“Some people have a regular practice of making New Year resolutions — generally shattering them before January has hidden its cold head out of sight.” – Will Carleton
The American poet, Will Carleton, lived from 1845 to 1912 but in the last 100+ years, it doesn’t appear much has changed as his quote relates to New Year’s resolutions. Whether it be losing weight, improving fitness, quitting smoking or any number of life-improving aspirations, it seems that for most, resolutions don’t last very long.
A 1988 study from the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment (JSAT) found that only 55% of folks stick with their commitment for a full month. Another study reported 80% had dropped out by the second week of February.
So, here we are. It’s February 2021 — how are you doing? Are your resolutions now firmly embedded in your behavior? If not, no worries — it’s not too late to recover.
If you had high hopes for a “new you” in December but now are wondering, “What happened?” then you are not an outlier. In fact, you are very much in the majority. I even saw a meme last month that defined a New Year’s resolution as a “To-Do List” for the first week of January.
The older I get, which seems to be happening on a very regular basis, the more I realize the quality of my life has very little to do with what I say, think, intend, profess, know, dream, share or wish. The quality of my life really boils down to just one thing — what I do. And it’s not what I do every now and then that matters. What matters is what I do on a regular, consistent basis. More times than not, it’s also what I do without thinking about it.
That is, by definition, a habit — something you do without even thinking about it.
The experts seem to agree that 40-50% of our lives are habitual. When it comes to behavior, we humans are extremely predictable. Much of what we do today is what we did yesterday and it’s also what we will, most likely, end up doing tomorrow. There also is often a large disconnect between what people say and what they do.
So, rather than simply making a resolution, first try carving out some quiet time, sitting down with pen, paper or laptop, and conduct a Habit Inventory. Think about your average day and your average week, and record everything you do on a consistent basis without ever giving it a thought — things like brushing your teeth, tying your shoes, putting on your seatbelt.
If you’re thoughtful and honest, this might turn out to be a fairly lengthy list. Once complete, go down the list and place a plus (+) or a minus (-) sign next to every habit as it relates to your health or quality of life. Obviously “brushing your teeth” or “walking the dog” would earn a “+” while something like “drinking a soft drink with lunch” or “having a cigarette after dinner” would garner a “-” symbol. This exercise will probably help you connect the dots between your behavior, your health and maybe more importantly right now, your state of mind.
Let’s be honest, this “New Year” is different. While many seem to be longing for life to get “back to normal,” the truth is, right now, we’re not anywhere close. Moving from 2020 to 2021 has not made a measurable difference in however we define “normal.” Yes, we have a new president, but the virus, political unrest, social unrest and the economy are all still worthy of front-page news and, according to the research, it’s taking a toll on our collective psyche. Anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts are all on the rise. The numbers are especially alarming for younger folks, those in the 18-24 age range. If you happen to be struggling with the emotional side of life, I encourage you to be intentional with two specific categories that have been shown to help: physical activity and sleep. Resolve to do a bit better in these two areas. Then, develop a plan.
Why humans do what they do, or don’t do, or what they say they’d like to do, has always been of interest to me. This time of year, ramping up physical activity often ranks high on resolution lists. If that’s the case for you, and you’ve tried before without much luck, I have a suggestion. Try shifting how you think about physical activity, otherwise often referred to as — that dreaded word — exercise.
For many, “exercise” brings back bad memories of gym class or P.E. in junior high — maybe getting picked last when teams were selected or the adolescent awkwardness of showering with classmates. Or maybe, it’s just the fact that exercise takes effort. We all know there are myriad benefits to regular physical activity: lower blood pressure, improved cholesterol, triglycerides and glucose. It helps with bone density, muscle mass and flexibility. Exercise also aids in weight loss maintenance and in the prevention of weight gain, as well as lowering the risk of diabetes, dementia and many forms of cancer. The list is long and well validated.
But maybe the most powerful benefit of physical activity is that it makes you feel better.
