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Why Humans Fail: The reason New Years resolutions don't stick! Part 3: Change


I’m going to start this with an inspirational quote, because fitness blogs are all about the quotes! Prepare to be blown away…

“Change is the end result of all true learning”

*mic drop*

That’s important because this post is all about learning how to make lasting changes, using the information from the last 2 posts in this series. So, how can we make sure we succeed at implementing our New Years’ Resolutions?

  1. You need to lay appropriate mental foundations that assist you to make choices that bring you closer to your goals

  2. You must create an environment in which more opportunities for change are present (this gives you more opportunities to choose the ‘change options’ more often, which brings you closer to your goals)

These two points will be the focus of this post, but I will briefly recap Parts 1 and 2: Part 1 outlined how we create cognitive dissonance (where perception does not match reality) and how this contributes to a mental framework that can result in failure to persist in achieving our goals. Part 2 expanded on these ideas by discussing Value Hierarchies and how these dictate behaviour down to a ‘micro routine’ level. Now that we understand how we can cheat ourselves and how our values play a role in dictating even ‘small’ behaviours, we can examine change.

As I said at the end of Part 2, “There is no how to change, there is or there isn’t”… You either do, or you don’t. The underlying principle is simple, but simplicity does not equal easy! The other thing about change is that no one can do it except you - you must choose change, consistently, not just once but every day. This is why I believe a better question to the dilemma of “how do I change?” is “how can I help myself make the decisions that take me closer to my goal?”

This is where we must (1) lay the mental foundations and (2) create opportunities within your environment.

Laying appropriate mental foundations to assist you in making choices that bring you closer to your goals.

This requires the reduction of dissonance, where possible. We have established that humans are not rational, but we think we are… in fact we strive to be ONLY rational. The issue is that by making rationality the Supreme Leader of the People’s Democratic Republic of You, you are attempting to become a psychopath. Psychopaths are solely rational, and we all know how that ends! A better understanding and acceptance of ourselves (i.e. knowing we like rationality but rarely achieve this aim when decision-making) helps us succeed at making changes that have eluded us thus far.

Rather than thinking about rationality vs. emotionality, it is more useful to view yourself as a collection of ‘things’… or ‘sub-personalities’ (which includes different emotional states, because these can be considered their own personality). We are a very complex beings with various motivations, drives, and desires that occur at once and commonly conflict. So, you have a rational personality, a hungry personality, a thirsty personality, a loving personalty, a joy-seeking personality…

The rational part of our selves is evolutionarily the newest, and therefore weakest (or less-developed), sub-personality of our psyche. The other sub-personalities have been around for millennia, governing our lives and the lives of every other animal. Because these other sub-personalities are much stronger, and run mostly automatically on instinct, we have little hope in trying to impose rationality on ourselves, no matter how hard we try. Unfortunately, the harder we try to impose rationality with force, the more it becomes like paddling upstream in a flood - eventually you’ll get exhausted and give up.

Let’s be honest, we can all think of times when our hungry personality triumphed over our rationality… #pizzaandbrownies

(See Jonathan Haidt’s “Rider and Elephant” metaphor, or www.thinkgraydaily.blogspot.com.au)

If we view ourselves (more kindly, in my opinion) through this multiplicity, we lay a mental foundation that minimises the chances of creating dissonance, which reduces our stress levels and the likelihood we will fall into ‘autopilot’ and enact old habits. If you catch yourself falling off the bandwagon, you might find ‘rational you’ beating up ‘lazy you’ or ‘hungry you’ or ‘tired you’ and this internal conflict (or dissonance) starts a cycle that ends in exhaustion and a high likelihood of taking the easy option (i.e. the road more travelled - the old habits you want to break).

It is much more effective to own the fact that you “failed” to hit that goal, in that context. “Lazy me won today. Thats ok, at the very least I got a chance to relax”

Why berate yourself for choosing that option? Yes, it’s not what you wanted, but we can see from the above what that will do. Instead, try self-compassion and ask yourself what you can do to make it better in future? How do you create a generally upward trajectory, instead of aiming for a perfect straight line? Over the course of a week, you want more days where you succeed toward your goals, not necessarily goal achievement every single day.

What we need is an alternative to commanding and making demands of ourselves - this is the second step toward creating the mental foundation that assists you making choices that take you closer to your goals.

The idea here is to negotiate with ourselves, honestly. Let our rationality mediate between the other sub-personalities, using it to help us achieve our goals instead of using it to quash our instincts (and eventually exhaust us). So, rather than, “I will eat vegetables every day and go to the gym 3 days this week”, try “If I manage to eat vegetables and go to the gym 3 days this week, I will have a pizza and a GoT marathon this weekend to relax”. Here, you are rewarding your efforts, allowing the lazy/hungry sub-personalities to get what they want, and moving closer to your goal of healthier eating and exercise.

