For those of us in the weight loss game, New Year’s is almost a sacred holiday, isn’t it? We look forward to it all year for a fresh start, where we’ll sit down and pledge to be altogether different starting tomorrow.
We promise to eat healthier, to lose weight, start exercising daily, to begin a consistent meditation practice, to no longer consume refined sugar, or caffeine, or alcohol, or fried foods, to run a 5K, or a 10K, or a marathon.
We pledge to get up earlier, get eight hours of sleep every night, read more, scroll less, keep screens out of the bedroom, journal daily, organize the house, save more money, spend less money, take up a new hobby, and be less stressed. You know, simple changes – just abandon life as we know it and become an entirely different person. No big deal.
We all know in our rational adult brains, this is ridiculous and impossible. But on January 1st, it sounds like such a good idea. Why is that? Well, we love a fresh start. We love the beginning of a goal, because we allow ourselves for a moment to feel hope, to see the possibilities, rather than feel the regrets.
We let go of the past and we look to the future. It’s so much fun to dream about how different life will be when we accomplish a goal and change our lives. It’s not the dreaming that’s the problem. It is the execution and the way we go about actually making the changes that needs some help.
I want to give you a different way of making and achieving New Year’s resolutions that will actually work! One that will allow you to keep going and keep changing throughout the year, rather than see you quit on approximately January 17th.
Why we don’t achieve our goals
What typically gets in the way of us getting to our goals? Why do we quit before we get there?
Usually, it’s some form of perfectionism.
We are setting a goal to try to improve ourselves and improve our lives in some way because we think things will be better if you do so. With so much riding on it, our expectations soar sky high. We have to do these things 100% in order to feel and become better.
Jon Acuff, author of Finish puts it like this:
“Perfectionism magnifies your mistakes and minimizes your progress. It does not believe in incremental success. Perfectionism portrays your goal as a house of cards. If one thing doesn’t go perfectly, the whole thing falls apart. We want to be better, but then better turns into best. We don’t want small growth. We want massive overnight success.”
So what gets in our way is not necessarily always the size or scope of the goal. Aspirations or outcomes are just destinations. They don’t give us directions. They don’t clarify the behaviors that will help you get there.
We don’t say “I want to go to Hawaii,” and then get mad when it doesn’t just happen. We decide we want to go to Hawaii and then we figure out what needs to happen in order to make that a reality.
We figure out how much it will cost and we make a plan to save until we get to that amount. We decide when we will go, how we will get there, how long the flight is, what the weather will be like, what we should pack, what time we need to leave to get to the airport.
We decide and then we break it down into a tinier and tinier to-do list that is realistic, necessary, accomplishable, and guarantees our success at getting to Hawaii.
We know that there might be hiccups – flights delayed, forgetting our phone charger or flip-flops – but we don’t make the set-backs that come up mean we will never get to Hawaii.
The science of quitting
I want to remind you of the physiology of quitting that I talked a little about here.
Change involves and is driven by agitation. That’s why it feels so uncomfortable. Norepinephrine, one of the neurotransmitters involved in our fight or flight response, is released. We feel a sense of agitation. This gets us moving and going.
However, it’s not meant to be ongoing or sustained without reward. Our body has a failsafe in this system that keeps track of the amount of norepinephrine released and if it goes on too long without a dopamine reward, it cuts off our norepinephrine and we quit.
What keeps us going on a goal
The feel-good dopamine reward is what keeps us going. This is another design flaw of our resolutions.
In addition to them being perfectionist fantasies with no roadmap for execution, we don’t consider or value the importance of rewards along the way to keep us going.
In the book Tiny Habits, by BJ Fogg, one of his most foundational concepts is that people change best by feeling good, not by feeling bad.
Pretty revolutionary idea, right? Especially when it comes to weight loss.
Most of us are driven to setting weight loss goals because of how bad we feel about ourselves and our bodies. We typically experience the weight loss process and changing our habits as miserable and painful.
Of course, there is discomfort involved. But misery without reward is what has us quitting – not the discomfort itself.
We can handle discomfort, but we need some reward along the way to tell us we are on the right track and are doing a good job.
But, here’s the rub – that dopamine reward needs to come from inside your brain, not the outside world. No one can give it to you. Your brain has to create it.
So as part of your New Year’s resolution process, I want you to plan not just for what you will do, but how you will celebrate it along the way.
This isn’t just for fun. This is a critical part of the process of changing your brain.
Positive feelings create positive habits
Dr. Fogg teaches that there is a direct connection between what you feel when you do a behavior and the likelihood that you will repeat the behavior in the future.
When you celebrate effectively, you tap into the reward circuitry of your brain.
By feeling good at the right moment, you cause your brain to recognize and encode the sequence of behaviors you just performed. In other words, you can hack your brain to create a habit by celebrating – and it becomes self-reinforcing.
Now, this idea of internal celebration may be new to you. It certainly isn’t natural to most of us. We are used to the super critical voice that loves to point out all the things we’ve done wrong, all the mistakes we make, and what it means about us and our worth and value.
Celebrating wins will be something you have to plan and incorporate into this process on purpose.