Michelle Segar, Ph.D., from University of Michigan, has spent much of her career studying what motivates people to exercise. While all the benefits mentioned above are important, Segar points out that immediate rewards are much more powerful than an outcome which may, or may not, happen sometime in the future. From a behavioral economics standpoint, this is known as “present-focus bias.” In other words, better mood, energy and happiness (now) are much more likely to spur action than “improved health” (later).
So, if you’re having trouble making physical activity a regular part of your daily routine, try focusing on the fact it will help you feel better right now! Don’t worry about your weight, blood pressure or triglycerides — just think about how your emotions will improve if you take a quick walk around the block. “Ten minutes from now I’m going to feel better!”
When an individual’s sense of well-being and energy improves after a short bout of activity, which it does, then they immediately receive feedback that they have achieved their goal. They don’t have to wait for a reward somewhere “down the road.”
From an action standpoint, “a better today” is much more powerful than “a healthier tomorrow.”
In addition to regular physical activity, I encourage you to consider how improved sleep might also increase your overall sense of well-being. Think back to the last time you had a “great night” of sleep. How did the following day go? My guess is pretty well.
The pandemic has absolutely impacted sleep routines. While no one is “average,” it appears that many of us are sleeping a bit longer than before, but the quality of our sleep has been negatively impacted. That’s unfortunate because sleep is what allows us to recharge our emotional batteries. Matthew Walker, Ph.D., the author of “Why We Sleep,” refers to it as “emotional convalescence.” I love that term!
Being intentional about your sleep routines, also known as your sleep hygiene, can have a profound impact on how you’re going to feel when you wake up. Probably the most important step you can take is being consistent as to when you go to bed and when you get up. Do your best to establish a Monday-Sunday routine as opposed to separate weekday and weekend routines. Remember, you only have one biological clock, not two.
Your minimum “line in the sand” amount of sleep should be no less than seven hours. It’s certainly possible you need more than that, but try to avoid anything less than seven. With that in mind, try to pick an hour window when you go to bed every night, say 10:00-11:00 p.m. Then, try to get up in the same hour window every morning, say 6:00-7:00 a.m. Other helpful hints include not using technology in your bedroom (i.e. phone, laptop, tablet, television, etc.), creating a cool environment (studies show 65-67 degrees is ideal), and keeping an eye on your caffeine and alcohol intake. For most, alcohol serves as a sedative (helps you get to sleep), but unfortunately, it has a profound impact on the quality of your sleep. Heart rate, core temperature, respiration and heart rate variability are all negatively impacted by alcohol. Please don’t kill the messenger. I’m not saying “don’t drink.” I just want you to be aware of what the evidence shows.
I may have saved the best for last. Something known as self-talk, the ongoing internal conversation we have with ourselves, has a significant impact on how we feel and behave. Reframing these conversations can help lead to sustainable change which, when it comes to resolutions, is the ultimate goal, yes? Rather than thinking of exercise or sleep as a “have to,” I choose to look at them as a “get to.” Segar encourages us to think of these activities as “gifts” rather than “chores.” Yes, my overall health will improve if I move and sleep more, but the most important outcome, in terms of fueling permanent change, is that “I’ll feel better now.”
So, who says that January is the only time to start a resolution? The last 11 months have been challenging for everyone, so let’s mix it up this year. I encourage you to make a February resolution, or two. Apply some of the techniques I’ve shared and set the bar low, because stringing together small victories is helpful in terms of reinforcing behavior, and let’s see if we truly can make 2021 our best year ever!
Todd Whitthorne is an author, speaker and corporate wellness executive based in Dallas. He serves as the Chief Inspiration Officer for Naturally Slim and is the author of “Fit Happens!…Simple Steps for a Healthier, More Productive Life!” Todd also hosts a twice-weekly podcast, In Less Than a Minute, which you can find on his website, toddwhitthorne.com, or on your favorite platform including Facebook and YouTube.