Most people are familiar with what they need to do to make healthy lifestyle changes stick: Think about what you really want, set specific goals, find support and accountability, and put a plan in place. But then a high school reunion or a family cookout comes up, and everything you've put into practice the months prior seems to fall apart. You might feel like all of your previous efforts have been ruined and you have to start over. But do you?
An increasingly popular topic among behavior change specialists and psychologists is self-regulation: the ability to manage emotions and impulses — in other words, to think before you react. For instance, to prevent overeating at your next social gathering, you could plan to socialize with people away from the food table.
Or if you have an obligation that conflicts with your favorite exercise class, restructure your day so that you can still fit in a workout. Imagining yourself behaving differently and having that specific plan in place before the event is a critical part of the process.
Want to leave your next gathering feeling proud of your choices? Here are some tips to get you started:
- Pick one behavior you'd like to change. You'll have greater success if you focus on one thing at a time. For example, if you're someone who tends to drink too many "liquid calories," plan to enjoy one alcoholic or non-alcoholic cocktail. Then switch to club soda with lime.
- Be a detective, not a critic. After the party or event, reflect back on the situation in more detail by curiously asking yourself how you would have approached the situation in the past and what successes have you had in this situation. Think about any habits or stumbling blocks that may have gotten in your way, and what you could see yourself doing differently.
- Anticipate future hurdles. Sometimes the best-laid plans don't work. Identify your backup plan in case you need it. For instance, if you see that it might rain during your usual evening walk in the neighborhood, look for ways to be active earlier in the day.
- Don't worry about being perfect, just aim to do better. Successful behavior change takes time, patience and practice. Every attempt is a learning opportunity.
Forward thinking is the springboard for success. Anticipating challenges ahead of time and seeing yourself follow through with your plan can lead to greater confidence in your ability to sustain healthy choices.