It happens to us every year. We decide that the new year is going to be a fresh start for us, that we are going to be better this year.
We may even start off with a bang, impressing even ourselves by going to the gym every day, going on a big healthy food grocery shopping expedition, cooking meals from scratch, drinking 8 glasses of water, and going without sugar in our coffee.
Then after a few days, the excitement starts to wear off a little, you start to think about how good you’ve been and how you deserve to have a rest day (that turns into a rest week), a little treat to reward yourself for eating healthy (which turns into a whole family sized block of chocolate miraculously disappearing), or grabbing takeaway just this once (and then forgetting to bring lunch to work three days in a row).
It’s not just you.
And it’s not because you don’t have the willpower.
The ones who go hard and stick with it
There are always stories of people who just decided that today they were going to change everything, and then…. they actually did it. Permanently.
Unfortunately these stories are the exception to the rule, and it all comes down to cost and benefit. Those who are able to make drastic changes and stick to it are either facing such devastating consequences if they don’t change, or experience such intense benefits from the changes they do make that going back to their old ways is out of the question.
An example of an extreme cost for not making a change might be someone who experienced a heart attack and barely survived, and knows they need to change or there is a very real risk this will happen again.
An example of an extreme benefit would be a person who is severely depressed finding regular exercise and healthy food means they no longer feel utter despair on a daily basis, and they never want to go back to feeling that way again.
For the majority of us, making changes to be healthier is rarely so life or death, and costs and benefits are more subtle.
Two sides of a coin
Doing exercise has its costs- muscular discomfort, feeling short of breath, being sore afterwards. It also has its benefits – endorphins and happy feelings after that 20-25 minute mark, feeling good for taking a step towards getting fitter, better concentration throughout the day.
Not doing exercise also has its costs- feeling bad about yourself, feeling more tired through the day, losing fitness you worked hard to gain. It also has its benefits- not having to go to the effort of actually doing the workout, being able to just sit and relax and binge watch Game of Thrones reruns, having time to do something else fun, not having the inconvenience of having to shower before work etc.
I want to change! But why is it so hard?
It’s a very delicate balance between seemingly small costs and benefits that will determine whether a change will become a habit which becomes and effortless part of your week that you don’t need to force.
At the start, everything feels hard. You are unfit, and working out hurts or leaves you feeling sick, or is embarrassing to do in public. You don’t know healthy recipes off by heart and it’s hard and time consuming to cook everything from scratch all the time. The mental battle of planning when to fit in exercise, what meals to prepare, what ingredients you need, how to say no to all the temptations that pop up.
Making changes to become healthy is a real effort… at the start.
But what happens after time, is that you get fitter, exercise feels easier, you stop being sore for days afterwards, you start to lose weight and feel more confident, and start to enjoy training as part of a group.
You find recipes that you love, you have piles of healthy meals frozen from previous nights when there was leftovers and so it’s easy to not get takeaway, your tastebuds change so that the natural flavours in healthy foods start to taste incredible and your previous favourites taste too sweet or salty or rich.
You already know which times during the week work for you for exercising, you have already read all the labels and know which foods and brands to choose when shopping, and you’ve got plenty of meal plans from previous weeks to use for planning weeks to come.
Everything has become easier.
So what is the trick to actually getting to that point?
1: Get clear on your costs and benefits
Rather than acting without really consciously thinking things through, write it down. Write a column of costs/benefits for exercise, eating healthy, reducing alcohol, quitting smoking, drinking less coffee, remembering to take your vitamins… whatever habit you are wanting to change.
Then think outside the box and consider the side you may not have really thought about before- whats are the costs/benefits of not changing.
Once you have the answers to this second question, you can weight up how it all compares. E.g. Is avoiding feeling uncomfortable really more important than being fit enough to play with your kids/grandkids?
2: Reduce or eliminate the costs of making the change
If exercise hurts your knees, what measures could you take to minimise this? Could you invest in better quality shoes that absorb impact better? Could you go see a physiotherapist or learn how to strap your knee joint correctly? Could you choose water exercise which takes the pressure off those tender areas?
3: Double up the benefits
How could you make a healthy change even more enjoyable?
If you know that exercise will make you feel happier during the day, could you listen to a motivating or enjoyable audiobook at the same time?
If you know that choosing eating healthier foods will help you lose weight, could you pair up with a buddy who will eat healthier too so that you nurture a friendship as well as support each other?
If you know planning your week will make it easier to be healthy, could you get a cute weekly planner that makes it a bit more fun?
By adding extra benefits to those changes, you are tipping the scales in favour of keeping up those healthy habits, as well as making your week just a bit better. So what can you do to get your resolutions back on track today?