What's Your Problem?

New Year, New You?




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For most of her life, Rosie Murrell waged a losing battle with obesity, going on and off diets, enduring ridicule, developing diabetes, and popping prozac and painkillers for 20 years. Then in 2005, when she topped the scales at 437 pounds, her doctor told her, "Rosie, I've done all I can do. It's up to you. You're literally killing yourself."

That health crisis propelled Murrell toward a lifestyle overhaul through the Church Health Center's Healthy Bodies program that resulted in her losing weight and gaining self-respect she'd never known in her 48 years. When we featured Murrell in our June 2007 health issue, she was down to 267 pounds, had reduced her dress size from 38 to 20, lowered her blood sugar levels, and quit taking painkillers. Today she's no longer insulin dependent, speaks to diabetes patients about weight loss and exercise, and has inspired a son and daughter to shed a total of 75 pounds. Though her own weight has stabilized, she continues to lose inches, wears a size 16 dress, and is aiming for a size 14. She hasn't slipped back into her old eating habits or abandoned a regular program of cardio, aerobics, or weight training. Her current goal is to drop 45 more pounds.

As we start a new year, many of us will grit our teeth and resolve to make changes in our own lives. We may set out to trim the fat and stretch flabby muscles. Or we may determine to rid ourselves of bad habits that have nothing to do with stuffing our faces.

C'mon, you know you have 'em. Do you snap at your coworkers? Curse like George Carlin? Wade through clutter? Smoke like Madmen? Maybe you want to overcome a fear, make new friends. Find less to criticize, and more to praise.

We talked to a couple of experts — one, a clinical psychologist, the other a lifestyle coach and professional organizer — who shed some light on how we can succeed, or fail, at killing unhealthy habits and starting better ones.

during three decades as a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, Dr. Jennifer Stone has treated clients with serious emotional problems. What they have in common with those of us making New Year's resolutions is this: "My clients want new behaviors and all of those involve habits," says Stone. "Whether you're dealing with weight loss, smoking, parenting, punctuality, a quick temper, or any habit you're wanting to change, you need to realize how these habits are ingrained, and observe them enough to know what causes what."

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We all develop habits in childhood as part of family dynamics, Stone explains. Perhaps we always backed down in an argument. Or maybe, out of anger or the desire for attention, we started conflicts. "As adults," says Stone, "people may not realize they have a choice and can change their behavior. Or they may not want to make the effort. Those who do, however, realize they don't always have to defer when someone disagrees with them. Or they'll think, 'I don't always have to be overbearing or critical. I can be different.'"

Stone compares habits to driving a stan-dard shift car: "Once you learn how to do it, you don't realize what the steps are. The shift happens so quickly, you're not conscious of it. Habits are like that." She recommends that people observe themselves for a few hours or days, and record their thoughts and actions. Watch yourself, listen to your thoughts, think about what choices you have. The more you "unpack the suitcase," says Stone, to find out what triggers certain habits, the more likely you are to make changes.

Set realistic goals, Stone advises. Other- wise, you're bound to get discouraged. As you try to change, pay attention to inward dialog. Are you putting yourself down or building yourself up? If you get off course, remember this: "The most important time in habit change," says Stone, "is when you've just slid backwards, with a binge or a relapse. That's when you say, 'Okay, let me notice what happened, forgive myself, and recommit to making progress.'"

Stone cites a study showing that people who finally kicked the smoking habit had already tried an average of seven times. "They could have said, 'What's the point, I can't do it,'" she says. "But one way to look at it is that every time they tried was a way of building practice muscles."

with her psychotherapy clients, Stone often uses a metaphor for progress. "I tell them to think of habit change as turning an ocean liner instead of turning a rowboat. Even if it's frustrating that they can't turn that ocean liner quickly, they should remember that once they get it turned, it's more likely to stay turned. So if you turn it a little bit, you need to give yourself credit for a little progress."

She also points to the positive aspects of habits: "If you have a habit of honesty or of eating well or of patience and sympathy, you wouldn't want to change those."

Like Rosie Murrell, people often start a new lifestyle when facing a crisis. "What motivates people most is pain or discomfort," says Stone. "Maybe your spouse is going to divorce you if you don't get your temper under control. Or if weight is really a big problem for your health, that's a good time to make a change. Unless you're really motivated to a great extent, it's hard to get over that hump and out of your comfort zone."

