My current emphasis: how to make good habits and break bad ones (really)

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Do you have trouble sticking to your resolutions? Turns out that it really does matter.

HighwaYesterday’s New York Times Magazine had a very interesting cover story, Gary Taubes’s Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy?

From a happiness perspective, the bit that caught my eye was about the “compliance effect” or “adherer effect.” It turns out that people who stick to a doctor’s orders – say, by taking a prescription – are different, and healthier, than people who don’t.

In one drug study, a group of men were assigned a drug or a placebo. The men who faithfully took their pills had significantly better outcomes than the men who didn’t – even the men who were only taking a placebo!

The conclusion: a group of people who faithfully adhere to a program that they think healthful (taking vitamins, exercising, eating a better diet) will have a different outcome from a group that doesn’t, for reasons that aren’t altogether clear.

Now, of course, we’d all like to be in the category of “adherers” who can stick to positive programs, but it’s tough to do.

The big question: How do you change yourself from a “non-adhererer” to an “adherer”?

Whenever I meet people who have stuck to a new resolution, I try to figure out how they did it. HOW did she transition to an entirely new career? HOW did he change his parenting style? HOW did they change from a couch-potato couple to a training-for-the-marathon couple? It’s so much easier to see what ought to be done than to do it.

I’ve seen the argument that prodigies in sports, music, chess, etc. don’t really exist, and that exceptional performance is the result of practice.

The most important quality for a prodigy, then, is not innate talent, but a drive to practice.

And so it may be with happiness, health, and many other desiderata. A key element is the ability to STICK to a resolution that would bring about change.

I’ve stumbled on some little tricks that help. For example, when I was trying to develop the habit of exercising, I always exercised on Monday. That got me started on the right foot for the week.

I started keeping my resolutions charts to keep myself constantly reviewing my resolutions and holding myself accountable. (As always, if you want to see a copy, just email me–see left-hand column)

When I was trying to give up my beloved Nutritious Creations chocolate-chip cookies, I decided that I would NEVER, EVER eat one again. As Samuel Johnson said, “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.” If I ate one, I’d be back to two a day. (Okay, sometimes three a day.)

In fact, I’ve found, it’s often easier to do something NEVER or EVERY DAY than a couple of times a week. When a friend said she was having trouble getting herself to post to her blog two or three times a week, I suggested that she post every day. And that helped. I work on the Happiness Project book every single day, even if I just jot down notes for ten minutes, because that’s a habit that helps me actually get some writing done.

The advantage of doing something NEVER or EVERY DAY is that I don’t spend time fussing about when or how often I’m going to do something. I know that I absolutely can’t do it, or that I absolutely must do it.

If you have suggestions for strategies that have made it easier for you to stick to a resolution, please post them. I suspect other people are as interested as I am in how to be a better “adherer.”

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I always enjoy checking out Guy Kawasaki’s How To Change the World. He posts on all sorts of topics, almost always interesting.

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