You do it every year and not just in your New Year’s Resolution. You decide to make a change. It sounds really exciting too. You can feel the transformation that is set to take place. You can see the person you will become. That’s the fun of planning lifestyle improvements. They are exciting and come at no cost to your present self.
Present self loves to eat cinnamon rolls under the condition that future self will spend a month sustaining himself on broccoli and water. Present self has no problems bingeing video games, college football, and Netflix for a few days because he has decided that future self will be a Crossfit badass who meditates during his lunchbreak and dedicates weekends to visiting nursing homes. Present self is that brilliant overweight doctor who has smoked for the past 30 years. He knows all the right moves, prescribes them, yet doesn’t apply any.
For all his seemingly sociopathic behavior, it is important to remember that present self does want what is best for future self. He just isn’t very good at relating to him. If present self could take a few moments to put himself in future self’s shoes, his plans and prescriptions might actually work.
Future self would look back and thank present self for being so practical and cunning. Present self has so much potential if he will only take a little time to understand his selves and learn how to plan better.
You like to think of yourself as a consistent, rational actor. Everything you do makes sense to you. Each choice is self-evidently logical within your grand cohesive vision. Yet, the breakthrough of Daniel Kahneman’s Nobel Prize-winning work, Thinking, Fast and Slow, was that two very different systems drive your thinking.
System 1 is fast, instinctive, and emotion-driven. It speaks no words, funneling your behaviors by feelings alone. System 1 is the feeling brain responsible for all those candy grabs, snoozed alarms, and impulsive trips through the drive-through. This is our inner child—craving pleasure, terrified of even mild pain, and unconcerned for the future.
By contrast, system 2 is slow, methodical, and logical. This system loves to analyze and make plans, but it has a tendency to spin webs that are too complex and which ignore the influence of emotion. This is the side of ourselves that wants to berate a two-year-old for not grasping the rules of Candy Land. Still, system 2 is where we can come to complex understandings that allow for adult decisions.
Most of us think that the logical system 2 runs the show with the exception of a few outbursts from that childish emotional system. Yet, it is just the opposite. Our emotional system tells the logical system where to look and brings the fuel for all that analysis.
More often than not, when the logical brain thinks it is in charge it is really only just finding ways to rationalize the desires of the emotional system. Even “good” behavior follows this formula. That woman doesn’t work out every day because she has rid herself of the emotional desire to sit entertained and avoid discomfort.
She works out because she has attached new emotions of strength, power, and confidence to her workouts along with an emotional revulsion from the thought of deteriorating. Even when we are overcoming impulses, feelings run the show.
This reality contradicts our normal perception of ourselves as a rational actor, but when understood it gives us the power to use our logical system more powerfully. We can begin to notice when our emotional system may be pulling us down a bad path and begin to craft better plans to pull ourselves toward more fruitful ends. Like a good parent, we can honor the beauty of that emotion giving it the freedom to express itself, while steering it in the right direction.
Once we understand what drives our behaviors we can enlist that logical brain in designing a plan that can actually stick. This is essential, yet often overlooked in its own right. We tend to get a wave of emotion pulling us to get healthy and assume we can just ride that wave forever.
Cool, I’m excited. I’ll just start going to the gym tomorrow and soon I’ll be healthy and slim. Unless you luck out by making strong connections and finding a sense of community right away, that arbitrary decision to start going to the gym every day won’t last. Emotions are fickle.
Everyone eventually confronts a block of days where they don’t want to go to the gym and they are busy anyway. You need a plan that clarifies choices and accounts for the realities of your life.
And it isn’t enough just to know you need to plan ahead. You need to use your understanding of your own psychology to create a plan that will actually work. To help with this, I’ve identified the four essential ingredients for successful health changes.
Ingredient #1: Pick a Good Goal
This is the most complicated and most important step. It does you no good to achieve a goal only to find that it caused more harm than help. Great, you starved yourself for 30 days and lost 15 pounds. You’ve lost a ton of water weight and lean muscle while crushing your metabolism. When you inevitably do start eating more than your pet gerbil again, you’ll gain it all back plus some.
Most people’s goals are influenced by the massive complex of pseudoscience and bad advice that characterizes the fitness industry. Thus, New Year’s resolutions gravitate towards extreme fitness classes, arbitrary weight loss goals, crash diets, and all the popular fads that are certain to fail over the long run. What works is far less sexy.
Good goals are:
- Rooted in common sense. There are no magic tricks. Lean towards eating a balanced diet of mostly unprocessed foods that could have existed 10,000 years ago and towards being more active. That is what works and always has.
- Long-term commitments. The only successful approach to fitness and eating is a lifelong approach. Consistency is the number one variable and the actions that stick will be the ones that you make habits.
- Very small! Any change should be one that you could maintain for 20, 30, or 40 years. Your willpower and confidence will grow over time so just embrace the long-term journey. Make each addition gradual so you are always certain it is something you can maintain. That way you can make it a habit to never allow yourself to not follow through on a plan. Your plans are a promise between system 1 and system 2. You can’t succeed if these systems don’t work together. Be militant about keeping these promises. No matter how good your planning is, you will have to have the willpower to act. Require very little and you will see it grow.
Ingredient #2: Identify the Potential Pitfalls
It does you no good to plan to hit the gym every day after work if you know that you have a big project coming up that is going to be keeping you late. Maybe you need a home workout plan or one that you can incorporate into your workday.
That 6 am workout class may sound like a good idea, but if you are a chronic snoozer than you are going to have to craft a path that forces you out of bed (see ingredient 3).
Do you always succumb to that chocolate syrup drizzled “coffee” when you pass Starbucks? Is there another route you can take? How about the rest of your life? Where are the temptations? What are the obstacles to following through on your goals?
Ingredient #3: Craft the Environment
Environment is everything. You may claim there is no way in hell you could ever wake up, workout, and eat only three simple meals each day, but if you found yourself in a marine Bootcamp, I bet you would.
We tend to default to the behavior that our environment creates. That is why the most powerful lever for creating change is to craft an environment that creates obstacles to deviating from your preferred behavior. Set four alarms, that line up like breadcrumbs to your pre-staged workout clothes.
Eliminate chips, soda, and processed foods from the home. Keep almonds and apples at your desk. Stage a week’s worth of work clothes in your gym locker each week. With a little creativity, the options are endless.
Ingredient #4: Be Extremely Clear
If your thinking is unclear in the planning stage it will be very confusing and easy to wiggle out of when your emotional brain takes hold. Clarify every element of how you will meet your goal each day. Spell out exactly what you are going to do.
Every decision saps your willpower, so you want to reduce the number of decisions you have to make in a given day. That means meals are planned and prepped ahead of time and workouts are as simple as just showing up.
An Approach That Works
Don’t rush and follow the fads. Commit to an approach that honors the realities of human nature and you will see drastic changes over time. This is the focus of my free ebook, The Essential Guide to Self-Mastery.
In it, you will grow a better understanding of habit, environmental design, how to intentionally grow your willpower muscle, and how to make health changes that actually stick.
If you can approach your goals as a lifestyle that you are committed to nourishing through education, then you will be successful. We have to change our mindset. It isn’t about getting easy, fast results. Who could you be in a year if you were deliberate, consistent, and patient? That is the approach that will bear the most fruit.