If you say, “I went to the gym, so I won’t have *insert ‘bad’ food*” you are depriving yourself of something you enjoy (something that your hungry/gluttonous sub-personality wants for a reason) because of exercise (something you do because of rationality) and therefore you have created a negative association in which the rational sub-personality is fighting the other sub-personalities. We all know how that ends…

What would happen if you created a positive connection, where you reward yourself for doing something that takes you closer to your goals? So, “If I do A, I will treat myself with B”

But Aram, what’s the point of going to the gym if I treat myself with chips/chocolate/pizza/wine?”

The beautiful thing about healthy choices is that they are self-reinforcing. You feel better when you’re healthier (fact), so you (over time, not immediately) start to make choices that get you closer to that point. For example, repeated gym sessions leave you feeling empowered, confident in your body, and positive… repeated pizzas tend to leave you feeling greasy, lethargic, and bloated. You become mindful of the positive effects that vegetables and exercise are having on your body (and mind!), and notice the negative effects when you eat fast foods or skip your morning bootcamp. The question slowly changes over time to, “which do you prefer: the feeling healthy choices give you, or the feeling unhealthy choices do?” You need to pick

By starting to negotiate with yourself compassionately, instead of imposing limits on yourself, you create a situation with choice, rather than a situation with following orders… because, really, who likes following orders?!

Creating opportunities in your environment in which more ‘change options’ are present… so you can use your mental foundation to choose these options more frequently.

This requires adjustment of your Value Hierarchies to present yourself with more opportunities to change. The problem with most New Years Resolutions is that these goals are either too abstract (e.g. “be healthier”) or focus solely on a micro-routine (e.g. “go to the gym 3 times a week”).

Abstract goals do not clarify what the goal actually means… “Be healthier” could be a great goal, but what does it actually mean? What actions are needed to achieve it? When will you know if you have achieved it? On top of these issues, there is no way to determine whether it fits into your Value Hierarchies. You need to ask yourself what “healthier” means, how you can move toward this definition, and whether it fits into your existing value structure. Creating an abstract goal does not nest it in a hierarchy; it becomes completely devoid of meaning.

Taking this even further, “healthier” (as you define it) may not fit into your values, which means you’d have to change your entire Value Hierarchy to accommodate this. That’s doable, but it does require a lot of work. If you don’t consider this before setting your New Years Resolution, you’ll end up in the rationality vs. other sub-personalities saga, and give up due to exhaustion. At least knowing you’ll need to alter your value structure gives you direction and purpose to help you achieve your goal… without having a reason to travel, or a well-defined destination, how can you (and why would you) move toward something?

On the flip side of nesting a goal within a value hierarchy is focusing solely on a micro-routine; this type of goal doesn’t give you anything to move toward, it just says “move”… “Go to the gym 3 times a week” could also be a great goal, but without articulating the value behind this goal, you lack purpose and direction. When the going gets tough and other things get in the way, you don’t have a reason to continue this micro-routine and it gets replaced by the old habits you were wanting to break in the New Year.

Questions like, “why am I going to the gym?” Or “which Value does going to the gym get me closer to?”allow you to nest your micro-routine into a Value Hierarchy (or go through the action of changing your Value Hierarchy) that give your actions purpose. Being able to articulate what this goal helps you accomplish, or what it’s helping you move towards, keeps you on track toward it. Essentially, goal setting needs to include a lot of why and how questions (and answers!).

How does this help you create opportunities in your environment that help you to change?

When your goal has value, and your micro-routines are attached to those values, you can more easily recognise the actions that are going to move you toward it, and those that are going to hinder your progress. This also brings in the idea of compassionate negotiation versus commanding imposition - your ‘healthier options’ become of value to you because you understand how they will get you closer to being the person you want to be, whereas your ‘unhealthier options’ take you further from a value.

For example, when presented with the options of walking or driving a short distance, you become more conscious that choosing walking will move you closer to your valued ‘healthier’ goals. This example shows us the difference between an imposed “oh I have to walk *sigh*” and a negotiated “I’m a bit tired, but if I choose to walk I will feel more positive, and could reward myself with a coffee when I arrive”. Because this is self-reinforcing, you then begin to create opportunities for walking, instead of just choosing it when the option is presented.

The idea of ‘health’ has been instilled into a Value Hierarchy of what it means to be a better person, and why that might be important. The micro-routine has been stated in a way that moves you toward your valued goal of having a better life. You can then be more honest with yourself, negotiate micro-routines, and become conscious of options that move you toward your overarching Value, rather than imposing an abstract micro-routine in a punishing way (which is likely to make you hate the gym and healthy choices!)

The final thing I will say on this point is that it’s all up to you - these tips will help you set up a mental foundation and environment to choose the ‘right’ options (those that will bring you closer to your goals), but you’ve got to make the decision to change and to feel better. I am not above you in this domain and I struggle with these kinds of internal battles myself. It can be useful to remember, however, “our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us”

Good luck, and Happy New Year Phoenix Team!


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