June 24, 2011 | Leadership, Workplace Culture + Practices

I have a friend who used to be an enthusiastic goal-setter and self-improvement specialist. She’s read many self-help books, diligently set New Year’s resolutions, and lived in steps (i.e., 5 proven steps to a better night’s sleep, or 3 steps for a slimmer waistline).

Okay. I confess. That “friend” was me. A long, long time ago—it seems like a lifetime ago now. As a teenager, I felt that I was missing some key piece of information about how to live and how to change behaviors in myself that didn’t work for me.

Seeking lasting change

For years I looked for the answers outside of myself, from “experts” who apparently knew what I did not. I became very frustrated when these “proven” techniques didn’t work for me. What was I missing? Why was it so difficult for me to break a habit? I finally gave up all the self-improvement stuff and decided to just be me. But that question about how to make lasting change still bothered me.

Fast forward to a health care seminar I attended recently. Part of the discussion was about the successes and failures of company wellness programs. The speaker said that wellness is about behavioral patterns and that changing core behaviors is extremely difficult.  Ahhh…here is this issue again. Why is this true? What can be done about it? I know I’m not the only one with this experience. How many times have we experienced or heard stories of New Year’s resolutions that didn’t stick? Even more alarming is that, despite unlimited access to health information and advancements in technology, disease and illness are on the rise nationally and worldwide.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about 1/3 of adults in the U.S. and 17% of children and adolescents are considered obese.  About 1.9 million Americans aged 20 years and older were newly diagnosed with diabetes in 2010.  More people in the U.S. die from lung cancer each year (158,000 in 2007) than any other kind of cancer.

We’re not getting healthier. As a society we’re getting sicker. So what will it take – how far will things have to go – before we can commit to health and change unhealthy behaviors?

There has to be an answer.

Commit Yourself

The answers I finally found are laughably simple, although not necessarily easy to do. First, it’s about making the choice for what you want, how you want to be. This is simple and yet I know that for years I hadn’t truly done this. It’s one thing to choose to eat the apple instead of the piece of cake. But what I’ve learned is that you must first make the choice to commit to your positive health and well-being for the rest of your life. This means to commit to the bone to do something for yourself, not because you think you should or because experts tell you that you should do it – but to do it for yourself because it’s right for you.

Know Your Self

Next, comes an understanding of what health means for you. There are all sorts of information available about what are healthy behaviors are and what are not. While some of it is useful, information alone is not enough. You need to know your self and your body and understand what works for you and what doesn’t. Developing this deeper connection with who we are is something we often make little time for.

Give Yourself a Break

The third thing I learned is that lasting behavior change works only if you focus on what’s reasonable for you to change at that time. Lofty goals are often met with failure because they are projections into an unknown future of an ideal self that may not be based in truth. If you try to do too much, then success becomes mostly a matter of self-discipline – and introduces an opportunity to beat yourself up for slips along the way. What’s more important is that you honor yourself by knowing what you can and can’t do.

Your Choices Bring Change

From there, it becomes easy to see all of the hundreds of choices you’re faced with every day – not just about what you eat or how you go through each day, but about who you spend time with, how you communicate with others, where you choose to go, how you walk in the world, and on and on. If you’ve truly committed to yourself, then the little choices you make every day become triumphs that build upon themselves day after day.

This new understanding has given me a new way of looking at company wellness programs and why they succeed and fail. While we encourage employees to participate in our wellness program, my hope is that each and every one will do so because they have made the choice to do it for themselves.