Want to Make a Change? First, Get Your Mind Right.
It's January, the season of New Year's resolutions. You know, the time of year when gym parking lots are full. But as the relatively empty parking lots in February show us - New Year's resolutions don't work, with rare exceptions. I don't want to discount the few people who do them correctly, and are successful, but the vast majority do not approach their desired change the right way. I'm here to tell you with a little planning and mental exercise, EVERYONE can make any change they choose.
Why is it that so many people fail? Do the unsuccessful people not want to achieve their resolution? Sure they do. Many people want to lose weight, quit smoking, exercise more, spend less money, etc. The problem is this: most people don't get their mind right prior to embarking on their resolution journey.
We are all capable of changing out habits...the first step is BELIEVING we are capable. Most people don't actually believe they can do it. They make a casual resolution that they hope will magically become true. But until they actually believe they are capable and can accomplish something that's going to be challenging, it's simply not going to happen. This isn't something that can change overnight; many people have been listening to a negative voice in their head for years, sometimes it was started by toxic family members or friends, sometimes by themselves. The act of building self-confidence is an important first step in making a major change or embarking on reaching a goal. I'm going to teach you some tools I think are essential to "get your mind right."
Step 1: Positive Affirmations
The first step is incorporating affirmations into your daily schedule. It starts the process of repeating positive thoughts, which over time leads to belief as repeating the words moves from your conscious mind to your subconscious. There have been studies with functional MRIs that have shown that practicing positive affirmations changes how your brain is functioning by activating the reward centers in your brain. The benefits of affirmations include decreased stress, and, importantly, increased ability to dismiss harmful or negative messages. As you practice your positive affirmations, you need to start recognizing and discounting negative thoughts as they pop up...over time, you start increasing the positive thoughts and reducing the negative thoughts and self-talk.
Challenge these negative thoughts... With positive, confident statements...
"I'll never quit smoking." "I can and I will!"
"It's hopeless, I can't lose weight." "I'm getting stronger and healthier
"___ was right, I'm too lazy to do ____." "That's crazy. I'm working hard and
improving on ____ every day!"
With persistence, over time positive thoughts will outnumber the negative, and your whole attitude and demeanor will change.
What to write for your affirmation? It depends on your specific goals, but it must include a sentence or two that convey self-confidence. Some examples:
"I know that I have the ability to achieve the object of my Definite Purpose in life. Therefore I demand of myself persistent, continuous action towards its attainment, and I here and now promise to take such action." - Napoleon Hill, Think and Grow Rich
"I am just as worthy, deserving, and capable of achieving extraordinary levels of success and all my goals as every other person on earth, and that the only thing that separates me from those at the top is my level of commitment. So, from this moment on, I am 100% committed to becoming the person I need to be - through daily personal development and living with daily discipline - to easily attract, create, and sustain the levels of success that I truly want - and deserve - in my life." - Hal Elrod, The Miracle Morning
You can see that these affirmations focus on your ultimate goals, your "why" for doing what you're doing. If you want to lose weight - why is that? What is your purpose in life and how will losing weight help you achieve that? The answers to those questions are different for everyone. When people focus on their end goals and motivations when making a change, they are far more likely to be successful than focusing on a short-term, relatively meaningless goal, like losing 20 lbs. Yes, measuring success is very helpful and we will get to that, but you should never lose focus on 1) your why, and 2) your belief that you are fully capable of accomplishing your goals.
Step 2: Visualizations
This step goes hand-in-hand with creating affirmations. At the same time you write down your affirmations, it's time to start mentally crafting your visualizations. I first learned about the concept of visualization it in high school when I read a book about sports psychology. At the time, I was in my senior year and trying to improve my performance in the 300 meter hurdles. I had reached a kind of road block and couldn't seem to get my time below 50 seconds. I started visualizing my race going perfectly: efficiently getting out of the blocks, easily sprinting toward and clearing each hurdle, and feeling great while winning the race. I also put sticky notes all around my room and bathroom that read "<50." Nothing changed about my practice or training, but after a few weeks, I started getting times in the 48 and 49 second ranges, and ultimately qualified for the state championships.
Visualization is SO POWERFUL and athletes much more successful than I have been utilizing these techniques for decades. As famous golfer Jack Nicklaus said, "I never hit a shot, not even in practice, without having a sharp in-focus picture of it in my head." Muhammad Ali, in addition to always repeating the ultimate affirmation, "I am the greatest," mentally rehearsed every fight beforehand. What's amazing about visualization is that when you visualize yourself doing something, it activates the relevant part of the brain, essentially training it for the main event. So when I was visualizing sprinting out of the blocks and leaping over each hurdle, I was activating the parts of my brain associated with muscle groups needed to run the 300m hurdles.
