The Science of Resolutions: Why Willpower Doesn’t Lead to Lasting Behavior Change (and Five Steps That Do)December 28, 2010 // 0 Comments
If you’re tired of attacking your New Year’s resolutions full force, only to falter before January ends, Dr. Howard Rankin, founder of www.scienceofyou.com, has some good news. With the right scientifically proven strategy, you CAN get rid of your unhealthy and unproductive habits for good in 2011.
Hilton Head, SC (December 2010)—New Year’s resolutions are fast becoming a joke. We all make them, but how many of us actually keep them? If you’re like most Americans, you fervently vow over champagne toasts that this is the year you’ll lose weight, spend more time with your family, get your finances under control, or start working out three times a week. But by February or March, nothing’s really changed…and you’re left feeling disappointed and defeated. You may even be wondering if real lifestyle change is even possible.
It is, says lifestyle change expert Dr. Howard Rankin. But just saying you’re going to do better next year won’t cut it. (There’s a reason 80 to 90 percent of Americans don’t stick to their resolutions.) Experts have identified very specific steps you have to take to make lasting change happen—and most people just don’t take them.
“We all have certain behaviors and habits we want to change, and the beginning of a new year is a perfect time to start,” asserts Dr. Rankin, creator of www.scienceofyou.com and founder of The American Brain Association. “And we really can change behavior. Problem is, most people try to do it through sheer willpower alone, and that won’t work. Without a more comprehensive strategy in place, you’re just setting yourself up for failure.”
Dr. Rankin knows what he’s talking about. A nationally recognized psychologist and neuroscientist with over three decades of experience, he has counseled his fair share of individuals who want to change the way they live. (Described as one of the world’s leading lifestyle change experts, Dr. Rankin has been on ABC’s The View, 20/20, and CNN and has been quoted in numerous periodicals and newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times.)
What’s more, Dr. Rankin says we’re a nation in a “changing” sort of mood. Visitor activity on his new website, www.scienceofyou.com, has recently increased, suggesting that people in general are becoming less and less content to drift along practicing the same old unfulfilling, unproductive (and sometimes flat-out self-destructive) behaviors.
“It’s true—I consistently hear from people who are serious about changing unhealthy aspects of their lives,” he confirms. “But whether they’re looking to overcome an addiction, lose weight, or break destructive relationship patterns, they must first understand that real change takes a lot more than willpower or wishful thinking.”
That’s why Dr. Rankin has identified five tried-and-true keys to behavior change: steps that can help you get on track—and stay there. In fact, www.scienceofyou.com offers a video series of five mini-seminars, each of which is geared toward helping you obtain good habits and eliminate toxic behaviors.
“It’s entirely possible to create a better you in 2011,” Dr. Rankin confirms. “You simply have to be willing to really commit to these five steps. Lifestyle change isn’t a one-step fix…it’s a constant process. As I like to tell my clients, life is hard…and you need practice!”
If you’re ready to do what it takes to make your resolutions last, then read on to learn the basics of Dr. Rankin’s Five Keys to Behavior Change:
Step 1. Stoke Your Motivation. Most of us are in the habit of beating ourselves up if we lack motivation. Somehow, we think we’ve failed if we just can’t muster the energy to go to the gym or to pay the stack of bills that’s accumulated. But guess what: That’s normal. Motivation isn’t static; it ebbs and flows just like the tide. (Ever notice how you’re super-motivated at the outset of a personal change effort, but a week later you’ve run out of steam?) The key is to develop ways of keeping motivation at the forefront of your mind enough of the time to make a difference.
“Here’s where most people go wrong,” Dr. Rankin says. “They don’t realize that motivation is about emotion and passion—in other words, why you want to do something. They set goals—‘I want to lose a few pounds’—but have nothing in place to drive that behavior. The question is, why do you want to lose a few pounds? It’s the why that’s going to influence your actions. You might say, ‘I don’t want to have a stroke when I’m sixty like my dad did,’ or, ‘I want to live long enough to see my grandchildren graduate from college.’”
Dr. Rankin suggests coming up with a mantra that captures your why (for example, ‘Fit at Fifty, Free at Sixty’) and visualizing both what you don’t want (you eating junk food and having a heart attack) and what you do want (you exercising and enjoying an outing with your family). Yes, it’s okay to be negative! In most instances, he points out, it’s a fear of loss and negative consequences that kick-starts motivation the hardest.
