Not so long ago a friend asked me how she could muster the self-control to drink less and eat more nutritiously on a regular basis. After a long day of work at a desk, bad weather (she lives in Belgium) and a hectic commute she is too wiped out to prepare a proper meal and would rather dine on a bag of chips and several glasses of wine while collapsed on the couch in front of the latest Danish crime drama.
Does this scenario – or some version of it – sound familiar? Losing weight, quitting smoking and other wellness promoting activities are among the hardest changes to achieve. They require radical behavior modifications and huge shifts in lifestyle. Yet most messages about dieting and quitting smoking suggest that if we follow a particular diet or slap on a nicotine patch we can dramatically change our lives – all on our own.
Why is this? We live in a highly individualistic society. We idolize the self-made millionaire, believe that people should pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and have proven that self-promotion can make anyone from a teen mom to a “real housewife” a celebrity. It is therefore no surprise that when it comes to health behavior change we are expected to make fundamental changes to our daily routines through a process that rests largely on individual determination or what is better known as willpower.
While there is no denying the huge role of willpower in effective behavior change efforts, it is only one player in the change game. Many studies point to social support as a critical element in promoting, achieving and maintaining positive lifestyle shifts toward wellness and altering entrenched negative health practices. Some of my own research has shown that people who decide to quit smoking are more successful when they have a “quit buddy” – someone who is also trying to quit or who has a vested interest in the success of the “quitter”. Think of the buddy as a coach to bring out the determination and self-discipline that underlie willpower and will enable you to succeed.
The first step to changing your behavior patterns is recognizing that seeking support is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of strength and resolve. The second step is identifying a buddy, who can be a friend, colleague, family member or health coach. A buddy must be someone with whom you are comfortable and who can help you foster a sense of personal accountability that is at the heart of willpower and is essential to making and sticking to the profound adjustments you seek to make.
The buddy is your behavior change companion and guide: the person with whom you identify what you want to change, set goals, talk through your action plan and celebrate with when you meet the benchmarks on your path to change. A buddy is there for planning, checking-in and problem-solving. Like any good coach, the buddy inspires action, measures success and supports you during any set backs, which are inevitable and should not be seen as a sign of failure or as an excuse to return to unhealthy practices. You can also call your buddy when you want to start the day with a glazed donut or when you feel like skipping your workout because your motivation is blocked.
So even though she lives in Belgium – I am my friend’s buddy. While I cannot go power walking with her or make her a healthy dinner – things that a buddy could do or help you to do – I can help meal plan, send recipes and through text messages and emails provide real-time motivation when the salty deliciousness of those chips beckons. I receive a daily report of how it is going and cheer her on as she succeeds – and she is doing great!
As you think about the steps you need to take on your path to wellness, consider the kind of support that you will need to move forward and identify buddies who can help you. For example, if you want to start eating a more balanced and healthy diet pick someone who has real knowledge in this area -a nutritionist, health coach or a friend or family member with good nutritional practices. Sit down with your buddy and talk about what healthy eating entails, brainstorm over recipes that not only sound good, but that you can realistically make given your lifestyle and comfort level in the kitchen, go grocery shopping together and stock your pantry with the ingredients that will make it easy for you to cook good food.
Next identify and talk through how you will stick to your concrete goals in social settings and when you eat at someone else’s house, consider the access to food you have at work, what your eating triggers are and come up with strategies to move through these potential challenges. This will help you to generate a plan that you can follow to promote healthy eating on a daily basis and ultimately remake your relationship with food. Once you have a plan, you can have regular check-ins with your buddy on how things are going, problem solve as issues emerge and ultimately celebrate as you have reach your goals.
Modifying your diet is just one example of a difficult lifestyle transformation. The buddy strategy can support adjustments that you would like to make to any entrenched behaviors. While the power to make hard changes ultimately rests within ourselves – why go at it alone when a little support can make all of the difference.