This week my Facebook newsfeed was clogged with extremely well-intentioned resolutions. “I will quit smoking.” “I will lose twenty pounds by swimsuit season.” “I will train the dogs more.”
In each of these resolutions, the human in me hears hope and strong desire. The dog trainer in me rolls my eyes and says, “Yeesh, that’s probably not going to happen.” I feel sad, too. I know we only create goals with the hope reaching them — and when we don’t, we feel like a failure. But what if it’s not you that’s the problem? What if it’s the whole concept of resolutions, which are intrinsically incompatible with how we learn and change?
It’s not that I’m being pessimistic, but I am a realist and a behavior geek. I know what it takes to create permanent and positive changes in behavior, and resolutions are not the answer.
Have you ever heard of a psychiatrist or therapist tell a client, “Just promise yourself you will start doing x and stop doing y?” Probably not. Because it would never work. What would work better?
Consider: If you are tempted to make a resolution, you are recognizing an area of your life you’d like to change. Sounds to me like this is a case of retraining, which is something I’m fairly good at! In the words of one of the world’s most amazing animal trainers, Bob Bailey, you must Think. Plan. Do.
Last year around the holidays, my friend Janet was unhappy about her weight. She said, “Next year, I resolve to exercise more and walk the dog more.” I asked her to participate in an experiment: Would she let me train her like a dog? She laughed and nodded. What did she have to lose?
The more specific our criteria are, the better our plan can be. Janet wanted to lose 50 pounds over the course of the year and to walk for at least an hour a day.
We talked about some of the obstacles: Why is this difficult for you? You’ve made this same resolution for the last five years — what’s holding you back? First, you need to identify the distractions and discomforts surrounding the goal. Here are Janet’s:
- Distractions: A warm couch, a cup of coffee, and Facebook were mighty tempting alternative to frigid January walks.
- Discomforts: Janet said that it was much easier to go out when the weather was nice, and that she hated freezing and sliding around on icy sidewalks. Also, she doesn’t really feel safe walking in her neighborhood. Also, Janet’s dog seriously lacked leash manners.
Here were some of the resolutions we came up with to deal with Janet’s obstacles:
Resolution No 1: Every walk begins with a sneaker or boot
When Janet made a bee-line for the couch, coffee, and Facebook, it was usually after getting out of bed and putting on her slippers. So I said her resolution should be to wake up every morning and immediately change into exercise clothes and sneakers or boots. At that point, she could still sit on the couch and log into Facebook, but it would feel foolish.
I told her to reward herself with a nice warm shower and some couch time after the walk. Think about how much more pleasant that coffee will taste when you’re well exercised and all cleaned up!
Resolution No. 2: Get good gear
None of this wearing sneakers while it’s 13 degrees out and your toes are freezing. Make it as comfortable as possible for yourself. Buy thermal shirts and leggings to go under your jeans. Invest in a good pair of boots and some YakTrax for traction. Get nice gloves, a scarf, and a hat. Wear a good, warm coat.
Since Janet was uncomfortable walking in her own neighborhood, I asked her to make a list of at least 10 places she liked to walk. She had five, so her homework then became, “Go explore and find five other places you like to walk!” She found some great parks she could visit to exercise her dog more comfortably.
Resolution No. 3: Train the dog and explore alternative exercise options
Because Janet’s dog was large and had been pulling on the leash for years, we decided to desensitize him to wearing a Gentle Leader for both his and Janet’s safety while the roads were slippery.
Also, since Janet was driving for her walks, we developed backup plans for ways they could get exercise even if they had a housebound day or two.
The last step is really just to do it. Janet would wake up, put on workout clothes, begin warming up her car while she gathered treats and poop bags for the walk, and then she’d go out for a walk! Because she could enjoy her couch/coffee/Facebook time when she returned, we had a built-in reward system.
Today, Janet is 65 pounds lighter, much healthier, and much happier. Instead of choosing a vague, daunting goal, she felt empowered by having a concrete plan. This is what good trainers do for their dogs every day. It’s the least we can do for ourselves!
What do you think? Could you stand for a little retraining yourself? Let us know in the comments!