Step 2. Find a Way to Self-Monitor. A great deal of human behavior is done on autopilot—so if you want something to change, you’ll have to pay attention to your own behavior and experience. Otherwise, by the time you realize you’re going in the wrong direction, it’ll be too late. Yes, the concept is simple (in theory, anyway): Vigilance is associated with success. The more you’re aware of what you’re doing, the more you can control it.
“No matter what your resolution is, you have to find ways of monitoring yourself,” Dr. Rankin asserts. “Most people write down their behavior patterns, but you might just as effectively talk into a recorder. Not only does keeping a record help you pay attention to what you’re doing, it allows for subsequent analysis that will help you understand what prompts your behavior, and any patterns it might fall into.”
Since many people tend to self-monitor with diligence in the beginning but gradually become more and more lax, Dr. Rankin suggests recording every instance of a successful or unsuccessful behavior in the first week. Thereafter, pick one day a week for self-monitoring.
Step 3. Hone Your Self-Control Skills. While willpower goes only so far without good habits to bolster it, it’s still an important part of the lifestyle change equation. Self-control is a critical skill when changing a behavior, and the good news is that it can be developed. In fact, the improvement of self-control is a particular skill of Dr. Rankin’s, and his expertise has even been featured on 20/20.
“There are two broad approaches to managing temptation,” he explains. “The first is avoidance. But let’s face it—that’s not always possible. A better strategy is to confront your temptation and develop a controlled way to deal with it. As I’ve mentioned before, visualization is a valuable tool because it allows you to ‘practice’ your self-control without being exposed to real-life dangers and pitfalls. Essentially, on a daily basis you need to imagine yourself successfully resisting difficult situations.”
Of course, the ultimate self-control is being able to throw away or discard the things that are enabling your unhealthy behavior, such as a favorite junk food, alcohol, cigarettes, and so on. And when you feel that you’re ready, you might even want to seek out a situation in which you’ll be tempted and “stare down the beast,” so to speak. For example, you might go shopping with friends and challenge yourself to spend only $50.
“If temptation occurs when you’re not seeking it out, remember that there’s no shame in resisting by any legal method you can,” says Dr. Rankin. “Walk away. Leave the building. Go to the restroom. Make an important phone call!”
Step 4. Identify and Manage “Backsliding” Red Flags. You may have noticed: Your moods, outlooks, and attitudes tend to change almost constantly—and they play an important part in the decisions we make and the way we behave. Many people are more prone to make unhealthy decisions, give in to temptation, or otherwise “backslide” when they’re tired, stressed, or angry, to name a few common weak spots.
“Fortunately, knowledge is power,” Dr. Rankin assures. “When you are able to identify and anticipate things that typically cause you to slide into a self-destructive state, you’ll be much better equipped to handle them. For example, if you know that having to present at the quarterly meeting will cause you to stress-eat whatever’s in the break room for days beforehand, you can proactively practice other stress-management techniques, such as deep breathing exercises and, yes, visualization.”
To help you identify and then manage self-destructive states, ask yourself what moods, physical states (e.g., pain, fatigue), people, places, and times of day are associated with self-destructive states. Then brainstorm how you can manage them, how you can avoid them, and who can help you handle them effectively.
Step 5. Take a Hard Look at the “Other People” Factor. The fact is, others have a huge influence over our behavior, and since no one lives in a vacuum, you’ll have to factor in other people when going after your resolution-keeping goals. It’s important to realize that no matter what your preconceived opinions or decisions might be, your behavior will slowly but surely change to reflect that of the people you spend time around.
“As much as possible, avoid people who aren’t acting the way you want to act and seek out those who have the same health and life goals as you,” Dr. Rankin advises. “Although a large sector of society tends to pooh-pooh them, I’m actually a big advocate of support groups, because they are very effective agents of change. They give you helpful information, hold you accountable, and make sure you stay connected to your motivation.
“And if, for example, you can’t find a well-run weight loss support group or debt management support group in your area, tell family and friends exactly how they can help you,” he adds.
“These five steps are the basics,” Dr. Rankin concludes. “They’ll give you the foundational tools you need to optimize your life in 2011. As you approach the new year, think about how each step applies to you specifically, and how you can hardwire it into your day-to-day routine. This sort of strategizing doesn’t happen on the fly. You have to make time for yourself so that you can focus on your own needs—ideally, you should have one hour of ‘me time’ every day.
“It won’t be easy, but it will be effective. If you take one resolution at a time and build behavior change slowly, you’ll be amazed at how much healthier your life is when it’s time to celebrate the coming of 2012. Guaranteed!”
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