Making New Year's resolutions is the easy part. Keeping them … well, that's another story, isn't it?
Many of the health and financial troubles we get ourselves into are because we either can't control our impulses to overeat, overspend, or overindulge - or we're unable to stick with a plan to reverse the damage.
That's why most New Year's resolutions are about exercising more self-control and self-discipline, two of our least favorite words. (Interestingly, when researchers asked people what their major weakness is, they said "not enough willpower.")
Today I want to tell you about an ingenious technique that can help you succeed at anything you want to accomplish, whether it's losing weight, changing your diet, starting an exercise program, or improving your health.
Is there a shortcut to self-discipline?
While human beings are naturally resistant to change, I've discovered an ancient Japanese technique that outsmarts this innate stubbornness and actually makes breaking any bad habit easy .
In his book, One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way, UCLA Medical School psychologist Dr. Robert Maurer describes his success in changing unhealthy behaviors in his patients and helping to break their bad habits using the Zen principle of kaizen (literally, "continuous slow improvement").
Why we resist change (even if it's good for us)
We humans are creatures of habit. Anything we do with regularity takes on a force of its own and doesn't require much energy to continually repeat. This "force of habit" makes it easy for us keep doing the same thing (even if it's bad for us).
Faced with the prospect of changing any comfortable routine, our brain rebels by triggering the "fight or flight" response. We actually experience fear at having to give up the familiar activity.
The results of this reaction are all-too-familiar. We find ways to "excuse" ourselves from our new diet, from our exercise program, or from our plans to quit smoking or drinking. Psychologists refer to this as "self-sabotage."
Our best intentions to change our ways frequently fail because the rational part of brain ("I want to lose weight") is battling the emotional part ("I'm afraid to give up my favorite foods").
When this happens, you're usually doomed because the emotional brain creates physical sensations which feel more real, more important, and more urgent than the rational reasons to change.
How kaizen outsmarts your brain
The genius of the kaizen approach is that it completely avoids this inner conflict by never threatening your comfort zone.
Say you want to start a walking program. The conventional strategy is to choose a regular walking time, select your route and duration, pick a start date, and then "just do it," as the Nike ads urge.
But most people never make it to Day One because all this feels too overwhelming and threatening.
And of those who actually start this program, very few stick with it long enough for the force of habit to kick in so that the going gets easier.
"The least you can do"
Kaizen asks you to imagine the smallest part of a new activity that you know you can commit to. In other words, something so non-threatening that your "fight or flight" center isn't aroused at all.
Maybe this is merely putting on your walking shoes after dinner. Nothing more.
Or simply walking to the front door and opening it. That's it.
Don't laugh. Performing this one simple action over time will accomplish two powerful goals.
First, it will interrupt your old habit of climbing onto the couch for some after-dinner TV. And second, it will plant the seed of a new habit (a healthful, post-dinner stroll) in your brain.
After doing this regularly for a while, you'll notice the force of habit taking hold. Your new activity will become easier. This is when you can up the ante and walk out the front door and perhaps down to the curb.
The power of small actions
The most important benefit of the kaizen approach is that it strengthens self-confidence - and this will give you a new sense of belief in yourself.
You see, what really keeps us stuck in old, self-defeating behaviors is the self-doubt fostered by continually failing in the past efforts. It doesn't take long for us to become discouraged and believe we are "weak-willed" and "a loser."
We forget that willpower works like a muscle that must be trained into strength.
A new scientific understanding of this is described in the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, by psychologist Roy Baumeister and New York Times health writer John Tierney.
Expecting to shed 100 pounds of excess weight without first having honed your will on smaller accomplishments is as unrealistic as expecting to bench press 300 pounds or runn a 4-minute mile without any prior training.
Train your willpower for success
I've spent my entire life as an athlete, so I know what I'm talking about here.
Having exercised for six decades, my force of habit is so strong that I'm physically uncomfortable if I miss a day or two.
I never have to "talk myself into" exercise. And while I don't always have the greatest workouts, my exercise habit gets me to the gym. My muscle memory takes it from there.
Build your willpower the kaizen way
We didn't get soft of sick overnight, so we shouldn't expect to develop super-willpower in a weekend.
The key is to start with one small task and build on our success.
According to Baumeister and Tierney, it's nearly impossible to make a change in more than one area of your life at a time.
Why? Because willpower is like money - you only have a certain amount to spend each day. If you try to make 20 changes in your life, you're multiplying your willpower exertion by 20 times.
We've been raised to believe that willpower is a virtue, but it's really more like a muscle. If you overtax it before it becomes strong, it merely gets exhausted from overuse - and you end up failing.
Choose the one behavior you want to change first, and conserve your willpower for that priority. After that goal is achieved, you'll be able to tackle something new and different - and you'll be in even better shape to succeed.
Now it's your turn
What is the one behavior you'd most like to change?
What has worked for you in the past - and what seems to always trip you up?
What is the simplest kaizen action you can take that you know you can stick with?
Please "go public" with your personal declaration of independence by leaving your comment below.