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Is better health and wellbeing on your list of goals to achieve?

If so, how are you going?

Have you stuck to that new exercise regime or better food choices, or have you fallen foul of things getting in the way of the new healthier you such, as what we call “life?”

As a doctor, people would come to see me when they were sick, seeking advice, diagnosis and some treatment. That was the easy bit. The challenge was if the medical problem was more complex or chronic and required some fundamental changes to that person’s lifestyle.

Behavioural change is hard. We fail and often. Not because we are stupid or foolish, but because we are creatures of habit operating on autopilot, that wonderful system of embedded thoughts and behaviours that help our brain save mental energy.

Change requires practice and perseverance to create a new habit

We don’t break bad habits, we supersede the old one we want to replace and because this requires a change in our neurobiology, it’s tricky. Even when established, when we’re under pressure or experience a change in our routine, the brain defaults back to (you guessed it) the old pathway it’s more familiar with.

I remember a former client, especially in this regard. He was a good soul, worked hard, looked after his family and was always cheery. Yet when it came to managing his own health he struggled to make any change to his lifestyle that would make a significant difference to his current or future wellbeing.

From a doctor’s perspective, this is enormously frustrating, and for the client too. To give him his due, despite his embarrassment in not achieving any of his goals he would religiously attend his monthly check-up where we would once more look at would he could do to try and make some headway.

If only I had known then what I know now about behavioural change.

The public health mantras have changed little over the decades:

  • Eat more fruit and veg.
  • Find 30 minutes to exercise.
  • Don’t sit so much.
  • Get more sleep.

Yada, yada, yada. Yawn.

The messages are simple and backed by good solid science, yet despite “knowing,” we don’t do, leading to guilt, a sense of failure, and increasing inertia.

Perhaps we should just blame our brain for making things tough for us.

Our brain loves patterns and familiarity

These patterns help us to know we are safe from threat. We devise habits and ways of doing as a means of navigating our world that feel comfy even if we sometimes know deep down not all of them are good for us. We rationalise and justify so that the cognitive dissonance that makes us feel uncomfortable can be taken away. How many times do we start a diet to lose weight in the morning, but then choose to eat that divine slice of rich chocolate cake in the afternoon?

Be mindful of the tricks your brain likes to play

Yes, it would be great to be fitter, drop those couple of kilos that have been hanging around for too long and get to bed on time more regularly. The intentions are good but they somehow get lost n translation.

Check your reason why

WHY do you want to achieve these goals?

Listen to your answers. Is it because you just want to be healthier? That you want to be buying clothes in the same size you were when you were 20? That you want to be better prepared for the ageing process?

Mmm. All highly virtuous, but not exactly very exciting.

The brain is very poor at future planning

Abstract thoughts of future goals that are a bit vague and nebulous such as being “fitter” don’t motivate us to change. The future is too far away and you’d like to be fitter now, not in three to six months time after a lot of hard work and effort.

What if the goal was instead to enjoy more energy in your day?

To be able to zip through that horribly long to-do list and feel as if you’re on top of everything.

Does that feel more inspiring?

Shift your thinking about your health goals

Changing our perspective of what we think we want requires awareness that it’s possible to have more than one worldview. It’s about defining what is relevant to us now. If the reason ‘why’ fulfils our immediate needs and we can start to quickly experience the desired outcome, this fires up the intrinsic motivation we need to get off our bottoms and get started.

So, if you’ve been told your cholesterol is too high, that you need to lose weight or better manage your stress which is currently threatening to cause you to blow a gasket, then as Simon Sinek suggests start with why, but ensure you’ve got the right why. Hint: It’s the one that will make you feel good sooner rather than later.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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