For someone trying to lose weight, visualizing yourself enjoying taking the necessary steps and feeling how good it feels is crucial. Close your eyes and imaging yourself happily preparing healthy foods, feeling strong and energized while exercising, and smiling as you notice you're feeling thinner, happier, stronger, and full of energy. If you're trying to quit smoking, visualize yourself having your morning cup of coffee without the cigarette and feeling relaxed, powerful and content; imagine yourself taking deep breaths and feeling your improved lung capacity, and visualize yourself older, healthy, and being active with ease because of your health. Make sure you're visualizing the steps you need to take to get to reach the goal, as well as the positive feelings you want to feel while doing them, and your end point, in great detail.
The contrast is what many people do: dread exercising, think of eating healthy foods as torture, and complain that they're "supposed to be doing x, but I'm just so tired, hungry, stressed..." You don't have to be a neuroscientist or psychologist to know they're going to fail.
There's no limit to what you can visualize. Every morning, I visualize how my day is going to go and how I'm going to feel and conduct myself. (I even visualize being patient and relaxed with my children!) I visualize my growing practice becoming very successful, and myself as a leader. If you're finding yourself stressed, visualize feeling calm and composed as you move through the various parts of your day. If you have a big job interview, picture yourself confidently speaking with the interviewer and emphasizing your qualifications and prior successes.
Visualization is based, in part, on the law of attraction. Remember the popular book "The Secret" everyone was buying circa 2006? That book, and the preceding documentary, were based on a belief that simply visualizing success will attract people and opportunities into your life that will lead to a manifestation of your desires. Certainly we've all experienced increasing awareness of something in our environment when it's relevant to our own life (ex: you're looking to buy a car and suddenly your awareness of the make and model of every car that passes your house increases dramatically.) When I got accepted to Case Western for medical school, suddenly I was seeing the word, "Case" everywhere. Our brains are powerful and our subconscious mind easily filters out information it deems not useful and extraneous while focusing on what seems relevant to our conscious mind. My personal interpretation of the law of attraction is that by keeping your end goal fresh in your mind, you keep your subconscious mind open to new possibilities and opportunities that may help you reach your goal in creative ways. It also strengthens your confidence that you will achieve the goal, and like the athletes who visualize their sporting events, you are more likely to succeed when you've already practiced winning in your mind hundreds of times before!
Another important reason visualization helps with making lifestyle changes is that emotions play such an important role in our decision making. We make choices that feel right and explain them away. "I didn't go to the gym this morning because my kid woke me up last night so I wouldn't have had enough energy." "I ate a lot of ice cream because I worked out today." We all know that I didn't go to the gym because I was feeling lazy and I ate tons of ice cream because I was feeling stressed. Marketers have understood this concept for a long time, and they appeal to those emotions on commercials and advertisements. If you ask someone why they bought a Mercedes, they might quote the gas mileage or the safety profile, but the reality is they chose that above a Honda because of the way they feel about the status profile or luxury that Mercedes has associated itself with. There's nothing wrong with that, but recognizing your own limitations in using logic to make decisions can help you set yourself up for success when you're trying to make challenging lifestyle changes. If you know you've been stressed at work, and that when you're stressed you tend to go through an entire pint of ice cream or bag of potato chips, make a decision when you're at the grocery store not to buy those things, so you don't have to make that decision in the heat of the moment. If you're having trouble cooking healthy foods because they're less appealing than getting take out, utilize visualization to see yourself enjoying cooking and eating healthy foods and feeling satisfied, instead of overly full and disappointed that you ate another unhealthy fast food. If you are planning on waking up early to exercise, before you go to bed visualize how great you're going to feel waking up, energized for your workout, and feeling amazing during and after your exercise. The reality is, you're unlikely to sustain a change you genuinely dislike...you may have to change how you feel about it to be successful.
Seriously, add affirmations and visualizations to your daily routine. Better yet, create a new morning routine that involves affirmations, visualization, and exercise. Not only will you be starting every day off on the right foot (compared to the chaos that afflicts many households in the morning), you'll be taking time every day to train your brain to be self-confident and develop a clear mental picture of your goals. In my opinion, these are the things that make all the difference. Despite the widespread availability of resources that can tell you the risks of being overweight and data about what foods are healthy and which aren't, most people who set out to lose weight are not successful because what they need is not more information; they need a belief in themselves and a commitment to achieving a clear end goal in alignment with their own "why."
So ask yourself, "What's my purpose? What do I want to improve to become the best version of myself, which will help me achieve my purpose?" Write it down. Then write down your first affirmations that's you'll repeat, aloud, every day. Begin to visualize your end point, and the feelings associated with reaching that point. These may change as your "why" and your end goals become clearer. Just don't wait for absolute clarity to start, or as they say, "Don't let perfect be the enemy of good."
Next, we will discuss making a plan to reach your goals! In the meantime, start "getting your mind right!" As always, reach out if you have comments or questions!
Sources, further reading:
Start with Why by Simon Sinek (geared toward business and marketing)
The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane (for learning to project, and ultimately feel self-confidence)
The Miracle Morning by Hal Elrod
Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill (written about money but the principles are very applicable to all goals)
Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes (producer of Gray's Anatomy's funny journey to personal change)