Resolutions: Growth, Desire and Small Changes
WLC January 2020 Article
January 1st always brings out a desire for change. The culmination of a year always calls for a period of reflection, and the start of a new year is an opportunity to use reflections to create new goals. Intent to change is admirable; it shows desire to improve. But how does one ensure those goals become a reality?
The Goals you Set Matter
Author James Clear says that the first key to building sustainable habits is to focus on creating a new identity. Most individuals typically have what are called “outcome” goals, and participants in the Weight Loss Clinic usually fall into this category. “30 pounds of weight loss” or “to develop the ability to walk two miles without stopping” could be two examples. Please note that these are perfectly normal goals, and it is not wrong to desire these outcomes.
On the surface those examples look like outcome goals. And they are – they readily reflect a change in a value (in this example, achieving a healthy weight or improved aerobic endurance). But reading between the lines of those goals reveals a desire to change a self-image or identity. Losing 30 pounds is an outcome, but the desired identity of “I want to be a person that commits more to healthy eating and being active to maintain a lower weight” is the key notion behind the outcome. The latter thought, of “I want to be a person that…” includes a shift in a person’s core values. Focusing on an identity rather than outcomes can lead to substantial positive outcomes because identity change will promote long term behavior change.
(Please note that for the remainder of this article, the habit of healthy eating will be used to illustrate the example, but please remember that any habit can be substituted)
To identify as someone who commits to healthy eating, habits that support this self-image need to be developed. This begs the question:
What sort of habits would someone who is a “healthy eater” do every day?
Well, someone who eats healthily commits to thinking about their nutrition and planning their meals accordingly. Their habits are created to match the desired identity. Someone who commits to eating healthily probably does not eat fast food for dinner three days or more per week, but rather plans healthy meals and creates a shopping list for the week. Building the habit of creating a weekly meal plan and shopping list is in tune with the identity of a healthy eater.
“If I want to eat healthily, and a typical healthy eater would plan meals and adhere to a shopping list… I need to meal plan and have a shopping list”. That itself is the goal!!
To begin re-formulating core values and habits, start by planning two meals a week and go shopping specifically for the ingredients needed for those recipes. With only a few minutes of planning and a list to follow, those two meals will ensure healthy eating.
Notice in the example that the goal was to plan and create two healthy meals. This number was not chosen at random, but rather follows a “habit law” that supports long-term change: setting small, achievable goals. Going from planning zero meals a week to two may seem small, but it is not overwhelming and the process to initiate the habit is clear and concise.
As a thought experiment, pretend that an individual who wants to improve their dietary habits currently eats three meals a day, and has a snack four days a week. That works out to 25 opportunities (3 meals a day x 7 days = 21, + 4 snacks = 25) in a week to eat in a healthier fashion.
Planning no meals resulting in sub-par nutrition all week:
0/25 = 0% success rate
Planning two meals in a week with healthy nutrition:
2/25 = 8% success rate
Take a look at those numbers and realize something magical: Just by planning two healthy meals a week you can increase the percentage of the time you eat healthily by 8 percent !!!!!
An 8% improvement in anything is astounding. Imagine being told with a small habit change, your finances could grow by 8%. Who would say no to that? Imagine a student being told that a habit change in their study process could yield an 8% improvement. That’s almost a full letter grade, or the difference between average and above average (or even above average to honour roll and scholarships!)
What is really magical about this concept is that the application is not just for a “beginner meal planner”. Expanding this theory to an individual who currently plans a few meals a week, but intends to increase their commitment to two more meals a week results in the following equation:
Planning four meals a week:
4/25 = 16% success rate
Planning six meals a week:
6/25 = 24% success rate
Do you see where this is going? The numbers are clear; just by focusing on two more meals, there is a huge increase in the prevalence of positive dietary habits.
And the best part – What happens to most people when they change dietary habits for the better?
They lose weight.
Not by focusing on weight loss. Not by watching the scale every day. Not by resorting to hard-to-follow or unsustainable diets. Not by fretting over normal fluctuations (it’s normal for almost a 5lb swing in weight day to day based on time of day, water intake, etc.) But by creating small, simple, repeatable habits that correspond to a desired identity.
Simple achievable habits seem like a small rock in a pond. But the ripple of building small habits grows exponentially. Achievement creates positive momentum in confidence levels, which helps to solidify the new habit. Action promotes further action. This is the basis of sustainable long term change.
Remember that Rome wasn’t built in a day, but rather brick by brick. Changing dietary (or any) habit is the same way. Small steps lead to big changes. Put down the first brick of your new habit today!