Personal note

Early January found a friend and me in Chicago, that “toddlin’ town,” as the song goes.  An exhausting but exciting day in the Chicago Art Institute found us foot-sore and hungry; dinner at the Russian Tea Time was reminiscent of the old Russian Tea Room in New York, where so many dancers gathered.

Our journey to nostalgia started with a train trip from Minneapolis to Chicago (and back, eventually), our stay at the historic Palmer House, and a trip to the original Marshall Field’s store on “that great street,” State Street.

Then it was home and back to work, ready to confront all the challenges the New Year inevitably brings, such as plans for self-improvement, which prompted today’s article.

Lastly, I will be a guest of Dr. Nancy O’Reilly, Psy.D, founder of  WomenSpeak.com radio show starting Friday, February 3, 2012.

New Year’s resolutions, will power, and the February Fade

Did you have high hopes for change in January, but found yourself slipping down from the heights as the month progressed?  Were you firmly resolved to lose weight, stop smoking, exercise more, eat more vegetables and fewer doughnuts, clean out those crammed closets?  And now you’re grabbing doughnuts instead of a walk, eating one forkful of vegetables and convincing yourself that’s enough, jamming more things into your closet, and have stopped stepping on the scale because it doesn’t tell you anything rewarding anyway.

It happens every year.  On January 1, the parking lot at my YWCA is always full.  Regular members, on their way to the exercise room, walk smugly by the long line of frantic new registrants.  The January crowd is annoying for the regulars, who have difficulty locating an empty locker, must wait for each piece of exercise equipment to be free, and stand in line, shivering, for the showers, not to mention the fact that they may have circled for some time before finding an empty parking slot.

But by early February, the crisis period is past.  There is plenty of room and plenty of equipment for all – “all” meaning the hardy souls who have somehow managed to turn their initial impulse to better themselves into a habit pattern.

And if you aren’t a member of the group \that’s still chugging along,  you feel guilty as heck.

Don’t beat yourself up.  It’s not a lack of willpower; it’s a deeply ingrained habit.  In fact, unlike our conscious resolutions to change, habits are buried deep in the unconscious part of the brain. Amnesiacs, who can’t remember their own names, occupations, or residence, are still able to speak Urdu, play the flugelhorn, pig out on chips and chocolate, and bite their fingernails. (Assuming they could do these things before amnesia struck.)

Overcoming any behavior this deeply ingrained sounds like a real challenge, and it is – a challenge we often try to meet by instituting complete and instant reform:  “I will cut back to 1200 calories per day” or “I resolve to exercise for 1 hour per day 6 days a week.” We then whack ourselves mentally over the head when we don’t follow through.

How can we bring about personal change successfully?

The astonishing advice given by expert Dr. Christine Carter of the Center for Greater Good, University of California at Berkeley (PodcastHabit Change),  is that when your resolutions fail, it’s not because you were not up to the challenge; it was because you didn’t make the challenge easy enough.

Instead of setting up a mountain of responsibility that makes your heart sink every time you contemplate it, she suggests that you break down the early steps of habit change into “easy wins” that she calls “turtle steps.”  (You know, those ponderous, slow steps turtles take that nevertheless get them there – probably serenely, too.)

Furthermore, she advises that you make these steps ridiculously easy.  She cites the example of herself getting back to exercising after childbirth.  Her trainer suggested she start by running for four minutes per day for one week, before attempting to get back to her previous level of exercise.  Amazed and a little offended, she asked “Four minutes?”  “OK,” he replied, “two minutes.”

In fact, she went on to point out that your first step could be just to get your running clothes on – every day for seven days.  For people who have difficulty getting up early, much less running, the first step might be just to get up at 6:30 a.m. instead of 7:00 a.m. – every day until it becomes a habit – before trying to be more active.

Other examples of what she calls “turtle steps” might be the following:

You can initially decide to march in place during a one-commercial break on TV. Add in more commercial breaks over time, and you’re easily up to the minimum of 30 minutes per day!

Have trouble settling down and meditating?  Just go to your place of meditation for one minute per day. When you are ready, increase that to two minutes.  And so on.

Do you despair of your ability to diet?  Then don’t diet.  Just cut out one food that you know is bad for you – that package of greasy, salted chips you get with your sandwich, for example. Once it has become easy and automatic to give that up, focus on another food.

These small, easy steps follow very good advice known to those who teach officer training in the military or who train animals:  “Never give a command unless you’re sure it will be obeyed.”  You don’t train a dog by yelling “Come, Roscoe,” when the dog is running away; you don’t train yourself to perform a good habit when your entire body wants to run the other way.

“Turtle steps” are effective because you can be pretty sure you are able to obey them without encountering overwhelming rebellion from your own body.

After instituting these “turtle steps,” it is important to factor accountability into your plan. You may have an “accountability buddy” you meet with once a week, who will ask firmly “Did you stick to your goal?”

If you don’t have an accountability buddy, have a weekly meeting with yourself.  Create a “tracking record,” post it in a prominent place and record the fact that you stuck to your plan every day for one week.

What, you might forget to keep track of your behavior?  Your first “turtle step” might be to create a tracking record, such as a journal or a chart, and look at it at the same time every day. Then proceed with your next little step towards habit change.

What keeps you on track so that you take that next step after having successfully completed the first one? 

When you stay engaged with the new behavior, you may find that you easily exceed your goal – running longer, or taking stairs as well as running.

What if you slip?

Give up the guilt – it won’t help you make change.  In fact you feel you’re a failure, and do less and less….

Say to yourself, “This isn’t quite working.  Why?”  Adopt a problem solving attitude rather than submerging yourself in shame and guilt, which often call you to kick back, be a sloth, and eat a gallon of Ben & Jerry’s best.

When you do indulge in your bad habit, be mindful of what it is really doing for you.  Often the pleasure of indulgence in a bad habit lies in the anticipation, not the actual experience.  Ever notice how finishing off an entire chocolate cake or lolling around in your sweats all day watching old movies sounds and feels great at the beginning, but leaves you feeling sluggish and a little sick?

To summarize the advice of Dr.Carter, nationally known expert on parenting (yes, you can help your children develop good habits with her method, too):

Breaking a larger goal into small, totally doable steps is the key to making a lasting change.

Make sure each step is easy enough to allow you to “win.”

Zoom in on one behavior at a time: One small item per week:  omit the doughnut, do ten minutes of exercise, add one day per week of exercise rather than starting with six days per week.

Repeat this one change until it becomes a habit before going on to the next step.

And remember, when you’re slipping, it was not easy enough.  Go back to an easier step; then work your way forward.

Change is made this way:  two steps forward, one step backward.  So long as the steps forward exceed the steps backward you are making progress.

And finally, remember to track yourself, but don’t attack yourself.

To hear Dr. Christine Carter, nationally known expert on parenting, and Nurse Rona Renner, on a podcast on habit change, go to http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/gg_live/happiness_matters_podcast/podcast/keeping_resolutions/.