Coach PaulIt doesn’t matter whether your goal is to lose 5 or 50 pounds, quit smoking or stop drinking. New Year’s resolutions and other goals are hard to keep beyond the first month.

Many of my clients come to me excitedly in January with goals and resolutions to work on. And by March, some have succeeded, but some have failed. Let’s face it, change is hard.

Why? Because the brain is tricky. No matter how sincerely we want to break a habit, we have an inherent immunity to change.

This means we’re physiologically “lured” into doing what we’ve always done, no matter how strong our intentions. And yet, some people do succeed in achieving their goals. We all know people who have lost weight, stopped smoking or quit drinking.

Successful goal-achievers know that you can’t fix adaptive problems with technical solutions. A diet, for example, is a technical solution to being overweight: To lose weight, eat less and exercise more. But the problem is much more complex. Unless you change your mindset (an adaptive solution), you won’t sustain new habits.

Einstein said that how you formulate a problem is just as critical as how you solve it. One of the biggest mistakes goal-setters make is applying technical solutions to adaptive problems. It doesn’t matter how much you change what you do. If you don’t shift the way you think, you’ll revert to doing things as you’ve always done them.

Why would any intelligent human being say he’s committed to doing one thing and then do the opposite? For that matter, why do we set goals and then let them slide? Why is it so hard to “walk our talk”? After all, no one feels good after a relapse. We don’t set out to fail.

The answer lies in a concept called competing commitments. Once we understand and accept that we often have conflicting desires, it’s easier to find solutions that help us meet our goals.

Take the following example: Many people set New Year’s resolutions to lose weight and go to the gym. They may do fine for the first month. But usually by week 5 or 6, they revert to last year’s status quo. As much as they want to lose weight and get fit, they also want to keep having fun, going out, spending time with family and friends and enjoying life like they used to. 

Voilà! Competing commitments in action! Our brains are always trying to achieve equilibrium and balance by hard-wiring all of our habits and routines. When we try to change things, we’re unprepared to face the powerful resistance of our hard-wired patterns.

Yet, when we’re aware of this process, we can help our brains change. We can create new habits and routines for it to use. By acknowledging our competing commitments, we can make intentional decisions to maintain new goals and change old habits and routines.

Most of us think it’s just a matter of willpower, but we truly underestimate the powerful force that pulls us back to old habits. The brain creates ironclad excuse systems that run in the background, which are designed to reduce anxiety and protect us from worry. Importantly, these excuses are often based on false assumptions that can set us up to fail.

Consider the following examples:

My Goal

How I Sabotage

Competing Commitments

False Assumptions

I am committed to the value or importance of…

What am I doing (or not doing) that prevents me from achieving this goal?

I may also be committed to:

I assume that…

1. Losing weight

I eat more than I need for my size; I snack; I eat the wrong foods, fats and sugar; I eat for pleasure, not to nourish my body.

I don’t want others to see me as a dieter; I want to forget my problems and enjoy food/life; I use food to ward off unpleasant feelings.

…if I diet, people will think I’m rigid and not fun; I’m afraid to feel alone and empty; food is my sole source of pleasure; I’m not a slim person, so why bother?

2. Quitting smoking

I smoke to satisfy my addiction.

I must keep nicotine in my system to manage my anxiety and nerves.

…if I don’t smoke, I will explode with anger, lose my cool, be nervous, or lose my reputation as a “tough” person.

Habits like overeating, smoking or excessive drinking are not 100% bad. They make us feel good, at least temporarily. Because the body and mind are pleasure-seeking systems, it’s hard to ignore our hard-wired excuses—but not impossible. Awareness heralds change.

Restart your year by creating a chart like the one above. Fill in the columns so they reflect your current goals. Courageously admit what worries you. Question the assumptions you make, which have been there to protect you in some way. You can run an “assumption test”: Try doing something you fear just to see what happens.

Make a resolution to break competing commitments so you can succeed in achieving your goals.  Don’t give up on getting rid of your bad habits and replacing them with good ones. If you need help, remember, I am just a phone call or email away.

Warmest Regards,

Coach Paul

“And if your home is just another place where you’re a stranger, and far away is just somewhere you’ve never been. I hope that you’ll remember, I am your friend.” – Rich Mullins

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Life-Changing Coaching by Paul Edward is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivative Works 3.0 License.