If you're ambivalent about a resolution, make a list of why you want to achieve it — and why not. Some people, says Stone, will skip this suggestion, thinking their reasons don't matter. "They'll try to run over their resistance to the resolution with a steamroller, saying, 'I'll just make myself do it.' But any kind of resistance has some kernel of validity to it and they should honor that kernel."

For instance, eating can fill an emotional need by providing a break in a stress-filled day, and a person may not want to give up that break. Instead of snacking, we should talk to a friend, or "just sit with the feeling for awhile," Stone adds. "Think about what you really need, and find some other way than eating to be nice to yourself."

When it comes to dieting, Stone advises flexibility. "Make sure you haven't been so rig- id that you say, 'I can never eat sweets.' Instead, say, 'Okay, I can eat a little of what I want, but not the whole thing.'" She also recommends distractions, putting temptations out of sight, reminding yourself why you don't want to eat, and "congratulating yourself for the last time you resisted doing exactly what you're tempted to do now."

some clients succeed in overcoming habits or fears by visualization — that is, they picture themselves attempting some dreaded task and succeeding. But it's not always as easy as it sounds. "When I first began doing therapy," says Stone, "I had someone really scared of public speaking. So I tried to have her imagine it going well. What I learned is that people can't always imagine success, not in detail. There's a big resistance to imagining something positive if that hasn't been your experience."

So she looked into research on effective visualization and found two models. One is the mastering model, in which you imagine yourself succeeding at a behavior change every step of the way. Another is the coping model. "With public speaking," says Stone, "this model can work better. You might imagine it going wrong just a little. You see people in the audience being critical of you, but you tell yourself they frown because they've had a bad day, so that lets you pay attention again to what you're doing and reassure yourself. Some actually do better when they rehearse public speaking going well — but with some setbacks. It's sort of like getting back on the horse when you fall off. Whereas if you imagine it going perfectly, and the first time you try it you hit a bump in the road, that's going to say 'catastrophe,' and you'll be back where you started."

No matter the setbacks, Stone advises positive thinking. "I tell my clients that three steps forward and two steps back may really be three steps forward and five steps back. As long as you don't give up after the five steps back, that's part of making progress."

sandy wright is a lifestyle coach and professional organizer, who helps people better manage their time, simplify their lives, and change living patterns. She, like Stone, uses visualization, but her approach is a little different.

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"A person may tell me they want to get organized, and I'll say, 'That sounds really dull,'" says Wright. "I help them reframe their objective in a way that will hook them." She tells of a man who complained that he and his wife were "living in such a pit" and went on to describe the clutter and chaos. She had him picture a room as a sanctuary, where he or his wife could sit quietly and read a book, or open a closet door without feeling guilty about the mess inside. "I explained that getting organized is not a fun task," she says, "but I gave him the chance to see something beyond the process, to believe the pain is worth the gain."

Before she accepts new clients, she needs to be sure any change they want to make is their idea. "Are they being driven by their parents, their wife, their boss?" she'll ask. "Whatever goal they've set, they need to buy into it and embrace it fully. Otherwise they'll flame out or they'll sabotage it — come up with excuses of why they can't do it."

Like any good businesswoman, she advises planning first. "The better you plan," says Wright, "the higher your success level rises." She believes in the SMART model that many companies use: That is, the goal should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Reasonable, and Time-sensitive. "For instance," she explains, "a couple wants to reduce clutter in their attic. Is that goal attainable — when they've got 50 years of living and the kids are 45 years old and their dollhouses are still up there? Is it reasonable in terms of how much time and money they can put into it?"

Once she helps clients devise a plan, she asks them to consider "who, what, when, where, why, and how." Who needs to be involved, what specifically will they do, when can it be done, where will they be doing it, why is it part of their vision, and how will they accomplish it, in blocks of an hour a day, or larger chunks of time?

in helping clients tackle the frequent complaint of clutter, Wright uses a tool that brings a job into scope. "It can be a PVC pipe, an empty paper towel roll, or even your hand," she says. "Anything that will extend your view and narrow what you see. When someone's being unrealistic — say, wanting to clean 20 years of accumulated mess within a week because they're having a party – I help them narrow it down. Use that tool and hone in on one thing, then step back and review whether getting that done in a certain time frame is realistic."

