How do I know? Because in the past 10 years, experts have learned a lot about how we make and break habits, and nine times out of ten we go about it the wrong way. Here are a few of the most common New Year’s resolutions that get made year after year – and that are forgotten just as often.
1. Go on a Diet.
Some weight loss experts will tell you flat out, diets don’t work. For many people, unfortunately this is very true. For other people, particularly those whose eating habits are super unhealthy in the first place or who find it easier to cede control over what they eat, they aren’t a bad option. But typically diets only work for awhile – usually for as long as you stick to the carefully regulated plan. And studies show, after awhile, most people get tired of following such a strict regimen and go back to eating pretty much what they ate before. Sadly, diets actually make many people gain weight, which a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine attributed to the boomerang action of hormones that control appetite and fat metabolism.
What Does Work: Making small changes to your eating habits. Here are a few small changes that pack a big calorie punch. Giving up that daily soda habit: 150 calories saved a day. Switching from your daily bakery muffin (400-600 calories) to a bowl of oatmeal at your desk (150 calories): 250 – 450 calories saved a day. Swap your latte (180 calories) for a cup of house java with half and half (80 calories): 100 calories saved. Better yet, switch from half and half (3 tablespoons = 80 calories) to nonfat milk (3 tablespoons = 15 calories and save an extra 65 calories per cup. Total for making all three changes: as many as 765 calories a day. And that’s without eating any more veggies!
2. Stop Smoking.
Well, it’s not that you can’t stop smoking. You can, and you should. Sooner, rather than later. But if you’re waiting for that perfect day when you’ll just be able to stop because you promised yourself you would (likely after a few too many New Year’s Eve toasts), it’s not going to happen.
What Does Work: Rather than list the techniques that work best (there are a number of really successful ones), I’m going to defer to Stanford University internist Kelly Traver, MD, author of The Program: The Brain-Smart Approach to the Healthiest You. Traver has written an entire book about how to use current neurological understanding to make healthy lifestyle changes and can tell you exactly why you should quit and how to quit and stay quit. (There’s even a website and iPhone app based on The Program to help you get started.) Add these 10 extra tricks and you’re even more likely to succeed. And while you’re at it, you might want to quit smoking pot, too, since recent science shows it’s not much better for you than tobacco.
3. Get More Exercise (Related Resolution: Join a Gym)
The problem with this one is, it’s too vague. In other words, it’s too easy to make a stab at, and then let yourself slide because it’s cold outside, or it’s too dark when you get home, or your muscles hurt, or the gym’s too crowded and the equipment smells sweaty.
What Does Work: To make a significant lifestyle change and make it stick, you need to replace an old habit (being a couch potato or workaholic) with a new one. You also need to make it pleasant, or at least not too unpleasant. A few ways to do this are to start a new sport, one you actually like, or join forces with a workout buddy you actually like and want to spend time with. What’s worked best for me, though, is to change my thinking to make exercise a no-matter-what priority, the same way I do any medical need, such as taking my prescription blood pressure medication. For more detail on this approach and others, Dr Traver has lots of ideas about how to turn yourself into someone who exercises without even questioning it.
4. Lose 20 Pounds
Like quitting smoking, it’s not that you shouldn’t lose weight. If your body-mass index is over 25, you qualify as overweight and you want to tip the scales downwards. But the typical promise, “I’m going to lose 20 pounds by June so I can wear a bathing suit,” is not going to be kept. Just ask anyone who made this resolution last year.
What Does Work: Not attaching a number to your goal. That’s not to say you shouldn’t watch the scale. While this used to be controversial (and is an absolute no-no for anyone who’s struggled with an eating disorder) recent studies suggest that regular weight checks are important for keeping any weight loss program on track. But what really works: calories in < calories out. Despite all our efforts to develop new weight loss pills (two of which, Qnexa and lorcaserin, came on the market this year) and come up with new diets, it’s pretty simple says Harvard School of Public Health, summarizing the last five years of weight loss trials. Cut out 500 calories a day (see above for ideas) and up your exercise to burn an extra 250 calories a day — and keep at it, month in and month out – and you’re on track for significant weight loss you can sustain for the rest of your life.
5. Stop Biting My Nails, or Twirling My Hair, or
It’s almost impossible to break a physical habit with willpower alone, experts say. That’s because we’ve been doing it so long (hence the name habit…) that we’re no longer aware of it.
What Does Work: Becoming aware of the cues that trigger our habits, even when we’re not paying attention. According to Psychology Today, “habit reversal therapy” can target even the toughest habits (procrastination, anyone?). I’m going to leave it up to the experts to explain this concept in detail, but suffice to say it’s based on the idea that you have to understand the “cravings underlying behaviors” before you can eliminate them.
For a more fun read on this subject, read The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life and Business by New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg.