New Year, New You - Behaviour Change Tips - January 2018

By OK In Health's Articles


The new year is often seen as a time of renewal. The practice of making resolutions dates back to the time of ancient Babylonians.

While many people make resolutions, only 10 percent of people are able to sustain a change after a few months. Why are the majority unsuccessful?

One pitfall is setting up too many resolutions. People also fail because of what is called the false hope syndrome which means they have unrealistic expectations about changing their behaviour in terms of time, amount, ease and consequences. Remember too that change doesn't need to happen on January 1; rather, it can happen at any time of the year.

On a positive note, by making a New Year's resolution you are ten times more likely to achieve your goal than someone who does not make a resolution. If you can sustain the behaviour for a few months, the new routine will have taken over and your new behavior will become automatic. The following ideas can help you make and sustain change.

Goal setting - Setting goals allows you to plan and focus your change efforts. Goals should be concrete, specific, measurable, and realistic. Think of achieving your goal as an adventure or experiment. Here are some points about goal setting:

  • You can have short term goals (weekly), intermediate (3 months) and long-term (6 months). For example, a long-term goal could be to lose 10 pounds but a short term weekly plan could be to stop snacking after dinner for three evenings a week to achieve the goal.
  • Ask yourself if your goals are realistic given your abilities and resources.
  • Don’t choose negative goals as in goals for actions you want to avoid. Why? The habit-learning system does not learn from the experience of avoidance. We learn from doing and generate habits when we do the action related to an environment.
  • Don’t start right away. Give yourself time to think about your goal. Set a start date to prepare yourself and to give this day some significance.
  • Choose something you enjoy doing since you are more likely to stick with it. If you do not like jogging, do not jog! Find what works for you. Know your motivations and ensure that they are strong. Be clear about why you are doing this and what are the benefits. For example, you may want to quit smoking for your wife and children because you are a role model for your children and you want to be there for your family. The Mayo Clinic's Philip T. Hagen, MD suggests posting your reasons for making a change. It is important to keep your eye on the prize. For example, for someone wanting to eat in a healthful way, ask yourself how eating a cookie will contribute to your goal.
  • Write down your baby step or plan to achieve the goal. In a study of new year's resolutions that included 5000 subjects, the 10% of participants who had achieved their target broke their goal into smaller goals and felt a sense of achievement when they achieved these. The more specific you are (e.g., what, when, how much and how often) you are more likely to achieve your plan of action. A week at a time can be a helpful time frame. Ask yourself if you are confident that the plan is realistic and achievable, and it is something you want to do. If not, adjust your plan.
  • Start where you are and start small. If you try to change too much too quickly, you can set yourself up for problems. Harvard Medical School suggests selecting one choice that is a sure bet, rather than a number of choices. Once a new healthy behaviour becomes a habit, try adding another one that works towards the overall goal. Even small amounts of change can be helpful.
  • Visualize yourself achieving your goal. You can use stories, metaphors, pictures, and physical objects for your vision. By doing this you are tapping into your emotions which can leverage change.

Get a support network- Whether it be a friend, co-worker or family member, someone else on your journey will keep you motivated and accountable.

Find a buddy who has the same goals and work together to support one another. Talk about what you are doing.

Consider joining a support group. When you have someone available to share your struggles and successes, the work is easier and the goal is less intimidating. Be aware that some people will be negative and will resist your change of habits. Do not allow them to sabotage you. Another option is to join the Self-Management BC 

Self-Management Health Coach Program. A trained health coach supports people to make healthy lifestyle changes. Participants receive a weekly 30 minute phone call for a period of three months. For more information, please visit the website
Professional health coaches are also available, along with personal trainers or counselors.

Assess your environment - Don’t underestimate the impact of the environment. While many people think they lack willpower, one of the biggest sources of failure is the environment. Address the easy obstacles and brainstorm to overcome the obstacles. For example, stock up your kitchen with healthy foods. The world is full of temptations and the more you are exposed to them, the more likely you are to give in. In fact, according to the Behaviour Change Institute, healthy behaviour is abnormal and requires special care. By knowing that making healthy changes is challenging, it allows us to help us establish realistic expectations about what we will face in making changes. It also helps us avoid unnecessary feelings of failure.

Change behaviors by removing enablers, triggers and barriers. Look at your environment and make changes so that the actions you want to take are the easy choices, and the actions you do not want to take are the difficult choices. Replace negative actions with positive actions e.g., when you want to snack in front of the television, replace this with a walk around the block. Take healthy actions to affect your habit-learning system and learn new ways to do things.

Reward yourself - Self rewards are a way to celebrate your accomplishments. Make the reward personally meaningful. Reinforcement is a key learning principle. Identify a good reward system and set up easy, practical and affordable goals (e.g., get a new pair of walking shoes, some new music, a massage). Timing of rewards - rewards do not have to be given only for reaching your goal. You can reward yourself when you start or achieve a short-term goal. Do not delay the reward. This allows your reward circuits to fire when you do the activity, resulting in a connection in your brain between pleasure and the activity. According to Dr. Roger Thompson, Associate professor, Stony Brook University, “What fires together wires together.”

Set up public accountability - Making your plan public will make you accountable. You could consider emailing about your activities or charting your progress in a blog. Other people may be inspired by you!

Be aware of negative self-talk - We are constantly talking to ourselves and often we are not aware of it. This negative talk can derail your goals.

Stay positive. When you recognize you are being negative, push these negative thoughts out of your head and replace them with positive self-talk e.g., “I can do this!” or “I will do my best!”

Get rest - Getting adequate sleep in an important healthy behaviour, and getting fatigued can cause a relapse and leave us without the energy we need to deal with temptations that can get us off track.

Setbacks - Lapses are inevitable. Get back on track when they do happen. Do not give up. There is a tendency for people to set up their goals in all-or-nothing terms, which presents success or failure as the only options. Change your mindset to see setbacks as an integral part of the change process. If something did not go as planned, problem-solve. Assess what went wrong and why and revise your plan. Like an experiment or an adventure, you will be able to learn from your setbacks. On the days you don't do as you planned, change the way you think of the event - it is an opportunity to learn about what to do in the future rather than as a reason to give up.

For example, you found that jogging in the morning may not work for you because you are not a morning person and after work is a better time. Remember to be kind to yourself and acknowledge that changing behaviour is challenging. Change is possible but we must be aware that a number of factors make change hard. Being aware of these barriers can guide you toward sustained change. Forgive yourself as you would forgive others. Remember too that change takes time, so be patient with yourself. Every little bit of change is a step in the right direction.

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