Why Big Resolutions Fail
It has been 56 days since the New Year.
How many of the resolutions that you made on January 1st are you still following?
And how long did it take for you to break them? One month? One week? An hour?
Now, tell me. How much of a failure do you feel like?
One of the problems with New Year’s Resolutions, and there are many, is that they are simply too big. After a lifetime of being a slob, you think that you will wake up the next day and, because it is January 1st, you will be entirely organized. A lifetime of bad habits wiped clean by eight hours of sleep.
Or after fifteen years of eating certain foods, you are going to wake up the next day and eat an entirely new group of healthier foods, which you probably don’t know how to cook and don’t even have in the house.
To become organized is a huge undertaking. On top of learning how to become organized, it will take an incredible amount of will-power to follow through on all of those new ways of doing things.
Changing a diet is just as big of a challenge.
So is, all of a sudden, having perfect blood sugars.
So what happens when you make these well-intentioned, big resolutions?
You fail big.
And you fail fast.
And then the guilt of being a failure sits on you and discourages you from ever trying to change that area of your life again. You assume that you are just a slob or that you are addicted to bad foods or just a bad diabetic. That there is no way of changing.
The thing is, you aren’t the failure. It’s the system of these huge resolutions that require massive amounts of will power that set you up for failure.
The thing about will power is, that it is a limited brain resource. You only get so much every day. According to the Columbia University, in a research study published in the National Academy of Sciences, every time your brain has to make a decision, (do I eat the donut or apple?), it uses energy.
And just like a muscle gets tired after several exercises, your brain will reach a point of decision fatigue. When it reaches this point, it goes into default mode. It won’t make a decision, it relies on a different part of the brain that controls habits and chooses to do what it has always done.
So, if we try to overhaul our entire lives in one fell swoop we are asking our brain to make an enormous amount of new decisions every day. By the end of the day, it simply does not have the energy to make another good one. So we go back to the old, bad habits we want to do away with.
It would be like going out and running a marathon and then expecting to do anything of physical value later that day. After my last half-marathon, I couldn’t manage the four-inch step out my back door without stumbling. There is no way I could balance on my stand up paddleboard. And I wouldn’t ask my body to do that.
So why are we asking our brains to do that?
Instead of asking something of our brains that is impossible, let’s ask of it something we know it can do. Let’s make a micro-resolution.
According to Caroline L. Arnold, micro-resolution is a small, targeted behavioral change that is attainable and permanently sustainable. It is so small you might think it is worthless. But small things can make a huge difference.
Let’s say you want to lose weight. You could try to change your entire diet. But as we just learned, that’s way too much for your brain to handle. A better solution would be to do something small.
Something like eliminating the tablespoon of butter on your morning toast.
You still get the jelly on your toast. You get your coffee and your eggs and your bacon. All of that you still do the same way. Your lunch and dinner and snacks are still the same. You still eat out as much and go out for a drink on the weekend.
You only get rid of the butter.
That’s it. A micro-resolution. I am pretty sure EVERYONE is capable of eliminating a tablespoon of butter in the morning.
It is guaranteed success. After a week of this you will feel like the greatest person around, because you succeeded. After two weeks, you won’t even have to think about the butter that you used to use. After three weeks, you might be ready for another micro-resolution.
And, because you just succeeded with your first micro-resolution, you will be more eager and confident when you start your second micro-resolution.
Now some of you are probably saying, so what? I have pounds to shed, and the rest of my diet is horrible. I gave up some butter, who cares?
Well, that tablespoon of butter is about 100 calories. And since you have permanently given it up, that is 100 calories every day. After a year that’s 36,500 calories.
Or in terms you might want to hear, after a year, if you do everything else the same, you will have lost 10 pounds from giving up a stupid tablespoon of butter on your morning toast.
You see, when small things are repeated every day, they add up.
When I decided to start eating mostly plant-based foods several years ago, I knew it would be a huge change. And I just don’t have that kind of strength.
I also knew that I had other things going on like work and kids and training and diabetes. So I didn’t have much decision energy left at the end of the day. I couldn’t just wake up one day and change everything.
So I didn’t. I mirco-resolutioned my way to the change I wanted to see.
My first task was breakfast. For years I woke to two eggs scrambled with veggies and two pieces of toast. Since my morning blood sugars are a bit finicky, once I found a meal that worked, breakfast had been on autopilot for years.
So I tackled it first. The toast would stay. The veggies would stay. And I switched the eggs for vegan sausage. One simple change. All of the other aspects of my food were the same.
After one month, I tackled lunch, by taking out the cheese of my cheese and veggie sandwich. And then I took on dinner, and snacks, and treats.
Meal by meal, through small changes, I went from eating an omnivores diet to a mostly plant-based. And I didn’t even notice. There was no will-power involved. It was just tiny changes, over and over.
Micro-resolutions make big change easy and permanent because each step in the process is repeated over and over until it is just a part of how you do things before the next step is taken on.
Once one goal is accomplished, the same system is applied to a new area of life.
So, now, I am at a place once again, where I want to see some new changes in my life. I have lost some of my endurance and strength due to a prolonged health issue. I am healthier now and want to get back what I have lost, but I have learned that instead of a huge overhaul and expecting to go from not working out to doing 7 days a week of intense training, I am going to make micro-resolutions.
I also want to tighten up my blood sugar numbers. But instead of promising to drop 2.0 on my A1C, I will make one micro-change that I know I can consistently do forever without needing any extraordinary amounts of will-power.
My micro-resolutions will get me to these goals.
To give you an idea of the scope of these resolutions, they are below.
#1. Each night before bed, do 20 pushups or sit-ups or squats.
#2. Instead of waiting until my sugars rise to 180 to correct, I will micro-bolus and correct when I am 150 (of course taking into consideration the direction I am already heading on my Dexcom and any insulin I may have on board from a prior bolus.)
When I have built these into habits, I will add another layer of change. Slowly, layer by successful layer, I will have accomplished my goals, all without taxing my brain or failing.
And, here’s my pledge, (because accountability is so important in follow through), I will post a pic on Instagram of myself doing my strength micro-resolutions each night for the next 7 nights with the hashtag #diabetesmicroresolutions. Feel free to call me on it if I miss a night.
And if you want to join in, feel free to post your own pics and micro-resolutions.
Let’s check up on each other and encourage one another.
I’ll be looking for your posts and to congratulate you on your successes.
Erin Spineto was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1996. When she ran out of motivation from fighting hard for twelve years, she turned to adventure to provide the motivation she sought starting with a 100-mile solo sail down the Florida Keys and writing the book, Islands and Insulin, about her trip and life with diabetes.
She followed that up by leading the first ever, all type 1 diabetic team to finish the 12.5-mile Swim Around Key West in 2014, and, in 2015, leading another type 1 team stand up paddling 100-miles up the Intracoastal Waterway in North Carolina. Erin has been featured in Diabetes Forecast Magazine, Insulin Nation, Diabetes Mine, A Sweet Life, and the Union Tribune.
You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter at @erinspineto, or read more from her on her website, SeaPeptide.com.