Written by Emily Page, employee wellness manager at Washington University in St. Louis
As the new year gets underway, many of us feel a renewed sense to align our lifestyle with our personal values and priorities. The fact that time is marching forward, perhaps a little faster than we may want, sparks a desire within us to slow down and become more mindful of our present situation. When the feeling emerges—whether January or July—we may struggle with how to go about making a positive change. Here are some key elements to consider as you focus your energy.
Start with self-assessment.
Before you can begin making a lifestyle change, you need to truly understand what behavior is problematic. Of course, it’s important to focus on what you are doing well just as much as what needs improvement. Knowing your strengths can give you ideas about how to approach change. It’s easier to approach the subject objectively by using an established tool to guide you.
Wellness questionnaires and surveys abound online and in print media. It’s important to find one that measures multiple dimensions of wellness, including physical health and emotional wellbeing. Other measures might include your social, spiritual, and occupational wellness. The more you can explore these other dimensions, the more likely you will understand what you want to change. Here are some assessments that I recommend. As you take these, keep in mind that they are not diagnostic tools, and you should share the results with your medical provider to determine what additional testing or treatment you might need.
- Benefits-eligible faculty, staff, clinical fellows and postdocs at Washington University have access to the Health Assessment on the WashU WebMD Portal. This 60-question tool includes questions about how you eat, how you commute to work, how engaged you are with your work, current health conditions, and your readiness to make changes in your life. By completing this assessment, you will be automatically enrolled in the Health Coach program through WebMD.
- The Siteman Cancer Center offers ‘Your Disease Risk,’ a tool to help you assess your current risk for developing common chronic health conditions that affect Americans. Your lifestyle has a direct impact on whether you develop cancer, heart disease, and diabetes, among other illnesses.
- The National Wellness Institute offers a free version of their Holistic Lifestyle Questionnaire which covers a wide array of wellness topics, such as your tolerance of other’s beliefs, your interest in current events, and your connection with your community.
Build motivation for change.
Knowing what you want to change is a critical first step, but the real challenge is to actually do something about it. This is, of course, why so many resolutions fail. However, success can be had by introspective work coupled with external support. Weigh the pros and cons of making this specific behavior change. If you find that the former outweigh the latter, then you are poised to activate change. Let’s say you have decided to begin increasing your physical activity by attending a weekly yoga class. Your analysis might look like this:
- Once a week is easy to fit into schedule.
- The gentle stretching will be a good way to ease back in.
- There is a yoga studio close to my house.
- It will be fun to invest in a personal yoga mat.
- The cost of a weekly yoga session fits in my budget.
- The class occurs on Saturdays and other weekend activities may interfere.
- It may be difficult to include my child in this activity.
Use visualization and self-talk to boost your internal locus of control.
There is growing evidence that using meditation and affirmations to support behavior change will help rewire haunting thoughts of failure and embarrassment. A simple mantra that centers the mind can redirect our motivation when we lose it. In his workbook, Self, Relaxation and Change, T. Rodney Whiddon asserts, “Attitudes contribute not only to community problems and global tension, but to struggles that tie different selfs into knots.”(1) We have the ability to change how we think and, therefore, change how we live our lives. There are many applications and resources available out there for cultivating a meditation or self-reflection practice. If you aren’t keen to use an app or online technology, I recommend purchasing one of the audio CD from Health Journeys. They offer a wide variety of styles and tracks vary from 10 minutes to an hour. If you have a smartphone, you should try out the Mindfulness Daily app to see if it helps you take much needed pauses throughout your day to breathe and refocus. I like this particular app because it does not require an internet connection. Sometimes I’ll use it deep in a MetroLink station while waiting for the train to arrive!
Identify potential barriers for sustainable change.
It is inevitable that you will encounter someone or something that will challenge your motivation or even prevent you from making the healthier choice you desire. The best course of action is to plan ahead about how you can circumvent or directly confront these barriers. It could be a perceived lack of time, fear of injury or a lack of resources. Whether done knowingly or not, we are often sidetracked from our goal by someone around us who inserts negative influences. Without the presence of supportive and positive people in your life, it will be difficult to overcome these hurdles. Benefits-eligible Washington University employees are encouraged to use a WebMD Health Coach to stay on track. .
Don’t feel guilty about rewarding yourself.
If you’ve set a smart goal and achieved it, then it’s time for celebration! Most of us are wired to appreciate and even need an external reward to keep us motivated. It’s best to identify what this reward will be when you’re setting your goal up front. This way you have something to look forward to and it could be the one thing that helps you overcome a potential barrier. Pick a reward that will make you feel good and that will reinforce your healthy changes. For example, you might reward yourself for increasing your physical activity by purchasing a new yoga mat or a nice pair of walking shoes. Set the funds aside early on so that you know you can access your reward soon after you hit your goal.
So now it’s time to create your plan of action!
Follow these steps and seek out help along the way.
- Select a behavior to change.
- Identify the benefits of change.
- Identify your goals.
- Are you ready to change?
- Pick a strategy.
- Create the optimum environment.
- Record your progress.
- Make adjustments.
- Reward yourself.
- Keep it up!
 Whiddon, T. (2006). Self’s Downside. In Self, Relaxation and Change. National Social Science Press.