Making life changes is often hard. Sometimes we launch ourselves on a new life course by committing ourselves to particular course of action, which once launched, takes on a life of its own. These life changes include applying to medical school, applying to residency or fellowship in a particular medical field, deciding to emigrate to a new country, and / or getting married. Once we’ve taken the initial steps, “the process” takes over: we follow whatever the predetermined steps are. It’s like stepping on a movable walkway. You can get off but you might get hurt.

Other life changes do not have the benefits (or downsides) of entering such a guided path. These include lifestyle changes, such as eating healthier, sleeping better or more, exercising more, working less or differently, or interacting differently with family members of friends. These types of changes often are less guided by outside rules or forces, more solitary in their execution, and more dependent on your individual ongoing control and motivation.

So, for those of you still considering or following through on some New Year’s resolutions, here are some tips to improve your chances of success:

Choose One Thing To Change. It is sooo tempting to think, “It makes sense to do a full make-over. I’ll eat better, start exercising, and ensure my sleep is better, starting today. After all, these changes are related and will reinforce one another.” If this more global approach has worked for you in the past, please continue. If it has not led to success, don’t be surprised or discouraged. When making several changes at once, initially it may work: you have an increased focus on “the new you” and maintain awareness of these different aspects of a new lifestyle. The problem with this approach tends to surface a few (perhaps a couple) of weeks into it. You will inevitably suffer a setback – as will everyone – and pig out, lapse in your exercise routine, or stay up late watching TV. It is at that point that the global change approach tends to collapse. There are just too many pieces to it that require a lot of attention and continued motivation. When initially all the positive changes were mutually reinforcing, the stumbles and drop offs become mutually reinforcing too, a situation in which a setback in one area can lead to loss of motivation and control in other areas. So, again, please consider implementing one thing at a time.

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Choose Something Easy. By easy I mean limited in scope, short on time commitment, easily fitting into your schedule and your existing routines, and not requiring superhuman levels of control and motivation. Let me highlight the “fitting into your existing routines.” I like changes that are just “a step away” from my existing routines and habits, for example, like walking up the stairs rather than taking the elevator. In this scenario I am not simply walking up and down stairs for exercise. I am using a certain means of locomotion to get to where I need to go, irrespective of how I choose to get there. There’s more of an intrinsic motivation built into this situation. Another example is changing your diet and calorie intake by limiting what you drink to zero or low calorie drinks. It’s now clear that diet drinks don’t work. Rather it means choosing to drinking tea, coffee, flavored or carbonated water with little or no sweeteners. In this example I am a step away from what I already do, which is I eat and drink several times a day. I simply choose something different to drink with my meals.

Make it a communal project. I like to take walks in the morning. When I walk I like to be alone and not listen to podcasts or read stuff on my phone. I treat it like walking meditation. I notice there are people, who I see nearly every day, on the path I take in the forest preserve who seem to be doing what I’m doing. I also notice that there are many other people walking briskly or jogging in pairs. I think that this pairing off or doing things in groups is a great motivator for many people. You can join or establish a group with friends also interested in adding a daily routine of walking, jogging, cycling or working out. Or you can join professionally run groups, like in a health club. And, by the way, if you’ve previously signed up to a health club but sooner or later dropped off, consider only signing up again if you join a workout group there.

Share your commitment with others. Let your family and friends know what change you’ve implemented to increase your sense of commitment and embarrassment if you drop off. People who love you can help you maintain your motivation.

Add a second change only once your first change has become habitual. Treat change like a muscle. Start slow and incrementally add changes. But don’t rush. In business there is the well-known phenomenon called “hockey stick” growth, which refers to the shape of a graph of a company’s growth (on y-axis) versus time (on x-axis). What you see is that a company may show little growth at the beginning and, if it survives long enough, shows dramatic growth after this initial period of little to no growth. You can imagine that in that initial phase the management is establishing its procedures, its brand positioning, and trying (and failing) at new approach, until one day, they hit on a winning strategy. Examples include Starbuck’s Coffee, and Crate and Barrel. I think something like this can occur during a person’s process of change. So, don’t be discouraged if your initial efforts seem underwhelming to you. Keep at it and one day the changes may become much more successful and dramatic.

Until next time,

Dr. Jack


Today’s Quotes

“The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”– Albert Einstein
“When we least expect it, life sets us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change; at such a moment, there is no point in pretending that nothing has happened or in saying that we are not yet ready. The challenge will not wait.”– Paulo Coelho
“The present changes the past. Looking back you do not find what you left behind.”– Kiran Desai