My wife bought me the “Pessimist” Calendar from despair.com for Christmas. I’ve loved this demotivational site for years and own a few of their posters. Their black, ironic humor is always able to bring a smile to my face, no matter what sort of day I am having. Here’s the entry for January 1st, 2013:
- 45% of Americans usually make New Year’s Resolutions, yet only 8% actually achieve their goals.
- 38% of Americans refuse to make any resolutions and are 100% successful at achieving the goals they refuse to set.
- People in their 20s are 2.5x more likely to achieve their resolutions than those over 50, yet are still most likely doomed to fail.
- 24%of people fail on their resolution each year, yet still keep making them. (These are the eternal optimists. Avoid if possible. Mock openly if not.)
Although I cannot vouch for the accuracy of the numbers, they convey a definite degree of truth.
We like to set goals. It doesn’t matter if we keep them; we just like to set them.
In a recent podcast, Jason Seib pointed out that the act of actually setting a goal/resolution actually releases a dopamine response in our brain–in other words, it feels good. We get this response whether it is a short-term or a long-term goal. But here’s the problem:
Long-Term Setting Isn’t Human Nature
Now, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. It takes long term planning to get through school, to buy a house, to raise a family, etc. But it’s difficult to stay motivated in a long-term situation. We are far more successful if we can break a large goal into short-term goals. Four years of college becomes semesters, classes, finals, essays, homework.
We can apply the same principle to our own New Year’s Resolutions in order to be more successful. Rather than jumping on an unsustainable diet, workout plan, ect…why don’t you address your biggest vice first instead of immediately trying to change it all at once?
Trying to give up all refined and processed sugars? Instead of removing all sweets, try removing your favorite source of sugar–be it soda, peppermint mochas, diet coke (artificial sweeteners are just as bad for you, kids–sorry if this bursts your bubble–here’s a link to a piece on artificial sweeteners, with 3 separate cited studies for evidence). Once you’ve made the first cut, others can follow incrementally.
Maybe it’s a bit much to suddenly become an avid jogger overnight. Perhaps you get to bed a half an hour earlier and fit a brisk 10 minute walk into each day instead. This is sustainable and likely to lead to more walking, then perhaps running in its place. These small steps will be much easier than going full-blown right out of the gates.
So all this being said, I have a suggested New Year’s Resolution which is both sustainable and more likely to actually make you a healthier person than whatever it was you already had cooked up. Ready for this?
Reduce the Impact of Stress & Improve Your Sleep
Here’s the thing: you can eat a perfect diet, exercise regularly, and take all the right supplements, but if you’re not sleeping well and managing your stress, all bets are off.
The following thoughts comes from Chris Kresser and his most recent blog post:
I recommend setting a different goal that will bring more meaningful wellness to your life, from methods that don’t involve self-deprivation – no new diet or exercise routine required. You may find that sticking to these alternative resolutions is not only easier, but more enjoyable and more beneficial to your health and happiness in the long run. And you may find that they even help you lose weight!
I love how he focuses on making a resolution which doesn’t involve self-deprivation. Deprivation will only lead us to inevitable failure. Here’s how this works:
- Learn to say “no”. Know your limits, and don’t take on projects or commitments you can’t handle.
- Avoid people who stress you out. You know the kind of person I’m talking about. Drama kings and queens. People who are constantly taking and never giving. Limit your time with these people or avoid them entirely.
- Turn off the news (or at least limit your exposure to it). If watching the world go up in flames stresses you out, limit your exposure to the news. You’ll still find out what’s going on, and still be able to act as a concerned citizen. But you’ll have more time for yourself.
- Give up pointless arguments. This is especially true for useless internet debating. There is obviously a place for discussion and debate, and working towards change. But have you noticed that most arguments don’t lead to change? In fact, they tend to have the opposite effect – each side becomes more defended and entrenched in their worldview. Find other ways to get your point across, learn to listen with empathy, and don’t waste precious time and energy trying to convert fundamentalists to your “religion.”
- Escape the tyranny of your to-do list. Each day spend some time in the morning really considering what needs to be done that day. Drop unimportant tasks to the bottom of the list. Better yet, cross them off entirely. The world will go on.
Mitigate the Harmful Effects of Stress You Can’t Avoid
Obviously there are times when we just can’t avoid stress. Maybe we have a high-stress job, or we’re caring for an ailing parent, or we’re having difficulty with our partner or spouse. In these situations it’s not about reducing stress itself, but about reducing its harmful effects.
- Reframe the situation. We experience stress because of the meaning we assign to certain events or situations. Sometimes changing our perspective is enough to relieve the stress. For example, being stuck in traffic can be a “disaster” or it could be an opportunity for contemplation and solitude.
- Lower your standards. This is especially important for you perfectionists out there. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Let good enough be good enough.
- Practice acceptance. One of my teachers used to say “All suffering is caused by wishing the moment to be other than it is.” Many things in life are beyond our control. Learn to accept the things you can’t change.
- Be grateful. Simply shifting your focus from what is not okay or not enough, to what you’re grateful for or appreciative of can completely change your perspective – and relieve stress.
- Cultivate empathy. When you’re in a conflict with another person, make an effort to connect with their feelings and needs. If you understand where they’re coming from, you’ll be less likely to react and take it personally.
