Dear Failures Like Me

February is the time we fail to keep our New Year's resolutions. Here's how you can succeed. (Hint: willpower won't cut it.)

By Published on February 1, 2022

You set out to get healthy in 2022, and you’ve done well so far, but if you’re honest, giving up is a real possibility. I’m facing the same temptation, and 80 percent of us throw in the towel as February rolls around.

Would you like to succeed this year?

Through 29 years of counseling, primarily with cancer patients, I’ve found that a healthy lifestyle can lead to a longer and stronger life. It can even prevent cancer and other ailments.

I’ve also seen that simply wanting to achieve our goals for the new year won’t cut it. We all want to get healthy, but willpower alone won’t get us there.

Here are six keys that will help you succeed this year. Your lifestyle changes can be long-lasting if you build on these keys to practice healthy habits for a minimum of 66 days.

  • Understand and recalibrate motivation.
  • Identify and defuse triggers.
  • Structure long-term success.
  • Start small.
  • Permission to indulge.
  • Power in numbers.

Motivation

With the right motivation, you can move mountains. A potent motivation has to be existential. Change your motivation from losing pounds and inches to adding healthy years of life to be here for those you love. Willpower doesn’t give you lasting power. Instead, replace old habits with new habits, developing a lifestyle that nourishes mind, body and spirit. We immerse Oasis of Hope patients and loved ones in a new healthy lifestyle for 21 days, follow up with them while they are at home and continue to support them on a follow-up visit. This process covers the 66 days studies say are needed to form new habits.

Triggers

About 40 percent of us have stress-eaten extra pandemic pounds. But it doesn’t take a global pandemic to cause stress. Situations at work, school and home provide all the stress needed to trigger the need to seek comfort in food. When we eat, our body gets a rush of “feel-good” endorphins. But there is a healthier way. Physical activity, like a brisk walk on the beach or at a park, will release the same endorphins food does. What triggers your unhealthy activities? Keep a journal of when you seek solace in food. As you learn your triggers, you can anticipate them and substitute a healthy choice or activity. You’ll get the same good feeling, only in a healthy way.

Long-Term Success

Three words: Have a Plan! Learn the healthy lifestyle habits you want to establish, develop a plan for pursuing them for the next two months, develop actions to avoid unhealthy triggers, and plan to have supporters with you along the way. There is an old saying, but a true one: If you fail to plan, you’re planning to fail.

Start Small

You cannot summit Mount Everest in a day. There are bases between climbing sections where people can rest, plan and set out another day to reach the next camp. Remember, it takes 66 days to change habits. Focus on small achievable goals for your first 66 days. Then add new goals for the following two months. If you are too ambitious at the start, the likelihood of giving up increases.

Permission to Indulge

Forbidden fruit is always the sweetest. Instead of prohibiting unhealthy foods, change the way you enjoy them. When I tried to get away from unhealthy hamburgers and french fries, I didn’t quit cold turkey. I decided to only eat burgers in sit-down restaurants instead of fast-food restaurants. This resulted in a 75% reduction in hamburger consumption that has been sustainable for years.

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I am as close to vegetarian as I’ve ever been in my life, but if I find myself in Las Vegas, you may catch me at Bobby Flay’s Burger Palace. Just remember, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas! The point is that the three-burger-a-week habit transformed into a guilt-free-burger-on-a-special-occasion type of lifestyle.

Power in Numbers

Social support is essential. Find like-minded friends and family who will join you and make the same healthy changes you are making. This is a great opportunity to join a group that exercises together — walking, swimming, kayaking. The appointments you make with these friends will motivate you to keep at it. Soon, it becomes addictive in a good way. The pleasant and healthy results — plus the camaraderie — will leave you looking forward to more. And, when you stumble, you have a community to help you get back up and carry on.

There is no silver bullet to establishing a healthy lifestyle. It takes work to develop new habits. But you can definitely improve your odds of achieving your New Year’s resolutions with a realistic understanding of the effort required, knowledge of your triggers for failure, a plan, realistic goals and a community of support.

I’m pulling for you. And by this time next year, I hope we’re all writing, “Dear Successes Like Me!”

 

Daniel E. Kennedy is the CEO of Oasis of Hope Hospital, producer and director of the documentary series Healthy Long Life and doctoral student at the University of Southern California.

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