I was talking to Mark this evening about trying to nail down the general principles of behavioral change -- not the list of "handy weight loss tips," but the general principles that I've followed to choose my new, permanent habits and to make them stick.
All right, I'm fessing up: I've been tossing around the idea of putting these disconnected eating-and-exercise blog posts into a longer and more organized form. What I'm not yet sure about is focus: gluttony? personal change in general? willpower defeating? straight-up weight loss?
Anyway, I was amused tonight to encounter this article from the NYT's John Tierney, "Be It Resolved," which is very much like the sort of thing I was envisioning writing.
IT’S still early in 2012, so let’s be optimistic. Let’s assume you have made a New Year’s resolution and have not yet broken it. Based on studies of past resolutions, here are some uplifting predictions:
1) Whatever you hope for this year — to lose weight, to exercise more, to spend less money — you’re much more likely to make improvements than someone who hasn’t made a formal resolution.
2) If you can make it through the rest of January, you have a good chance of lasting a lot longer.
3) With a few relatively painless strategies and new digital tools, you can significantly boost your odds of success.
Now for a not-so-uplifting prediction: Most people are not going to keep their resolutions all year long. They’ll start out with the best of intentions but the worst of strategies, expecting that they’ll somehow find the willpower to resist temptation after temptation. By the end of January, a third will have broken their resolutions, and by July more than half will have lapsed.
They’ll fail because they’ll eventually run out of willpower, which social scientists no longer regard as simply a metaphor. They’ve recently reported that willpower is a real form of mental energy, powered by glucose in the bloodstream, which is used up as you exert self-control.
Well, that explains a lot. Dieting is hard because low blood sugar depletes your willpower!
But this is the paragraph in the article that really resonated with me (emphasis mine):
One of their newest studies, published last month in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, tracked people’s reactions to temptations throughout the day. The study, led by Wilhelm Hofmann of the University of Chicago, showed that the people with the best self-control, paradoxically, are the ones who use their willpower less often. Instead of fending off one urge after another, these people set up their lives to minimize temptations. They play offense, not defense, using their willpower in advance so that they avoid crises, conserve their energy and outsource as much self-control as they can.
This. This. A thousand times this. Using willpower sucks, so you have to exert it in advance. So much of what worked for me is about this very principle.
The article goes on to give a somewhat outlandish anecdote and then from it derives some strategies that ring very true to me:
- Set one clear goal at a time
- Precommit (like Odysseus lashing himself to the mast, remove your options to break your resolution)
- Be accountable to someone else, and plan to pay a real penalty if you don't reach your goal
- Keep track of how you are doing
- Don't overreact to a lapse by saying "what the hell" and figuring the day's already ruined
- Tell yourself you can have some later (rather than swearing off pleasures for good)
- Reward yourself, or find reward in your actions, often.
I will have to spend some time thinking about this -- but maybe the first step is to read the book about willpower that is referenced in the article.