The idea of making changes in the New Year is easy fodder for comedians. Everyone talks about it, but no one really accomplishes anything. That's right and it's also very wrong.
In the Northern Hemisphere, where most of us live, the New Year roughly marks the return of the sun. The days start to become longer and warming weather will follow. Greeting the New Year with hope and new ideas has been the tradition as far back as we can trace human cultural history. I think this tradition would have died out long ago if every attempt were met by failure. On the contrary, every day I see patients successfully change their lives for the better, not just at the New Year. You should be optimistic about making changes.
Change doesn't happen simply by rolling out of bed on New Year's Day, although that IS a necessary first step. To ensure success, you need to develop a plan.
The dark, cold months of the year are traditionally a time of reflection, a time of the inner life. Figuring out where you are is essential to creating a map to get you where you want to be.
I cannot overemphasize how important an honest and thorough self-assessment is when you are trying to make changes. Your self-assessment must be as objective as you can make it. An inaccurate assessment inevitably carries the seeds of failure. If you think you are in better shape than you really are, the training for that April marathon WILL injure you. You might think you aren't eating well enough when your lack of exercise or poor stress-management is the bigger issue.
We usually perceive some problems clearly, but others we think are bigger than they really are, while still others are invisible to our own eyes. Trying to sort things out by yourself can be a lot like painting a self portrait without a mirror, or maybe having only a distorted, funhouse mirror to look at. This is the reason so many people find the help of a professional useful. A professional can identify problems and solutions you might not recognize or know about. A professional should have learned from the experience of many patients and can use that accumulated wisdom to guide you. Seeking the advice of family and friends can also be helpful at times.
Reflection is an inward, ideally a meditative, process. In keeping with that inwardness we should start from the inside, meditating on who we are and who we want to become. Following is a list of some areas to consider:
Essential health habits
Drink Enough Water
Exercise Almost Every Day
Take Your Supplements
Avoid The Things That Make You Sick
Get Enough Sleep
Be Involved in Your Community
Have A Healthy Sex Life
Remember That Attitude Is Important
After you sort out where you are, you can create an image of where you want to be and construct a map to get you there. Deciding that you want to be younger is not going to work anymore than deciding you want to be taller or win the lottery. Make your goals achievable! That is the first step in goal setting.
In a more subtle way, deciding that you want to be stronger or thinner or calmer won't work either. There is an art to creating goals that will help you achieve success.
Second Step - Goals Must Be Specific
If you set a goal but don't have a path to follow towards the goal, or you don't know when you are there, you won't ever get there. For example, you decide that you want to lose weight. You then must sort out how you are going to do that and how you are going to measure it. Let's say you determined that, for you, the keys to improved health are to increase your activity and change your diet by eating more vegetables and cutting out soda and alcohol.
You could begin by tracking your activity level for a week, either by timing yourself, or better still, wearing a pedometer. Then, as you set about implementing the changes, you have clear evidence and incentive by simply reading the numbers.
The same applies to your diet. You could decide that you will eat some vegetables at every meal, including two servings at lunch and dinner with a leafy green salad every night. You also determine to limit yourself to no more than one alcoholic drink and one soda a week. All you have to do is look at your plate and into your drinking glass to learn whether you are reaching your goals.
I have a couple of comments about weight loss as a goal. First, it is not a particularly health oriented goal, so I don't like it much. As long as you are sort of close to "normal", other factors (especially physical fitness) are much more important than the reading on the scale. There is some evidence that, as long as you are physically fit (i.e., good aerobic capacity and strength), obesity might not be a risk factor for death, disease or feeling poorly. The scale does not tell you what you are made of, your body composition. Most people who do a lot of strength training are overweight on the charts, but have low body fat. Increased levels of body fat are more risky than similar increases in body weight. Many people find that improving their diet and exercise pattern does not change their weight as much as it changes how they feel, their physical capacity and how their clothes fit. Muscle is denser than fat, so patients usually tell me their clothes are fitting looser even when their weight has not changed significantly.
Third Step - Early Success
To maintain and build on a change we need positive feedback. If you try to do too much, feel horrible while doing it and feel worse the next day, how likely are you to try it again?
Creating those specific, achievable goals helps you set in motion a positive feedback cycle. You met your goal. What you did made you feel better. You felt good because you met your goal. You then want to keep it going. It is vital to let yourself feel good about your accomplishment. CELEBRATE YOUR SUCCESSES!
Short-term vs. Long-term Goals
Tied closely to the concept of early success is the distinction between short and long-term goals. If you are only going to be satisfied when you have gone all the way from couch potato to triathlete, you are going to be unhappy for a long time and probably never going to become a triathlete.
Short-term goals are the steps on your path. Long-term goals are the destinations to where the path leads you. If you think only about the beach, you are going to get lost on the path through the jungle.
Implementing your strategy requires determination, but it also demands gentleness. Living with a drill sergeant is not going to work, especially if YOU are the drill sergeant. For some patients I need to be a cheerleader, doing everything I can to convince them of the need for change and applauding their positive steps. For many others, particularly those who are less healthy than they used to be because of age, illness or they just let themselves go, I have to work hard to reign in their over-enthusiasm.
Particularly with exercise, it is very easy to do too much too fast. The consequence is often an injury, and the time then needed for recovery often sets the patient further back than she/he was to begin with. You will make the fastest progress by going slow. When increasing physical activity, I tell all but the youngest, strongest patients to increase EITHER intensity or duration by 10% a week.
The other side of it is that changing several problem areas in your life at the same time can be very good and a highly successful approach. Diet changes in particular are often most successful when they are dramatic. You feel better quickly and that experience helps you do more. As you feel the benefit, your commitment will be stronger and you will have more energy to do more to feel better still.
The greatest wisdom is in simply paying attention to how you feel and adjusting accordingly.
The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom - William Blake
Failure is good. It is good because we have to make mistakes to learn. When I see a patient who has not implemented my recommendations I always want to know why. Actually I have to understand why they failed, in order to help them go further. Problem-solving is an inevitable part of doing anything new. If I recommend swimming for a patient with back trouble as the best exercise for her condition, but she can't swim, what is the point? If a patient has not been using the breathing exercise I recommended because he did not understand it, I need to make it clearer.
The only real mistakes are those that we do not learn from. Mistakes teach us how to correct our course before we get way off track. If you haven't made mistakes, you haven't been trying.
Michael Carlston, MD
Facebook - michael carlston, md