Eating healthy sucks! It really does. You know what tastes good? Fat, sugar and salt. You know what doesn’t? Things that are green. They don’t taste bad; they just don’t taste good – unless, that is, those things were made green by a laboratory-born colorant and spiked with enough sugar to live in the diabetes danger zone.
There’s a scene in the movie, Tombstone, where a dying, tuberculosis-ridden Doc Holliday is talking to his lover, Kate, after a visit from the doctor. Here’s how the conversation goes:
Kate: How are you feeling Doc?
Doc Holliday: Better.
Kate: That’s good. I knew it was nothing.
Doc Holliday: We must talk darling. It appears we must redefine the nature of our association.
Kate: I’m a good woman to you Doc. Don’t I always take care of you? Nobody cares for you like me. I’m a good woman.
As she says these things, her hand moves down to his unmentionable manly places. She has good persuasion skills.
Doc Holliday: Yes, it’s true you are a good woman.
Kate then puts a cigarette in Doc’s mouth. He takes a drag, removes the cigarette and exhales.
Doc Holliday: Then again, you may be the antichrist.
Exchange Kate with pizza and what she’s caressing with my taste buds and you will understand my relationship with food. When Shakespeare wrote, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” I think he was alluding to pizza being the antichrist. Maybe I’m more religious than I thought.
Regardless, I’m now in my early forties, was dealt a bad hand in the genetics department and have become keenly aware of death or, worse yet, the prospect of a slow decline. Like millions of other people, I am going into 2019 with the goal of being healthier and eating less meat (I’m a compassionate vegetarian at heart and a vigorous carnivore in practice). Unfortunately, I like to cook, eat and don’t derive pleasure from routine and repetitive activities that don’t seem to go anywhere, i.e. rote exercise. When it comes to adopting a healthier lifestyle, it won’t come easy for me.
I’m not alone, though. The odds are stacked against me and all those going into the new year with the good intentions of changing their behavior in some way.
According to a study conducted by the University of Scranton, only 8% of people will follow through with their resolutions. The question, then, is how to be one of the chronically resolute 8%.
Yep, this is yet another addition to the annual deluge of posts and articles about sticking to your guns, maintaining your willpower, overcoming base impulses and beating the New Year’s resolution odds. I’m going to give you ammunition to “reach out and touch faith” by beating your own…personal…antichrist. (You’re welcome, Depeche Mode.) Very original for this time a year, I know. But, hear me out.
I come from the world of performance management, which is focused on maximizing human behavior to achieve goals by influencing the environment in which people operate. And, in the words of Pete the cook from The Muppets Take Manhattan, “Peoples is people.” As such, it doesn’t matter whether we are talking about employee engagement and performance or New Year’s resolutions. The key motivational drivers of behavior that lead to success are the same.
Let’s say I resolve to start eating healthier and going on bike rides. That’s a little ambiguous. If we are discussing performance, we need to have specific behaviors and achievements to measure. So, I decide I will bike two miles three times a week. In addition, I will ensure a portion of vegetables with dinner five nights a week. My desired achievements will be to lose five pounds and naturally lower my blood pressure without a funky-named pill. If I go for rides fewer than three times in a week or don’t eat vegetables at least five times, I am underperforming. Conversely, if I do more, I am over-performing.
This is the plan. Plans are great, but as we’ve already learned, only 8% of people stick to them when it comes to New Year’s resolutions.
So, what will determine whether I, or anyone else, is successful? The answer comes down to understanding what drives our behavior and implementing processes to account for our unique dispositions and situations.
With human performance, there are five drivers that will influence and determine a person’s motivation, desire and ability to indefinitely stay resolute in their behavioral change long past January; including:
You must believe that it is in your control to effect behavioral change, and feel ownership over the outcomes that result from your efforts. If I believe that my heart health is completely driven by genetics and there is nothing I can do to impact it, I will not be motivated to change my behavior. Erroneous or not, I lack the belief that it is in my power to effect change in my life, so I will not act. Other factors will need to drive my behavioral change.
There are two factors that will determine your ability to engage in new behaviors: competence (knowledge and skill) and available resources. If my exercise regimen involves bike rides, I need to have the skill (physical acumen) and knowledge (information) to ride a bike. In addition, if I don’t believe I can afford healthier dietary options that are desirable, I am less likely to eat better (resources).
You need to understand what will be accomplished by engaging in the new behaviors. I need to understand and be confident that biking two miles a day will equate to some tangible outcome of weight loss, feeling better and achieving my goals.
The purpose of an activity entails what you are doing and what will result from doing it. Meaning is why you are doing it. Why do I want to lose weight and have a healthier heart? Because, I want to live longer and spend more time with those I love while doing things I love. Not only do I need to stay breathing to do those things, I need to stay healthy.
We have to actually care about the new behaviors we seek to engage in as well as their results. We must see the value. Specifically, the behaviors and achievements resulting from those behaviors need to be positively reinforcing, both intrinsically and extrinsically. Positive reinforcement occurs when we receive desirable consequences for our behaviors, leading us to repeat them. This is important to distinguish from negative reinforcement where we engage in behaviors to avoid an undesirable consequence.
We are more likely to have long lasting and sustained behavioral change as the result of positive reinforcement, whereas negative reinforcement will cease once the undesirable consequence is removed. Still, we are more likely to take quick action as the result of negative reinforcement.
New Year’s resolutions are often driven by negative reinforcement. We want to lose weight to avoid the discomfort of looking at ourselves in the mirror, or be a better spouse to avoid conflict. That may be okay if this is the catalyst for you taking action. But, it is important for you to find ways to shift to being reinforced positively. For example, if I am trying to lose weight, because I feel discomfort when I see myself in the mirror and I don’t intrinsically enjoy biking, it won’t last. Bike rides will decline and when I see the unmoving weight on the scale, it will slowly turn to being a punisher as opposed to reinforcer. I need to find a physical activities I enjoy, and the numbers on the scale need to fill me with pride, not dread.
The question, then, is what to do with all of this. As a starting point, answer the below questions to assess how likely you are to maintain your commitment to your resolutions, and adjust your plans accordingly. Don’t just read through these; actually take out a pen and paper and write down your answers.
- Power: What do you want to achieve/what is your goal? What behaviors are in your control that will result in your desired outcome?
- Ability: What knowledge, skills and resources do you currently have and what do you need in order to engage in the new behaviors?
- Purpose: What is the specific and expected outcome of engaging in the new behavior and how does it correlate to your goal?
- Meaning: Why are achieving those results important?
- Value: How will you be intrinsically and extrinsically positively reinforced by engaging in the new behavior and by achieving the resulting outcomes?
Good luck in achieving all you desire in the coming year! If you want to learn more about applying these concepts in the workplace, check out my video, Leading Through Empowered Engagement.
What new behaviors are you going to engage in and why are they important to you?