It doesn’t have to be anything over the top or super involved. It can be as simple as you saying the phrase, “Good job,” in your head and smiling to yourself a little. That can be enough to give a little hit of dopamine and signal to your brain that this is a habit we want to keep.
The goal is to produce the positive feeling we get from experiencing success. Dr. Fogg named this feeling “shine.”
How to celebrate the tiny victories
If you aren’t sure what that feels like for you, then try this exercise to see how you might react. This will give you an idea of what kind of celebration might feel natural to you.
Imagine you applied for your dream job. You make it all the way through the process to the final interview and they tell you they’ll send you an email with their decision in a few days. The next morning, the manager’s email is waiting for you. You open it up and the first word you read is “Congratulations.” What do you do at that moment?
Maybe you clap your hands excitedly. Maybe you do a little dance. Maybe you say yes and a fist pump. Maybe you say you got this, or you did it, or you nailed it. Maybe you draw a happy face and feel it. Maybe you give yourself a high-five. Maybe you jump up and down.
Sometimes I close my eyes and I put my hand on my heart. I take a deep breath and I think, “I’m so proud of you.” Dr. Fogg likes to smile at himself and say “Victory.”
Come up with some ideas of what celebrations will help create the feeling of “shine” and allow you to keep going as you create and work toward your new resolutions.
The difference between rewards and incentives
You may be thinking that these rewards seem too tiny to make a difference or that we need bigger rewards, like massages and vacations and jewelry in order to be motivated.
But those after-the-moment things are not real rewards in terms of what we’re talking about here.
They are incentives. They are fun and they give us something to look forward to, but they don’t reinforce anything in the moment.
Research shows that the timing of the reward matters. So make immediate celebration a new and important part of your resolution process.
That’s not all that we’re going to do differently. Usually, we make a list of many resolutions. This seems like a good idea because we want to change so many things. But when we look at that list, what we usually feel is overwhelm.
That list seems to shine a light on all that we lack and usually leads to our giving up.
One of the lies of perfectionism is that we can do it all. However, we can’t do it all at once. We can’t change everything we don’t like at the same time.
So we have two options, according to Jon Acuff:
- Attempt more than is humanly possible and fail, or
- Choose what to let go of and succeed at the goal that matters.
Our strategy is going to be to think smaller. I know that sounds counterintuitive to what you usually do, but trust me. Just pick one target to shoot for and clarify it.
- What do you want?
- What is your dream?
- What result do you want to achieve?
If it’s that you want to eat healthier or lose weight, we want to know why.
Is it so you can feel more comfortable in your clothes, or get off your medications? We want to make sure our aspiration connects to what really matters to us.
Then we need to explore what specific behaviors will get us there. For example, ask yourself “What specific behavior would I need to do to get to a place where I feel more comfortable in my clothes?”
Keep asking, “What else?” until you have a bunch of possible options of behaviors.
Maybe it’s things like eating eggs instead of waffles at breakfast, or drinking 64 ounces of water during the day, or skipping the sugar in your coffee in the morning.
Once you have your list of new behaviors, you want to filter them based on these criteria:
- Impact – How effective is this behavior in realizing your aspiration?
- Motivation – Do you want to do this behavior? We’re talking about the real you, the right now you, not the fantasy you. This is important to keep in mind.
- Ability – Can you do this behavior? Are you capable of repeating it over and over? Is it feasible for you?
The behaviors that match all of these criteria are where we want to focus.
What you want to do and what you can do will converge into what you most likely will do, according to Fogg. And that is when change happens.
I want you to notice how we are zooming in here over and over to get to a super tiny change we want to make. The objective is to get to a micro-resolution.
The more small and specific, the more likely it is that you will be able to accomplish it.
And the more times you accomplish this micro-resolution and micro-celebrate it, the more often you will experience the feeling of success, and the more likely it is to become a new habit as a result.
It will be an actual and real change that you can then build on.
The more you experience success, even on a micro level, the more your brain will start looking for evidence that you CAN, instead of evidence that you can’t.
Make and execute a plan
Next, we put a plan in place to execute this one specific micro resolution at a time. Just one.
Let’s look at the three criteria I previously mentioned in service of the goal of being more comfortable in your clothes.
Maybe drinking 64 ounces of water would make a big impact because you are currently drinking zero and are drinking Diet Coke instead. But you hate the taste of water, so you don’t want to do it. The likelihood that you are going to execute that is low because it doesn’t meet the criteria of motivation, and so it may not be the best choice to start with.
Skipping the sugar in your coffee might have a slightly smaller impact, but you are totally willing to give it up.
Therefore, the likelihood of you actually following through is much higher, which means the incidence of celebrating and feeling of success will be more frequent, and the formation of a habit that is going to get you closer to being comfortable in your clothes is much more likely.
That is what we are looking for: micro ways to feel successful over and over and then we build on it from there.
Through this process of creating “micro-resolutions,” we meet ourselves where we are so that we can move forward, experience success in a sustainable way that allows us to keep going and guarantees that we get there.
If you are ready to tackle your weight loss for good this year, I’d love to have you as part of my small group weight loss program. My clients learn to lose weight and change their habits, one step at a time, starting with their brains, in powerful, sustainable ways.