Good health has a lot to do with your health habits. After the excesses of the holiday season, many people are adopting New Years resolutions to try to be more healthy.
Whether you are trying to lose weight, get fit, quit smoking, cut down on the drinking, the hard part is putting those resolutions into practice.
There is even a word to describe the problem. Derived from the Greek word kratos meaning power, akrasia means weakness of will. You know what you should do, but somehow can’t get yourself do it.
Making any change involves going through a series of stages originally described by two therapists helping people to stop drinking:
- Pre contemplation, where you don’t even think about change, and may consider anyone pointing out your bad behavior as exaggerating. This is especially true of people with alcohol issues, which are typified by denial and minimization.
- Contemplation, where the problem is admitted but often with much ambivalence.
- Commitment, where you decide you are going to make some change and formulate a plan of action. You may need professional help from a healthcare worker or coach of some kind to make a realistic plan.
- Action, where you implement your plan.
- Maintenance, where you make your new habit part of your permanent lifestyle. A lot of people can “white knuckle” it for a while, but incorporating the new diet/exercise regimen/abstinence, whatever, into a lifestyle can be challenging. And many people relapse – a recent study in the BMJ Open for example notes “for many smokers it may take 30 or more quit attempts.”
Psychologists also tell us we very often fail because of “learned helplessness.” We feel we just can’t make a change so we don’t even try.
An interesting experiment with dogs demonstrated this. The dogs were conditioned to expect an electric shock whenever they heard a tone. Then they were put in a cage where only half the floor was electrified, and by stepping over a small barrier, they could avoid the shock.
But they didn’t. They were so used to not being able to prevent getting shocked that they didn’t even try. They had learned to be helpless.
People’s inability to control their eating/drinking/smoking/drugging or other bad habits can have profound effects on health. So doctors will often be beating on you to adopt new habits, or abandon unhealthy ones like smoking. Trying to get you to get beyond the pre-contemplation or denial stage and get you motivated to change. In the case of smokers for example, we are taught that recommending quitting smoking to every smoker at every office visit is an effective strategy to get people to quit.
Whereas scare tactics like telling you all the awful things smoking does to your lungs or using umbrella statistics like “heart disease is the leading killer in our country” is not effective.
Unfortunately doctors are not necessarily good role models. “Do as I say, not as I do” is the cynical doctor’s maxim.
You can improve your chances of achieving your resolution if:
- You remember will power is like a muscle and gets stronger the more you use it. So be constantly making yourself do small things that are challenging.
- Find a coach/guru/mentor who takes an interest in your progress. Who praises you when you are succeeding, and who, if not chastising you, at least helps you get back on track when you are failing.
- Practice pre-commitment, meaning set things up to help yourself succeed. Don’t have boxes of donuts around the house if you are trying to lose weight. Don’t hang out with smokers if you are trying to quit.
- Rather, hang out with people trying to achieve the same goals as you. AA is the prime example of this for people trying to stop drinking.
Implementing New Years resolutions can be tough. There is a huge industry that capitalizes on your weakness, helping people to lose weight in particular. But with the right preparation and help you can do it. You can overcome your helplessness. And apart from the health benefits of losing weight, regular exercise and quitting smoking, you usually feel much better about yourself if you prove that you do have the kratos, the will power, to do it.