How To Turn Your Intentions Into Real Lasting Habits

Another New Year's Eve has passed; are we halfway through January already? How are those resolutions treating you? It's easy to make a grand plan to change your entire life on December 31, but it's much more difficult to stick to it. And as time flies by and the days seem to get shorter and shorter, I can't tell you how many of my patients have already called me to tell me they've fallen off the resolution train or can't remember what they resolved in the first place. I tell them not to beat themselves up.

Almost half of Americans made resolutions this year, but less than one in ten people will actually achieve them. Practically speaking, that's clearly not a very good return on investment. January is still an important time to reflect on your life, but save yourself the unnecessary stress of trying to keep up with those well-intended (but unrealistic) resolutions. They don't work. And it's because while most of us have good intentions, there's a big difference between intention and commitment. Intentions are thoughts, words, and deeds we would like to do. Commitments are thoughts, words, and deeds we actually show up and do—consistently.

This is why resolutions fail.

Psychologists will tell you that every time you break a commitment you lower your self-esteem either consciously or (perhaps even worse) unconsciously. Not following through on intentions can become a bad habit that perpetuates itself, setting you up for more failure. That's why 39 percent of people in their 20s keep their resolutions, but only about 14 percent of those over 50 do the same. Not keeping your commitments is a learned behavior and without awareness and successful behavior change, failure becomes a pattern and is repeated throughout life.

Here's how to set yourself up for success, teach yourself to keep up with your commitments, and build your self-esteem in 2017:

1. First, make sure you go small.

I want you to completely forget the saying "go big or go home." The gym will be full of the best of intentions in those first weeks of January, but there will be plenty of room and empty machines by March or even February. The biggest mistake people make is setting an unrealistic expectation for themselves. You likely won't go from not exercising at all to exercising every day. That might be your goal, but it's not going to happen overnight. Be realistic.

What can you REALLY commit to doing? More importantly, what can you commit to doing today that will get you moving in the right direction? Acknowledge that exercising two or three times a week is leaps and bounds better than zero. Going to the gym even once (when that is your realistic goal) creates a flow of positivity rather than a negative downward spiral. So set the bar just a little bit higher than where you are right now—and continue to make progress with achievable, incremental steps.

2. You can count on accountability.

Without question, accountability is the most powerful tool in your possession. Where did this notion come from that we should be able to do everything on our own? Even professional athletes have coaches and trainers; in fact, they have entire support staffs. That is because change requires support. Consider hiring a trainer or health coach or at least get a reliable buddy that will meet you for a run or a date at the gym. Even just checking in on the phone with someone invested in helping you meet your goals can be unbelievably effective.

It's complicated psychology, but people tend to keep commitments when there is another party involved in some way. The most successful I've ever been in overcoming barriers and completing goals was when I participated in an accountability group with two close friends. We spoke on the phone every weekend, reflected on what we've learned in the past week, and set new, informed goals for the week coming up. It was exceptionally helpful for learning which goals were realistic and seeing our patterns and tendencies more clearly. The more self-awareness you can muster, the more potential you'll have for true and lasting change. Try it. It's amazing. But only if you want to succeed.

3. Don't be afraid to cross things off your to-do list.

One of the most important lessons I learned in my experience with my accountability group was eliminating things from my to-do list that just weren't getting done. There were things that seemed to stay on the list and just get carried over from day to day, week to week, and sometimes even month to month. This is an indication that this particular item is just not a true priority in your life right now. If it were, it would get done. Things on your list need to be a "hell yes!" Otherwise they are a no—at least for now. Keeping them on the back burner drains your energy and lowers your self-esteem.

So be honest with yourself about your priorities. Reduce the energy-draining burden and be more effective by focusing on what is most important to you and eliminating what is not. When evaluating an item on your checklist, ask yourself why it's important to you. The task is usually not quite as revealing as its underlying significance.

4. Consider using an integrative or functional medicine team to help you succeed.

My health coaches and I are constantly working with our members to achieve their wellness goals. With state-of-the-art diagnostic testing, we can help them identify matters that are more significant than others and give patients a robust report card on where they are now and where they ought to be. We can then set small, realistic, and achievable goals to get them there. Our health coaches serve as accountability partners who get to know the patient and work with them to navigate any challenges they face.

And so rather than just setting intentions in 2017, commit yourself to whatever it is that you truly want with explicit goals, a realistic plan, and a support system to get you where you want and need to be.

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