For some clients, simply clearing a chair in one bedroom can be an accomplishment. "Let's say you haven't seen that chair in five years because it's so cluttered with clothes," says Wright. "Once you see it again, it's inviting. It can also be empowering, I tell people to envision the chair with police tape around it and not to enter it except to relax, read a book, drink a cup of tea. Once you've declared it off limits to clutter, you can go from there." While there's no right or wrong way to proceed, Wright suggests a right-to-left sweep of the room, clearing one area at a time.

Wright reminds clients of the four time-honored fears: fear of failure, of success, of the unknown, and of being incompetent. We understand the fear of failure, but why would we fear success? "Success raises the bar," Wright explains, "so that when you first succeed at putting the laundry away before it gets to be a huge pile, people will expect you to do it again." Fear of the unknown asks the question, "Will this change my life for better or worse?" And the fear of being incompetent is "different from fear of failure," says Wright. "With the latter, you think you can do it, you just aren't doing it. With fear of being incompetent, you're taking on a new skill and maybe you think it's beyond what you can master."

In making any change, there's always one dreaded step, one weakness that can paralyze a person. Wright recalls how her young son had a school project that he'd managed well — up until the part where he had to draw people. "He had no ability for that, couldn't even draw stick people," she says. "But he found figures to color, then cut and pasted them to the project. That was like pulling up a drawbridge," she adds, "and from then on he could safely navigate his way through the project."

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She herself has a chore she hated so much that she'd procrastinate till it was nearly past hope. "Cleaning the bathroom built up such dread in my mind, until it dawned on me I needed to reframe how I thought of it," says Wright. "So I put on music from Remember the Titans, and instead of thinking about scrubbing that tub and tile, I'm energized by the music, dancing to it." She also offers up a prayer. "A lot of people in this world don't have bathrooms," says Wright, "so I use thanks as a diversion, praying to the beat, 'Thank you lord for a toilet.'"

just as she knows what irritants trigger her own stress, Wright helps her clients identify theirs. "I ask what keeps them awake at night, what gets in the way of their relationships. Then I ask them to picture what their life would be like without that stress. Where could their energies go, what could they focus on? Once they have a system in place to handle clutter, for instance, they've got more time and energy to be creative and enjoy life."

Some clients want to change such habits as impatience, because they see its impact on their loved ones. "If they're a person of faith," says Wright, "I will give them an assignment — Google ten Bible verses about patience. Then we'll use them as visual cues to help them work on that trait." She also suggests clients reward themselves. "Every time you remained calm, every time you didn't say anything negative to someone, put some change into a jar, and at the end of 30 days, rent a movie or buy a latte."

She has used rewards in her own family with a slightly different twist. "At one time we had yells that could be worth a nickel, dime, or quarter," says Wright. "The person on the receiving end of the yell got to claim the money." Sometimes, she adds, Mom had to arbitrate just what the yell was worth. "If it was really loud or awful or you called someone a name, that was definitely a quarter yell."

Changing a behavior — whether it's snacking too often, criticizing your spouse, or littering the floor with dirty socks — takes 16 to 21 days, says Wright. To keep you honest and on track, an accountability partner can help. So can replacing the old habit with a new one. "This can be a form of reward," says Wright. "Just be sure the new habit supports what you're trying to do. If you stop smoking, don't start drinking to replace it. If you're reducing clutter, don't go reward yourself with 15 new blouses."

If you fall off the wagon, remember the Scarlett syndrome. "There's always tomorrow," smiles Wright, "always another opportunity to regroup." She tells her clients from the get-go, "I'm not here to lay a guilt trip on you. This is about what's important to you. It's about your own satisfaction."

For the last word on behavior change, we'll yield the floor to Rosie Murrell, who at one point during her weight loss program hit a stubborn plateau. "I knew my clothes were feeling looser, but I'd get on the scales and think, 'Why won't that joker go down?!'" Venting her frustrations at the Church Health Center's group sessions, Murrell took the suggestion of being measured rather than weighing in. "That was a real motivator," she recalls, "because it showed the difference in inches that I wasn't seeing in pounds."

Today, Murrell advises others to focus more on portion control and healthier food than on a strict diet. She encourages patience, moderation, and above all, making realistic goals. "You didn't start overeating — or any bad habit — overnight. It won't go away overnight. But you can achieve your goal in small, steady steps. Change is gradual."