This gets old: On Jan. 1, you resolve to eat better and exercise more. By Jan. 5 (my personal limit) or so, you’re hungry and tired and reverting back to the previous year’s trashy habits.
“While it’s great to have this burst of energy and commitment and willpower, the research shows that most people don’t sustain it,” says Margaret Moore (a.k.a. Coach Meg), co-founder of the Institute of Coaching at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital. “What’s important is that you address a whole bunch of interesting questions around why you want to change and how you'd go about it, so that you really give yourself a good foundation for success.”
So, in advance of Sept. 1 — arguably a far better start date than New Year’s Day, because it’s not just a calendar date, it’s a true end-of-summer regime change — shall we take her up on that? (Also, Sept. 1 is the launch date of WBUR’s new exercise podcast, The Magic Pill. Time to prep the head to make a happier body. You can sign up here.)
Meg, author most recently of “Organize Your Emotions, Optimize Your Life,” (co-authored by Magic Pill co-host Dr. Eddie Phillips) distills the steps she recommends:
1. Be Aware Of Your Ambivalence
About two thirds of us are dealing with some level of ambivalence around developing healthy lifestyles. That’s natural. The ambivalence arises because on the one hand, you have really good reasons to make changes, but on the other hand, you often have just as many, or even larger reasons, not to make the changes. We often neglect all the good reasons not to make a change. And if we don’t address those early on, then they come back to bite us later on.
For example, you might decide you’re going to join a gym and stick to the regimen of getting there three times a week. And what you haven’t stopped to consider is that you simply don’t have the time for the drive back and forth to the gym every day, and that isn’t going to be sustainable. As much as your willpower might say, "Gosh, I’ll get up earlier and I’m going to make the time," your normal way of life steps back in and crushes the good intention.
Coaches call this "decisional balance": the balance between reasons to go forward and the reasons not to go forward. And that’s what creates ambivalence, when the two are equally balanced. You have to change the balance, so that there's more energy around changing than the counter-energy blocking you from change.
2. Strengthen The 'Why'
Let’s start with the reasons to change: There may be many good reasons. You might want to look better in your clothes, you might want to feel more youthful. It’s important, though, to dig a little deeper than you normally do, because if the reasons are really superficial, there just may not be enough fire behind them to get through the ups and downs of changing.
So you might want to deepen your questions. You might say, "I want to look better in clothes," or "I want to fit into an old pair of jeans." Then you ask yourself: "Why does that matter to me?" Well, it matters to me because I want to feel youthful. Well, why does that matter to me? And as you get deeper and deeper, eventually you hit the oil well. You hit the gusher. "Oh, that’s why I care about this!" It’s a deeper, deeper yearning and desire, and when you get to that, it can bring tears to your eyes. And that kind of energy is what can make the difference in persisting through ups and downs.
3. Inch Up Confidence
This is where we need to put our efforts: How do we build confidence? Inching up our confidence matters more than hitting some kind of jackpot or some kind of deadline. It’s far more important to slowly build your competence and confidence over time than to say "I’ve got to be able to run a marathon in six months."
We have a rule of thumb: If you were to score your confidence in your ability to do something for the next week, and 10 is full confidence while 1 is "Forget about it," you really want to be at a 7 or higher. Because if your confidence is a little lower, there’s a significant possibility that you won’t succeed, and that will deplete your confidence even more.
4. Aim Lower
So let’s say you’re thinking, "If I aim to work out four days a week, my confidence that I can do that is at around a 5. But if I aim for two days a week, my confidence shoots up to a 9." Those two days are what you want to shoot for, then, because you’re confident you can do two days but you’re not sure about four. It’s very important to calibrate the size of the goal to your confidence level, so that you succeed or even do better than what you’d hoped.
5. Because It’s Not Easy
We need to realize that changing our lifestyles is hard. If you look at all the research data on changing lifestyles — whether it’s behaviors to support weight loss or regular exercise or eating behaviors or stress behaviors — what’s typical in studies is that people do well for six months and get where they want to go, and then two years later they’re back to the baseline or even worse. When we make these rapid changes we actually have not built sufficient competence to support the long term. It's like a makeover: You will yourself to follow the prescription, but then when you get back to regular life, it all goes to hell.
6. So Focus On Learning
As Heidi Halvorsen says, when it’s easy, you can focus on looking good and setting a really high bar, but when it’s hard, you want to focus on learning and getting better, not looking good. Chances are, you’re not going to look good because the competence isn’t there yet. You simply don’t have the wiring in your brain to support this new lifestyle yet.
And exercise habits take longer to establish than other habits. It’s much easier to drink more water. There was a study in the U.K. on how long it takes to make a habit automatic, and exercise habits were closer to a year, whereas changing one nutritional habit might take weeks.
It is a learning exercise. If things don’t go well, you want to bounce back, and curiosity is the path to resilience.
7. And Be Creative
It helps to be consciously creative about solving problems. For a lot of people, their work lives don’t generate enough creative opportunities, and we get out of practice. People have blind spots. The next step is an example:
8. Reconsider Your Time
Many people have the perspective that their lives are so full that there’s just no space for exercise. But when you exercise regularly, you have more space for your work because your mental abilities improve immediately — more nutrients and oxygen to the brain. You think better, you’re more creative, you’re more open-minded, you’re a lot of things.
As you'll explore in The Magic Pill, exercise is a breakthrough medicine. So the irony is that we say we don’t have time to exercise, but the truth of the matter is that when you exercise, you have more time to accomplish more, to be more productive and creative. That’s the biggest blind spot people have.
9. Take Stock
Remember to take stock of the meaning and the purpose and the larger reason why you’re doing this. It isn’t just fitting into the jeans. There’s something more important at work: Maybe you want to be a role model for your kids, or you don’t want to be dependent on other people, or you want to work until you’re 70 and you want to stay youthful. You want to get to the reasons that make a difference in your healthy decisions each day.
Just to reach the round number 10, I'd like to supplement Meg's tips with my own favorite, my top personal takeaway from producing The Magic Pill:
10. Enjoy And Ease Up
Fitness motivation expert Michelle Segar, author of “No Sweat,” has twisted my head around forever about exercise. Here’s how I’d sum up her argument: We’re taught to think of exercise as a chore, something we’re supposed to do, at a certain intensity for a certain number of minutes. What if we junk that notion — which tends to doom us to failure — and instead think of exercise as a gift, a joy, an elixir? And what if we realize that every bit of physical activity “counts,” from a leisurely walk to a sprint? If you accept that thinking, you focus on making sure that you enjoy your activity, which makes you far likelier to keep doing it. And you may find that by focusing on your pleasure, you enjoy it even more.
Final note: We’re planning to stream a Magic Pill launch event, “Get coached!” featuring Coach Meg and others at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 31. Please join us on CommonHealth’s Facebook page to watch her coach a few brave souls in person. She’ll also be taking questions from our Facebook audience.