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Easy Techniques To Make Healthy Changes Last

Shannon Harvey

I have a confession to make.

Even though I’m a health journalist who extensively researches and writes about the latest science proving there’s a connection between our mind, body and health, and even though I have written an entire chapter in my new book about the importance of sitting less and moving more… I have not been exercising regularly.

My second son is now 7-months-old and ever since he was born, my exercise habits have gone out the window. Sure, I’ve been getting out for the odd walk and casually practising some yoga at home. I’ve even been to the occasional post-natal mums-n-bubs Pilates class. But my goal (based on the science) to move my body, every day, in a variety of ways, has been far from accomplished. Between the sleep deprivation and the busyness that comes with having a whole new human in the house, regular exercise has not been my priority.

And I’m starting to feel it.

I want to start consistently moving my body again. I really really do. But, according to the science, unless I’m clever about this, I’m highly likely to fail. As I’ve written about in my blog post Read This Before You Make A New Years Resolution, while we may have the best of intentions to loose weight, eat better, exercise more, save money, stop smoking, or some other worthy activity, unfortunately, depending on the degree of difficulty in what it is we’re trying to achieve, somewhere between 35 percent and 89 percent of us will fail, often within the first week.

This is what social researchers call the intention-behaviour gap. “Wanting something is only the first step,” leading health behaviour researcher Peter Gollwitzer told me. “The strength of an intention hardly correlates with the person’s actual enacting the intention.” So, even if you’re like me and you really really intend to change your behaviour it doesn’t mean you’ll succeed.

Gollwitzer is a professor of psychology at New York University. (My podcast with him is at the end of this post). He has dedicated his career to working out how we can build a bridge to get over the intention-behaviour gap. According to Gollwitzer, there are four common reasons you might fail to reach your health goals:

Why You Fail

1. You Get Busy

Example: You set the intention to exercise on Saturday morning, but when Saturday morning comes around, there are a ton of other more pressing priorities – you need to do your grocery shopping, you have to get the kids to their sport game, you need to visit your relatives etc.

You don’t get started in the first place.

2. You Get Disrupted

Example: You set the intention to go for a run straight after work and you have your running shoes on ready to go, but then an urgent email comes through and you stay back for another half an hour to attend to it.

Your good intentions get derailed.

3. You Overextend Yourself

Example: You set the intention to go to an exercise class in the early evening but you had a tough day and when you get home you’re tired and don’t have any energy. You watch TV instead.

As I wrote in my post Will Vs Skill: Making Healthy Changes Last, willpower is an unreliable ally in the face of fatigue or overwhelm.

4. You Set Out To Do The Wrong Thing

Example: You set the intention to go for an early morning jog before work but you’re not a morning person.

Unless you change tack, you’re going to sail off course.

Planning For Success

In this crazy-busy, distracted, time-poor world it’s little wonder that many of us aren’t following through with our intentions. Fortunately, Gollwitizer offers a solution. He’s an advocate of the power of planning and, as I’ve written about previously, he’s demonstrated that a simple “if-then” planning technique can be a key to health-goal success, including helping people to exercise more. Unlike an intention that merely states a goal like “I want to exercise more,” his technique specifies the where, when, and how of reaching your goals.

Here’s an example of how Gollwitzer’s strategy works:

If it’s 3pm on a Saturday, then I’ll go out for a 30 minute run to the park and back.”
The strategy also helps you plan for curve balls that might derail your efforts:
If it’s raining, then I will wear my waterproof jacket.”

Mindless Health

In the process of overcoming my own health challenges, which has involved everything from learning to manage my stress and regulate my emotions, to prioritising my relationships, sleep, and healthy eating, I’ve learned one very important thing about making these healthy changes last – much of what we do is automatic. It’s estimated that almost 50 percent of our behaviours are done without us thinking about them. While I’m all for practicing mindfulness, or being present (the health benefits of which I’ve written about extensively), contemporary research in psychology also shows that we can also use mindlessness – our unthinking routines, patterns, and behaviours to form a foundation for what we do in everyday life.