- Manage your time. Poor time management is a major cause of stress. When you’re overwhelmed with commitments and stretched too thin, it’s difficult to stay present and relaxed. Careful planning and establishing boundaries with your time can help.
Let me say this again: you can eat a perfect diet and take all the right supplements, but if you’re not sleeping well and managing your stress, you simply won’t see real results.
Did you know that fewer than 6 hours of sleep per day is associated with low-grade chronic inflammation and worsening insulin resistance, as well as increased risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease? This is especially significant in light of a recent cross sectional study demonstrating that nearly one-third of US adults get less than 6 hours of sleep per 24 hour period.
Inadequate rest impairs our ability to think, to handle stress, to maintain a healthy immune system and to moderate our emotions. It’s associated with heart disease, hypertension, weight gain, diabetes and a wide range of psychiatric disorders including depression and anxiety.
The following is an abbreviated list of some of the more damaging effects of sleep deprivation:
- Impaired immune system: a study from the University of California found that even modest sleep loss weakens the immune systems response to disease and injury.
- Overweight and obesity: Recent studies have shown that even one night of poor sleep can result in dramatic changes in appetite and food intake. Others have shown that restricting sleep to 5 hours a night for just one week impairs carbohydrate tolerance and insulin sensitivity. Researchers now believe that sleep deprivation is the single best predictor of overweight and obesity in children – which has become an alarming problem. Finally, a brand-new study shows that not getting enough sleep causes fatty liver disease.
- Cognitive decline: sleep deprivation negatively impacts short-term and working memory, long-term memory and the generation of nerve cells – all of which effects our ability to think clearly and function well.
- Mood and mental health: anyone who has had a few nights of poor sleep can tell you that insomnia is associated with depression. Insufficient sleep shuts down the pre-frontal cortex and can cause or exacerbate a number of psychological conditions, ranging from anxiety to PTSD to depression.
- Systemic inflammation: as I already mentioned above, sleep deprivation causes chronic, low-grade inflammation. And we now know that inflammation is the root of all modern disease.
- Increased risk of death. Last, but certainly not least, not getting enough sleep reduces your lifespan.
So What Can I Do?
Reduce your exposure to artificial light: Artificial light disrupts our circadian rhythm and throws off our sleep. Just a single ‘pulse’ of artificial light at night disrupts the circadian mode of cell division, which can not only impact our sleep, but also increase our risk of cancer. Another study showed that the blue light emitted from alarm clocks and other digital devices suppresses melatonin production in a dose-dependent manner.
Follow these tips to avoid light exposure:
- Don’t use a computer for 2 hours before going to bed. No staying up late on Facebook and Twitter!
- Use blackout shades to make your bedroom pitch black.
- Cover your digital alarm clock or get an analog clock.
- Turn off all digital devices that glow or give off any type of light.
- If you can’t do these things for some reason, use a sleep mask.
Other Tips for Sleep
- Don’t bee too full–or too hungry
- Go to bed earlier!
But I’m a Night Owl!
Some people say they’re “naturally” night owls, and they’ve always preferred to stay up late and sleep in. But in truth there’s nothing natural about this. For millions of years of human evolution sleep patterns remained in synch with the daily variation in light exposure. We rose with the sun, and went to be soon after sundown. This is what our bodies are adapted for.
In almost all cases, having a lot of energy late into the night is a sign of a disrupted circadian rhythm. Normally, cortisol should be high in the morning and taper off throughout the day and into the evening. This gives us the energy we need to wake up in the morning, and allows us to start winding down after dark so we’re ready to sleep. In people who’ve been exposed to significant chronic stress, this rhythm goes haywire. They have low cortisol in the morning (which makes it very hard for them to get going) and high cortisol at night, which gives them that late second wind. While drinking several cups of coffee in the morning mitigates the morning fatigue to some degree, it also perpetuates the pattern by revving them up in the afternoon and evening.
For more info on improving sleep, read Mark Sisson’s Definitive Guide to Sleep.
Learn a Hobby
Another way to look at the whole resolution thing would be to take a new interest in something which provides a sense of self-improvement. Maybe you commit to learning a new skill or hobby. This is a great way to challenge yourself creatively or mentally. You might learn to paint, learn to play an instrument, learn a new pursuit such as knitting or sewing. The important thing is that you enjoy your new activity–don’t choose something just because you think it sounds impressive.
The site meetup.com is a decent place to start. On this site you can find people with similar interests in your area. Want to go mountain biking? There’s a group in your area heading out this week! I see in my town of Redding, there’s even a drum circle!
Another option you may make is to start volunteering on a regular basis. Volunteering doesn’t just help those who are receiving the service; in fact, research consistently demonstrates physical and mental health benefits to volunteers themselves. The Do Good. Live Well.survey found that volunteers had an improved sense of wellbeing, had lower stress levels, experienced an enriched sense of purpose in life, and some even found it easier to manage their chronic illnesses afterwards.
One way to go about this is the site volunteermatch.org — this site lists volunteer opportunities keyed to your area. Basic information about the time commitment and tasks required are available on the site, as well as contact information for getting plugged in to your new volunteering opportunity.
Regardless of what you choose to do, I wish you all a Happy New Year. Thanks goes to Chris Kresser, whose most recent blog post inspired me to such a degree that I felt it necessary to basically read half his article to you in hopes you get as much out of it as I did.