When is the right time to start working on better weight control? For some people the idea of starting a few days before Christmas sounds impossible, and they will instead work on a New Year’s resolution, vowing to leap into action as soon as the holidays are over. Their attitude is, “have fun now, pay later,” like those who run up big credit card bills buying gifts they can’t really afford.
Now, my intention in this essay is surely not to be a Grinch. It’s important to have fun and share good times. My question is whether we can have a good time but still practice new habits?
To answer this question, we need to look more closely at the concept of habit. Habits are behaviours that take place in response to specific “cues” (remember Pavlov’s dogs); they feel automatic and in some sense “driven” – that’s why the concepts of habit and addiction are overlapping and somewhat difficult to tease apart. Habits can be healthy (e.g. brushing your teeth) or unhealthy (e.g. overeating), but in all cases, have the feeling of being a part of us. To change a habit, we must pull ourselves away from what feels natural.
Back to the holiday question, imagine your pattern of holiday eating in years past, and think of all the cues that trigger it. Perhaps it’s the big display of traditional foods, things you only have a chance to eat once a year. Perhaps it’s your friends and relatives offering, or even pushing, you to eat, eat, eat. Perhaps it’s the quiet time you get to spend with yourself, eating while watching too much TV. Your habits take place in a “predictable” scenario of place, people, food, mood, and motivation (the “why” of your eating).
So, what’s a good goal if you decide to make a change this year? I would suggest making the smallest changes you can think of! A little less of this (e.g. sweets) and a little more of that (e.g. walks). Stay conscious of what you’re doing this year and how it’s just a little bit better than last year. Think about my “theory of behaviour change relativity,” which is, simply, that “it’s all relative,” meaning your behaviour this year relative to last year.
The holiday season is an “opportunity” to get started on this process of 1. Identifying your habits, 2. Understanding the contexts in which they take place, and 3. Starting to make small changes. If you start making small changes in your habits now, just imagine where you’ll be by the NEXT holiday season.
Stephen Stotland, Ph.D.