It is that time of year again where people will be thinking about New Year’s resolutions to lose weight. In January there will be all kinds of pills, potions and plans purchased. Most will result in bank accounts being lighter, but nothing else really changes. This is because none of these purchases is a positive first step to health.
I recently came across the idea of false first steps in behavior change. In a nutshell, when we imaging making change it is common that we buy something as an aid to improving our competence…then we find we still fail because we haven’t worked on the skills needed to make substantive changes.
We take a false first step because buying something gives us a dopamine rush that feels like we have achieved something. Our first use might also give us a dopamine surge, but if we slip up or lapse, we will believe it is our fault and stop trying within a few days or few weeks.
So how do we make positive first steps to health successfully?
Draw on what you already know about the first step to health
You know more about the first step to health than you think. You are likely to have had something you used to do in the past that falls into the “eating better” category, but you no longer do. An example might be taking lunch from home instead of buying it. Look at why you have stopped doing it, and ask yourself how you could restart it. One of the commonest reasons for stopping doing something is a perceived “lack of time”. As a total non-morning person, I know that if leave my lunch making to the morning it won’t happen. To take lunch I need to prep it the night before and have it ready to grab and go. If I set a goal of doing it every day, I am likely to set myself up for failure, so I might say “most week days”. This allows for unexpected events and the odd forgotten pick up. Start working on this thing you have previously had success on and make notes of your success or otherwise
Examine why rather than criticise
If you lapse from doing the new behavior, use your logical mind to answer the question “So what went wrong?” “You are a lazy arse”, is not a logical mind response, so you look beyond that statement. “Why didn’t I want to make my lunch in the evening. What did I choose to do instead ?” Many of us have such strong critical narratives we struggle to look at something logically. If this is you, I recommend that you imagine you are advising a close friend. This exercise will prevent you from being casually cruel to yourself. Learning to challenge the inner critic is a major first step to health.
Try, try and try again to make the first step to health
Have you ever watched a child learning to walk? They will pick themselves up dozens of times and keep trying to succeed. We need to keep trying. Even when we feel like we are never going to make it. It is about recording and celebrating the successes. If we can change the mindset and learn from our failures rather than getting into self-criticism, we will develop that goal into a habit. Resilience and perseverance are tools in the first step to health.
Sit with the discomfort rather than trying to solve it.
If we are aware that we have a problem, it causes us discomfort. We want to get rid of the discomfort as soon as possible. Hence the impulse to buy that diet program or gym membership. Instead, we should sit with the discomfort and use it to help focus our minds on what aspect of the problem we can solve first. For example, you may be someone who drinks a couple of glasses of wine or beer during the evening. If you are trying to lose weight you might start a diet plan that says “No alcohol”. Instead, sit with the discomfort and say “how could I moderate the amount I drink?” You could recognize that the first glass is consumed fast because you are a bit thirsty. From that, you could decide you have a glass of water before you hit the drinks. That might work or it might be a bit of a “meh” option. What could you do to that water to make it more appealing? Herbs, lemon, ice, nice glass, sparkling. All are options. It can be a big trap at this point to think you need to spend money to make this happen. Again, sit with it and consider how you could implement this idea with minimal cost. Learnign to avoid quick fixes when we feel discomfort is a first step to health.
Borrow or hire before you buy
In the example above you might decide you will use sparkling water. Again, the impulse to solve involves buying something. What about borrowing a SodaStream from a family member or friend for 4 weeks to see if you can stick with the change most of the time. By giving a time limit you will make an effort to either make this work and if it hasn’t you can return the item with thanks to the owner. If you can’t find one going spare, consider getting a second hand one and setting a timeline to give it away or re-sell it if you aren’t using it.
It is still OK to buy tools that will enhance your ability to do something better, but using research and finding out if you will use them before you buy them is an important step to health.
What does success look like?
I see many dozens of people who have spent thousands of dollars on failed lifestyle changes. Success is about making a change and sticking with it. It is hard to break the pattern of false first steps, and we need to realize that, like everything, making a successful lifestyle change will take practice.
If you had 6 healthy habits at the end of 2021 that you didn’t have in 2020, wouldn’t that feel great?
How does seeing a dietitian fit into this model?
The people I love working with are aware of their main problems with food, and rather than expecting a diet sheet, they want to know what to do to improve things. They also may find themselves so prone to being critical of failure that they get stuck regularly. My role may be to help you make specific goals towards change and to help you identify your self-sabotage and share tricks to overcome it.
If you had 4 new healthy habits by the end of 2021, wouldn’t you feel great?
If you want to see if you can work with me email me to arrange a 10 minute no-obligation phone call