Originally written for The Washington Post, December 26, 2018
This is the season for reflections and resolutions. It will be immediately followed by the season for failure and frustration. That’s because people who make health-related New Year’s resolutions also make a big mistake: They look at them as an issue of willpower rather than ability.
A more helpful approach to creating more healthful habits is to consider those behaviors new skills, and to accept that there is a process to becoming competent in those skills. In other words, you shouldn’t resolve to become a vegetarian with the expectation that meat will never pass your lips again, and then feel failure when you succumb to a Big Mac. Instead, consider resolving to learn to be a vegetarian, with the understanding that it will take knowledge and practice to attain a meat-free diet — just as it would take knowledge and practice to learn to play tennis or knit or carve wood.
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To understand why this works better, consider the Conscious Competence Learning Model. This is a psychological explanation of the process one goes through to select a lifestyle or behavior change and slowly but surely build it into a skill that seamlessly fits into your life. Also known as the Four Stages of Competency, the model is attributed to the work of psychologist Thomas Gordon and his employee Noel Burch in the 1970s.
The four stages are as follows, according to the Gordon Training International website:
Stage 1: Unconsciously unskilled. We don’t know what we don’t know. We are inept and unaware of it.
Stage 2: Consciously unskilled. We know what we don’t know. We start to learn at this level when sudden awareness of how poorly we do something shows us how much we need to learn.
Stage 3: Consciously skilled. Trying the skill out, experimenting, practicing. We now know how to do the skill the right way, but need to think and work hard to do it.
Stage 4: Unconsciously skilled. If we continue to practice and apply the new skill, eventually we arrive at a stage where they become easier and, given time, even natural.
For best results, making a New Year’s resolution or creating a new habit should go through these same phases. The reason so many resolutions fail is that people think taking on a new nutrition, exercise, mindfulness or health habit should be easy and effortless.
That’s very far from the truth. Consider our vegetarian. At Stage 1, the person isn’t even thinking about what he is eating. He has no idea what it takes to adhere to a vegetarian diet.
At Stage 2, he starts to realize what he doesn’t know and is anxious about it. He doesn’t know how to purchase and store vegetables, doesn’t know vegetarian recipes, doesn’t know which meat substitutes are best, doesn’t know what vitamins and minerals will need to be replenished, doesn’t have confidence asking about vegetarian options in restaurants.
At Stage 3, the person is practicing. The buying, cooking and ordering process slowly becomes easier and smoother, until vegetables begin to fit into the daily routine.
At Stage 4, the person doesn’t even have to think about it. Eating a vegetarian diet has become comfortable and second nature.
If you want to apply this model to a change you want to make in the new year, here are some things to keep in mind.
First, embrace practice. Enjoy it. When things don’t go right, remember it’s just practice. Don’t berate yourself if you buy loads of vegetables that spoil while you figure out how to prep, cook and store them. Or if you’re so exhausted and sore that you skip one of your exercise classes. Think back to the first few times you learned a new still, such as driving, and all the mistakes you made. Keep going.
Second, stay present and aware, so you can adjust life to fit these behaviors into your day. In driving, one finds the ideal seat and mirror position and car organization. The same goes with new behaviors: You find the right shoes, or the right blender, or the adjustment to your schedule that allows time for a favorite class. Small tweaks will help you become more comfortable with the skill.
Finally, acknowledge when skill formation has occurred. As practice continues, and tweaks and iterations occur, the behaviors should fit into the day with ease rather than discomfort. It’s common to only remember the rough patches. Instead, as more healthful food, consistent exercise, mindfulness or other healthy lifestyle behaviors turn into unconscious skills, take a conscious moment for praise of the accomplishment. This will allow the experience of skill formation to be far more enjoyable.