A complete guide to creating sustainable change and engineering a healthy lifestyle
Millions of people are about to be disappointed –– they don’t even realize it.
Maybe you’re one of them.
Right now, around the world, people are setting new ambitious health goals and resolutions.
And yet, according to Inc Magazine, approximately 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail. Most of them buried in an unmarked early grave by February.
Why is that?
How is it that despite all our best intentions and genuine desire to live healthier and be fitter, the most we can hope for is a depressing 20% success rate?
So to help you kickstart your New Year with a healthy lifestyle we are going to breakdown why most goals and resolutions fail and what to do instead.
Why Most Health Goals and Resolutions Fail
It starts with words.
While resolutions and goals can be helpful in some situations, they do not create the behavior change necessary for sustainable healthy lifestyles.
This failure is grounded in the way we think about and articulate them. The way we design them with our words and thoughts.
See, when most people decide they want to be healthier, they go one of two directions.
- They pick an aspirational end-goal like:
Lose X pounds.
Put on Y pounds.
Get a six-pack.
Maybe even “run a triathlon.”
- They regurgitate vague platitudes like “ be healthier,” “eat better,” or “do better.”
None of these work!
Let’s start with aspirational end-goals first because these are the most common.
Why Aspirational End-Goals Don’t Work
The biggest problem is that while there IS a concrete end goal, there’s no process to help you get there.
The second problem is that even if you do hit your goal, most likely you won’t retain the long term benefit. You might lose the pounds… but more often than not, you’ll gain it all back plus a little extra a few months later.
You might get the six-pack, but then it fades as your motivation wanes after achieving it.
And other times, the goal itself is too much. It’s like being at the foot of a giant mountain and the ascent is so intimidating that you give up right after you start.
As much as you’d like to gain 15 pounds of muscle, the pain of going to the gym four times per week is stronger than the desire.
So you give up. And your goals fail.
Ultimately, these each have a solution. But before we get there, let’s talk about the other kinds of goals.
Why Vague Goals Don’t Work
While goals like “work out more” or “eat healthier” imply a lifestyle –– which is good –– again, there’s nothing to help you get there.
How will you know when you finally arrive at “healthier”? And how will you get there?
You can argue that a deep-fried vegetable dipped in cheese fondue is healthier than fried spam. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy.
We need to approach our goals from a different angle. An angle sourced in human psychology.
We need to look at these from the perspective of behavior change because behaviors are what make up our lifestyle.
5 Steps to Harness the Power of Habits
In reality, a healthy lifestyle isn’t a “goal.” It’s a way of living. It’s a bunch of small things you do automatically because that is how you live on the day-to-day.
In other words, it’s a habit.
And fortunately, habits have rules. They have processes built on the principles of human psychology.
Building healthy habits is how you transform ineffective goals and resolutions into sustainable lifestyles.
Here are 5 basic principles to consider when creating any new habit. So let’s dive into it:
- Process goals
- Time and location
- Habit triggers
- Leverage social pressure
The Magic of Process-Oriented Goals
So instead of focusing on losing X pounds, focus on doing the activities that will lead to you losing weight.
“Go to the gym 3x per week,” for example, is more effective than lose 15 pounds.
Or instead of “get a six-pack”, make the goal to do 100 sit-ups per day.
You focus on the process that will get you what you want, not the end goal.
If you want to eat better, focus on buying organic food or going carb-free 5 days per week. Or even make one meal from a paleo cookbook every day.
This change of wording grinds your goal into daily, measurable tasks. You know if you are on track because you show up at the gym 3x per week, or because you did the sit-ups.
It takes the goal out of the black-and-white binary success-or-fail thinking and gets you thinking in terms of growth processes. It focuses your energy on doing the work instead of attaining some end state.
While this shift in focus is subtle, it is compelling.
The Power of Time and Location Specificity
The next step is to define when and where you will engage in your new lifestyle habits.
Defining these two elements takes you to a new level of specificity and clarity that has psychological ramifications. You’re no longer “fitting it in” you’re planning for it.
It’s a lot like visualization. Planning when and where you will do it engages your mind, it creates a mental image of you actually doing the task, which makes it far more likely you will follow through.
For example, “I will go directly to the gym Monday, Wednesday, and Friday after work.”
Or “I will do 100 situps in my living room before taking my morning shower.”
This gives you clear instructions and expectations. You can measure your success day by day, week by week. And over time, that becomes a habit –– lifestyle.
Create Habit Triggers
Another way to integrate healthy habits into your life is to pair them with other things you already do.
You probably brush your teeth every morning (hopefully). You probably also take a shower most mornings, eat meals, go to work, and then come home from work.
These are repeated moments in your day you can schedule reminders for your new habit.
So if you decide that you want to do three sets of 15 pushups, you could do them right after you brush your teeth, or before your shower, or right when you come home from work.
Over time, these habits become paired together, like Pavlov’s dog with the bell. In behavioral psychology, this is known as a trigger or cue. Doing the first activity then triggers the second.
After a while, this becomes automatic. You don’t have to use willpower. It just happens.
Leverage Social Pressure
Another way to hack a healthy lifestyle to achieve your health goals is to put yourself around people already doing what you want to do.
We are social creatures and unconsciously seek to match our behavior to the people around us.
New research [1,2] shows that just by having overweight friends, you become more likely to gain weight and become overweight yourself.
But this isn’t limited to weight gain. We humans are social creatures and we calibrate ourselves to the people around us.
This phenomenon impacts every area of our lives, from finances to clothing styles.
And it is a principle you can use to your advantage to help reinforce healthy habits.
So if you want to run more, you could join a running club. Just being around more runners will make you want to run more. It will keep you motivated.
If you want to compete in a triathlon, hang out with triathletes. Get a training partner or join a group.
The social pressure will help you persevere when your willpower falters.
The Fun Part: Reward Yourself
If you’ve ever trained a dog, you know that rewarding good behavior is essential to the process.
The act of giving a treat reinforces the behavior you want the dog to adopt.
Humans aren’t so different. By rewarding yourself immediately after you complete your new habit, you stimulate your “pleasure and reward” pathway.
You build up positive neurological associations that say “you should do that again!”
It could be as simple as a piece of dark chocolate or a delicious smoothie.
You could even watch something enjoyable on YouTube or listen to a song you love. As long as it’s something you personally enjoy, it will do the trick. The critical part is to do it as close to the activity as possible to stimulate the connection.
Engineering Your Healthy Lifestyle
Health is not a one-time goal. It is a lifetime pursuit.
And the only way you will create health that lasts throughout your long and wonderful life is to start changing the way you set goals and resolutions and start creating long-term habits.
These 5 principles here are just a starting point. They are to get you over the hump of internal resistance and forgetfulness so you can create sustainable changes that make a real difference in your health for the long term.
Over time, your new healthy habits become part of who you are, of how you are, of the way you live.
They will become a lifestyle.