The idea is that Gollwitzer’s if-then planning helps eliminate the choices you have to make, encourages you stop and think about the obstacles you’ll face in reaching your goal, and makes your behaviour automatic. “If-then planning more or less automates your behaviour so you do it even if the individual steps of doing it get more complicated,” said Gollwitzer. “You just do it automatically. You don’t think and say, ‘Oh, it’s raining today. I don’t want to run.’ If it’s 3pm on a Saturday afternoon, you go for a run no matter what.”

Because human behaviour is so complex, it’s important to note that many of the studies demonstrating the effectiveness of Gollwitzer’s action planning technique also incorporated other motivational strategies. Gollwitzer has worked with his equally accomplished wife, Gabrielle Oettingen who is also a New York University psychology professor, to develop a free app that combines his if-then planning technique with another simple exercise called ‘mental contrasting,’ which encourages us to focus on visualising our goals as well as the obstacles that stand in our way. The combined technique, which they call ‘WOOP’ (Wish Outcome Obstacle Plan) has been shown to double regular physical exercise over a time period of four months and help chronic pain patients to become more physically active.

Here’s how it works:

Wish – Your goal

Example – I want to move my body every day, either at the gym, walking at the beach, or on my yoga mat for at least 20 minutes each day.

(Hint: be specific not vague)

Outcome – Why will you benefit when you achieve this goal ?

Examples –
I will feel great.
I’ll have a better mood and clearer head.
I’ll have more focus(check out my blog about How Exercise Works Out Your Brain).
I’ll feel stronger, fitter, and have more energy.

(Hint: make the benefit intrinsic not extrinsic)

Obstacle – What can derail your efforts?

Examples –

I don’t have enough “me time” without the kids.
The weather is bad.
I feel tired after being awake with the baby at night.
I feel that I should be using my time by working instead.

Planning – The when and where you will start working toward your goal

Example – If it’s a day during the week when my kids are being looked after, then I will exercise.
Example – If I haven’t exercised, then I will practice at least 20 minutes of yoga before bed.
Example – If I’m with my kids and I’m looking for an activity to entertain them, then I will first look for an activity that requires us to get outside and move.

Planning for obstacles – how you will overcome the road blocks

Example – If it’s raining and I can’t go outside with my kids outside, then I will go to my gym that has an amazing supervised play area for my kids, complete with no less than three giant slides.
Example – If I’m too tired at night to practice 20 minutes of yoga before bed, then I will just do 5 minutes (surely there’s always time for 5 minutes of yoga?)

Check out my resources page for more on using WOOP and to download your own if-then planning template for free.

Planning Into Action

After writing this blog post, I’m bursting with motivation to get back into my ‘move every day’ habit. Knowing that being motivated and committed isn’t enough, I’ve also put some time into doing my WOOP exercises. This has led me to reinstate my gym membership. I’ve also updated my exercise music playlist, updated my podcast subscriptions and downloaded some great audio books on my phone so that I look forward my work-out and it’s a source of reward for me. In order to combat the feeling of being unproductive and too busy at work to get out and move, I’ve also started exploring ways that I can work while I’m moving. For example, I listen to the draft edits of my podcast or I listen to audio books written by scientists I’m following and make bookmark notes as I go.

With all this planning and preparation, it’s interesting that when I woke up this morning, without thinking about it, the first thing I did was dress in my work-out gear. After checking my emails and reading over this blog, I’ve now got a window in my day to get out and move. The draft edit for this week’s podcast is cued up on my phone ready to go so I won’t be loosing any productive work time.

Now is the moment… but wait… it’s bucketing down with rain. Not to worry, I have a plan.


Further Reading:

Rethinking Positive Thinking: Inside the New Science of Motivation: by Grabrielle Oettingen

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