistake, no big deal. Your resolution for tomorrow can get you back on track. Don't give up on a year of change because of a bad day!
Your next step
Don't worry about a New Year's resolution. If you have a big goal, break it into 12, 52, or 365 mini-goals if you need to. You may not know what you'll be doing in December of next year, and that's fine. Figure out what you're going to do next Monday, or tomorrow, or five minutes from now.
Losing 50 (or 65!) pounds is a destination, but you will need a road map to get there, and that is your training plan. That major life change you crave can be as simple as putting on a pair of sneakers first thing in the morning! It may be much easier than you think.