A new year is upon us, and it's customary to make resolutions. The problem with new year resolutions is that we tend to forget them in about a week. So, how to make resolutions that stick?
For example, I’d like to lose weight and be stronger. You may not have the same goals, but you probably have similar ones, and the same thought process applies.
- Focus on habits, not goals, consistency is key;
- Pick easy to achieve daily habits;
- Use “habit stacking”;
- Have clarity about what you’re doing by measurement;
- Control your environment;
- Look for the root cause of bad habits.
Focus on habits #
While goals are useful for thinking about a destination, for one, they are too abstract and not actionable. “Losing weight” is too abstract, because you end up focusing on a measurement given by the scale, however, that number is just a proxy for things you want. I gained more than 20 Kg (44 pounds) since the pandemic, and I personally want to lose weight because my belly fat is making it uncomfortable for me to tie my shoes, I also snore loudly since gaining weight, and I fear sleep apnea, my allergic asthma has gotten worse, I’m uncomfortable when doing activities that I liked, such as riding my bike, and finding clothes that fit has gotten harder. And all of these side effects are having a negative impact on interactions with my family and friends.
Note that I went through multiple episodes of losing weight and gaining it back, because my genetics work against me, as I have an increased appetite. I’m also not a professional. Therefore, take this advice with a grain of salt.
One of the reasons for why diets fail is because the measurement of success is the weight itself, as seen on the scale, and not the habits that lead to losing weight and then maintaining it via a healthy lifestyle. If you set a goal like, “by this date I want to be 70 Kg (154 pounds)”, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Crash diets are terrible because they don’t lead to healthy habits, quite the contrary, the implementation resembles an eating disorder, and you can’t wait to get it over with and return to your old habits. And then you regain all the weight, the infamous yo-yo effect.
Focusing on habits is harder, because you need some knowledge, however, people underestimate the impact of small periodic investments that pay dividends. You don’t need to change much about your daily routine, and having smaller daily goals makes it easier to achieve them consistently. Consistency is key.
Make habits easy #
I want to be more active. Setting a daily goal of 10,000 steps isn’t always achievable, and is also relying on technology, even if it’s the ideal, but setting a daily goal of going for at least one walk, or doing more house chores, is doable. When working from home, you could even walk around the room while on a call, which is how many managed to stay active during the pandemic. You can also look for opportunities to walk more. If you drive a car for your daily commute, then you may be able to park further from your destination.
I want to be stronger, to grow my muscle mass. A cheap way to get started is calisthenics, i.e., using your own body weight for strength training. Push-ups are a great exercise. Committing to 20 push-ups per day may be too much, either due to lack of time or strength. The habit should be something so easily achievable that you’re left with no excuse for not doing it daily. You can commit to 2 push-ups per day. And if you lack the strength for push-ups, you can do wall push-ups. You can do more than 2 push-ups per day, but anything extra is a bonus. Your daily goal should be to do at least 2 push-ups per day, with no progression, until the end of time.
Stack habits #
You can have a habit of doing a couple of push-ups whenever you pour a glass of water or a cup of coffee. Drinking more water is a good habit, that may need some effort on its own, but it’s a great excuse to get up from your desk regularly, which prevents back pain. Or you could do some push-ups after you brush your teeth, or after some other daily habits that you have.
I’d also like to learn to swim better and have that as a weekly practice. I already have a habit of driving my son to his swimming lessons, which he practices 2 times per week, for an hour per session. During that time, I can also hit the nearby gym’s swimming pool. The expended effort doesn’t matter, I’ll be happy if I can get in 10 minutes of swimming, but do so consistently.
The above are examples of habit stacking. If you already have a habit, you can use that as the prompt for a new habit.
As any professional worth their salt will tell you, regular exercise doesn’t really help with losing weight, although it helps in managing it. You still need to eat fewer calories than you expend, and regular exercise can increase your appetite. Our body has evolved to adapt to higher energy expenditure, either via appetite, or via slowing down our metabolism at rest (e.g., less fidgeting, less body heat), which is also why crash diets are terrible, because the experience is terrible and motivation is fleeting. Strength training may help, in time, by increasing your BMR, but that too isn’t enough. A good diet is about getting away with a modest daily caloric deficit, fooling the body into thinking that it got enough, making the whole experience bearable long term.
There are multiple ways of achieving modest caloric deficits. One way is to restrict the food groups you eat. In the past, I tried the “ketogenic diet”, which works because you increase the protein, while decreasing palatability. It was a terrible experience for me. I no longer have the strength to do anything like it, even if I’d like to focus more on protein, and vegetables.
We need clarity about what we are doing on a daily basis, in order to break bad habits.
For dieting, what I’m doing right now is to track my daily caloric intake. This may not be a long-term habit, or an easy one, however, I need to calibrate my intuition of what to prefer eating, while ensuring that I eat enough. People struggling with obesity tend to underestimate the calories they eat, and that eating impulse needs to be more rational, as “eating when hungry, stopping when full” doesn’t work well for us. AFAIK, most people that are overweight are often puzzled by how they got there, attributing it to a “slow metabolism” instead of their own behavior, like eating highly-processed, highly-palatable food that’s high in calories and salt. Personally, I’m under no illusions. Also, whenever I go on a diet, my motivation being really high, I tend to eat too little, until real hunger kicks in, the brain going into panic mode, and then it’s game over, as my brain won’t be satisfied until it regains that weight. Contrary to common wisdom, tracking calories is best for bringing insight into my behavior and for ensuring that I eat enough, and less for restricting calories.
Actual caloric restriction is easier with simpler rules like: eat 2 or 3 meals per day, at approximately the same time; only one plate of food per meal, plus salad; include plenty of protein and vegetables in each meal; if you’re going to snack, snack on fruits.
Note that measurement is all fine and dandy, unless it’s stressful. For this reason, I don’t weigh myself. And it’s probably a bad idea to track calories if you’re recovering from an eating disorder. But if you can take the emotions out of measuring and analyzing data, then it can be a great tool for understanding your behavior and for spotting trends.
Control your environment #
For dieting, once you figure out that you snack too much, you can remove those snacks from your vicinity, replacing them with a bowl of fruits. If you feel hungry, and an apple isn’t appeasing, that’s a cue that you’re just bored, and not hungry.
This isn’t to say that you should never eat those delicious snacks you like, but we need to do the right thing easier, and the unhealthy thing harder. This goes for other bad habits, like browsing social media, which can be useful, but maybe you’re doing it too much, and you don’t really need to have social media available on your phone, as you’re not losing anything by delaying it until you’re in front of your computer.
Look for root causes #
Unhealthy snacking is a good opportunity to think about other problems we may have, emotional or otherwise. Maybe food is a coping mechanism for stress.
If stress is the prompt for snacking, we’re in trouble. We need to find other ways of coping with stress, like meditation, decluttering our lives, changing our job, etc. The pandemic and war at our borders have been huge sources of stress for me, and I’m only now recovering from their emotional impact. A great way to cope with stress seems to be exercise, and in the future I hope to be the kind of person that picks exercise and meditation over food when stressed.
Stress may be hard to avoid, but understanding that it’s the cause of your bad habits is great, because you can then look for ways of coping with it that doesn’t involve food, or doom-scrolling social media, bad habits that are a feedback loop leading to more stress.
Happy New Year! #
For this year, my wish for us is to achieve our resolutions. And we’ll start by making them achievable, by focusing on long-lasting behavior changes 💪