I’m going to make an important list, and I suggest you take notes.
- Eating after 8 p.m.
- Sugar—of any kind
What else can you add that you’ve been told is bad? Maybe dairy, gluten, or non-organic foods?
Have your list? Good. This is a painting of your life. How does it look to you? A work of art? Something that makes you smile? Maybe that’s how some of you feel, but most of you don’t like the way it looks. And that’s a good thing.
Because that is a list of all the things I want you to keep in your life.
Confused? Don’t worry, I’m not drunk on leftover eggnog. I’m trying to break you of the mindset that does much more harm than good. The diet industry lives in an ocean of body negativity, twisted science, and behavioral Russian roulette. Step into the wrong extreme behavior, and who knows what the long-term consequences might be. I’ve watched far too many people start out innocently wanting to lose a few pounds in the New Year and come out frustrated and angry at themselves.
Not cool. Not fair. Not something I’m willing to stand for anymore. And you shouldn’t either.
Diet, nutrition, and any other food-related topic shouldn’t feel like Mission: Impossible. After all, this is food we’re talking about. The stuff you need to eat every day, and the stuff you should be enjoying as part of the many joys in life. I don’t care if it’s biting into a juicy steak, enjoying some pasta, or smiling between every bite of your dessert—food should be enjoyed. And I blame the diet industry for making you believe anything to the contrary.
I don’t care if it’s biting into a juicy steak, enjoying some pasta, or smiling between every bite of your dessert—food should be enjoyed.
This January, I want you to try something different. Call it a rebellion, a revolution, or just a renaissance, but we’re taking back food and enjoyment and reinventing it with a practical, scientifically supported approach to eating, living, and being healthier. I won’t make any promises, but if you choose this approach, you won’t return next January with the same frustration.
I know you’re probably thinking: “Why should I trust the man offering desserts? Sounds like a scam.” But I make a living designing fitness and nutrition for real life. That means including foods you love, creating workouts that fit your schedule, and never ever ever setting false expectations.
So let’s start with a different New Year’s checklist:
- No juice cleanses
- No expensive supplements
- No restrictive approaches that will leave you miserable and reaching for every food you miss
- No four-week fixes
The Willpower Equation
Everyone likes to talk about willpower—and for good reason: It’s a real thing that influences your ability to take on tasks. But your willpower is limited. For real. The area of your brain that controls your willpower is located in your prefrontal cortex (you might remember this from biology as the area directly behind your forehead). It’s the same part of your brain that helps you with day-to-day tasks—everything from short-term memory to focus.
The prefrontal cortex is busy at all times. So whenever you take on a new behavior—especially one as big as getting in shape, exercising, and eating better—it’s like having a massive project dropped in your lap and being told everyone else in the office is too busy to help.
The result is that new actions can be very (very) hard to execute. In fact, it’s more than your brain can handle, meaning you default to old or undesirable behaviors.
Here’s how manipulative your brain can be. In a well-known study, two groups were given a number to remember. One group needed to remember a two-digit sequence, whereas the other needed to remember seven digits (both short-term memory tasks). The two groups walked down a hallway where they were presented an option of snacks: fruit salad or chocolate cake.
What happened? Those who had to remember the seven-digit sequence were two times more likely to dig into cake instead of opting for fruit.
Researchers refer to this as “cognitive load.” The more space you’re taking up in the prefrontal cortex, the harder it is to make certain decisions. That’s why you need to prepare accordingly, so you have enough willpower to take on new tasks.
This is one of the reasons resolutions are such a flawed concept. If you’re trying to change 10 behaviors at the same time, it’s nearly impossible to succeed.
Most people love checklists because it feels awesome to cross off items and feel accomplished. The accomplishment part is great. The long list? Not so much. Whether or not you realize it, you’re laying the foundation for failure.
Success depends on consistency more than anything. So instead of asking, “What do I want to accomplish?” ask, “What’s the easiest thing I can do every day that will help me toward my goal?”
The “every day” part is important, because we’re shifting your mindset away from nuanced, difficult tasks to practical, doable ones. When you do good, you feel good. Success breeds success, and that creates habit. And habit makes everything easier. That’s the real goal: making change feel almost too easy.
If you swear off alcohol and then go out with your friends the first weekend in January, you might feel torn: Stay with your goal or break it? Do what you love or do what you feel is necessary to succeed?
Those are not questions you want to be faced with. At least, not initially. Instead you want to create a different construct. Start with simpler tasks you can master. For example:
- I will eat vegetables twice per day.
- I will sleep at least seven hours per night.
- I will drink two glasses of water with every meal.
- I will go to the gym three times during the week.
You could list endless habits that are designed to build behaviors. But start with one task and one only. Go slow to go fast. Trust me on this one. You do not need to eat chicken and broccoli for every meal, every day. You’ll thank me come April when you’re still kicking ass, instead of jumping off the wagon before January is even over.
Making change is hard. No one wants to admit it, but it’s true. So don’t make it harder by creating too many goals at once or by focusing on goals that seem like scaling a mountain instead of going for a walk. You’ll get to the mountain, but it’s better to build up momentum.
Make It Easy on Yourself
The other key is to leave room for imperfection. Let’s say your goal is: “I will go to the gym three times during the week.” Setting a goal of three times should not be your goal if you think that’s the maximum amount you’ll be able to go per week. Because if you’re slammed at work and only make it to the gym once, you’ll feel like you’ve failed.
Since you want to create behaviors that are easy, seamless, and become habitual, you might want to set a goal of two times per week. Declare that it will happen and then make sure you hit your two sessions every week without fail.
You want to make it as easy as possible to succeed. We all are susceptible to a psychological concept called “learned helplessness”: Fail enough, and you come to expect failure. This is the foundation of bad fitness. Yet, all too often we set goals that increase the likelihood of failure. If you make your goals easy, you’re on the right track. Small successes will create positive reinforcement.
Give yourself two to three weeks to crush each mini-goal. Once you’re consistently hitting the gym twice per week (or whatever makes sense for you), then add another goal. Then another. Each opportunity will give you the chance to build a habit you can master. As time goes on, you can make the goals much more specific and difficult. But when you do, you’ll be building on a solid foundation of habits that will make it very difficult to slide back to the old you.
It’s a Jedi mind trick for kicking ass. It’s the equivalent of saying: “Don’t focus on the grade you want in a class; put all your energy into learning the material.” When that happens, it’s hard not to succeed.
I wish you a year of small victories, imperfection, and cheesecake (OK, maybe the cheesecake is for me). Whatever you do, don’t paint the picture of a life you wouldn’t want to live. It’s not necessary and definitely is not needed in order to achieve your health and fitness goals.
Adam Bornstein is a New York Times best-selling author and the founder of Born Fitness, a company on a mission to cut through the noise and share what you need to know to live a healthy, happy life. He extends that mission even further as Greatist’s Naked Truth columnist. Learn more on his profile page or follow BornFitness on Facebook.