Retrain Your Brain For Maximum Success With New Year’s Resolutions

Retrain Your Brain For Maximum Success

With New Year’s Resolutions

Photo Courtesy of HelloBeautiful

As 2018 begins, many of us make New Year’s resolutions.  According to studies, the most common of these promises is to lose weight.  We start off, guns blazing. We promise ourselves that we’ll never eat a whole pizza or coffeecake again. We promise to work out extra-hard to blast those unwanted pounds away— and as a result, gyms and health clubs enjoy a sharp spike in their membership enrollment this time of year.

We’re gung-ho! For a while. Then January turns to February, and soon it’s June, and it’s time to put on shorts or a swimsuit, but, sadly, the pounds remain right where we left them.  Maybe we melted off a few inches, or even a dress-size, in those early months, but they’ve returned. Summer turns to fall, fall to winter, and next year, we make the same resolutions. With the same results.

As a cognitive behavioral psychotherapist, for over 30 years, I’ve devoted my practice to helping patients learn how to get to their desired weight, and maintain them for a minimum of seven years on average. The reason that many health and fitness New Year’s resolutions generally don’t work is that most people don’t realize that a profound, authentic learning experience is required. It starts with honesty and new habit formation.

By honesty, I mean being honest with yourself in consciously recognizing everything you eat and do on a detailed level, but also realizing that much of the language around food, eating, weight-loss, exercise and fitness has a negative, punitive sting. If you’re feeling desperate, you may be attracted to the idea of punishment. Desperation is the root of many New Year’s resolutions, but the cold sweat of this brutality only motivates us for a short time. Soon, we burn out and return to our soothing, comforting old patterns, where we perceive ourselves with shame.

But know this: feelings of reward and success are far more enduring as forms of behavioral nourishment. They are a complete meal will give you a steady burn of strength and energy for much longer than a few weeks. Basing your New Year’s vision on reward and success will allow you to create habits that can last a lifetime.

To get your body to look and feel the way you want it to requires that you literally change your mind, and retrain your brain with a few new, almost unnoticeable changes in habit to get the weight off and keep it off. A more trim, sleek shape begins in your head—train your brain and your body will follow! Think of it like learning how to more efficiently swing a tennis racket or golf club. Making a few minor adjustments in your posture and the way you hold the racket or club can make a world of difference in your swing, which can last you a lifetime.

Remember, to create habits with staying-power, you need to design your own individual eating plan, based on your own authentic likes, dislikes and experiences. Someone else’s rigid diet or fitness regimen probably won’t work for you, although you can get useful information and inspiration from them.

Photo Courtesy of Cosmopolitan

Ways to make your New Year’s Resolutions a greater success:

1. Count to 21.

Neurologists and other scientists agree: new habits are formed in our human central nervous system in 21 days, based on daily repetition of the new behavior. This includes, for instance, quitting tobacco. Generally, if you get through 21 days of the new practice, the new habit is pretty securely set. This means you have a good chance of maintaining the new behavior indefinitely, even when compensating for occasional setbacks.

2. Set yourself up for an immediate win.

Complete an emotionally neutral activity every day for 21 days to set up a new reward pattern. Don’t make highly stressful, dramatic changes in lifestyle.   I suggest that you set a daily goal for yourself that isn’t painful to deal with. Do it consistently every day for 21 days to set up a pattern of winning, success and reward in your brain and body. Examples: Commit to flossing your teeth twice a day, every day for 21 days. Or, commit to drinking a big glass of water every morning, even before coffee, every morning. Draw a big heart on each calendar day where you keep your promise to yourself. Give yourself credit for consistency— neurologically speaking, you’ve created a new habit by Day 22.

3. Apply your attitude of success to how you deal with food.

Begin applying this pattern of reward to how you eat. Begin by honestly observing and recording what you eat, when and why you eat. The goal is to change the behaviors that cement unwanted pounds on your body. Observe yourself, and note what you observe. This will allow you to plan your eating, and respond to food in different ways, to allow you to shed weight and keep it off successfully.

4. Create an authentic pattern for success which is unique to you.

This world is full of reformers, and many of them take a rough, Marine Corps-style approach. In fact, the “boot camp” metaphor is applied widely to all sorts of training and learning. This “boot camp” style has a moralistic, even menacing tone at times.

I take a more nurturing approach. Just as every child learns to speak, read, write, play, interact and so on in her or his individual way, you will do best with your weight management if you create a pattern that is authentic to you. Don’t allow yourself to bullied by what other people say is right.  

Don’t say that you will never eat chocolate again. If chocolate is important to you, build it into your new habit. Accept it. Also, if chocolate is one of your personal favorites, prepare a coping plan when you encounter the random chocolate birthday cake at the office. Surprise! Have a practiced response in place to deal with the unexpected.

5. Food is not the enemy. So enjoy it.

Food issues are often lumped into the same therapeutic conversations as alcohol, cigarettes and addictive drugs. Our bodies cannot function without food. The same cannot be said for those other substances.  Part of creating your self-management plan is remembering that food is here to serve our bodies. There is no shame in biting into something that tastes delicious, thrills our senses, fills our bellies, nourishes us on a cellular level, and gives us the opportunity to socialize with other human beings. To achieve and maintain your best weight, you don’t need to hate food. You need to create a good relationship with it.

6. Your body is not the enemy. So cherish it.  

People who have a history of struggling with weight may have ambivalence about their bodies. Creating new habits of reward and success around food can be deeply helpful when we want to release negative body-feelings and move on. In addition to creating new patterns around eating, use your self-management practice as the opportunity to appreciate your most essential physical self. Treat your body to a massage as often as you can. Moisturize your feet, heels, elbows and other areas of your skin you may typically overlook. Instead of a quick shower, try a luxurious, medium-warm bath with an aromatherapy soak.

7. Keep learning and adapting your food and exercise plan.

Although I advocate planning, this world is filled with unexpected surprises. I honestly think that the unexpected—a sudden thunderstorm, even—keeps us alert, alive, and always opening to experience. Surprises expand our awareness. So we need to be agile and flexible in our self-management.

You cannot control the world, and in fact, I’m not so sure any of us would want to. But, we can control how we respond.

Dr. Deena Solomon

Dr. Deena Solomon is a Santa Monica-based weight management expert, cognitive behavioral psychotherapist, and author of the new book Immaculate Consumption: The Path to Lifelong Weight Management.

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