A Complex View of New Year’s Resolutions
The end of the year is coming and, despite good advice and the warning about how they don’t work, you’re still determined to come up with a really good New Year’s Resolution and this year, dammit, you’re going to stick with it.
It’s simple, right? Make a commitment, come up with a plan to stick to it, and you’re ready to go.
Firstly, change in human systems is rarely a matter of simplicity, which is why New Year’s resolutions tend to benefit the diet industry and fitness clubs, but few others.
Another reason lays in the meaning of the term simple. Simplicity implies that there are relatively straightforward mechanisms that underlie a cause and consequence, that these can be predicted with reasonable certainty and consistency, and that we can derive “best practices” from such events given their reliability and efficiency. When we see something as simple, we usually have a high level of control.
Yet, it is the very nature of human systems that makes control such an elusive concept when wish to change something. Complexity science provides us with a different way to handle these problems. It provides a means of understanding complex situations — those where there are multiple causes and consequences that interact and change dynamically — that represent the lives of human beings. Rather than predict what is going to happen based on flawed assumptions of control, complexity science helps anticipate change and prepares people to adapt to these changes wisely.
Diet and exercise tend to be near the top of New Year’s Resolutions. Typically, people will make a resolution to start an exercise plan and reform their diet all in one swoop. The thinking is akin to “go hard or go home”. The problem with this is that what we eat, how we eat, and the activities that we do on any given day are part of a complex weave of activities that shape our lives. Few of us have jobs or lifestyles where everything is the same day to day. If you have children, you’ll know firsthand that even with the most regimented schedule for them and you, every day brings new surprises. But for the most part, these are little surprises that happen consistently and, consistent with a complex system, you adapt.
If your diet consists of a lot of take-out food, pre-prepared foods like frozen dinners or canned goods, the idea that you will suddenly start cooking at home, eating healthy meals and changing the portion sizes right away is setting yourself up for failure. This change alone requires shifts in your time (now you need to shop, cook, clean, and plan in advance), which suddenly changes how you use the rest of your time as it might impact upon work, play, social activities and so on. This isn’t to suggest that such investments in this new lifestyle are not worth it, but that simple shift will drastically change not just your diet, but your lifestyle as a whole all at the same time. That’s a lot of stress to put on the system that is your life.
An alternative is to make small shifts, ones that don’t upset things too much like perhaps making one meal on the weekends. Once that is in place, perhaps change the meal to allow for leftovers so that one day or two you pack a lunch instead of eating out. Maybe then shift towards changing the lunch options you choose when you do eat out one or two days per week. The key is to take one thing, do it and do it well and then build upon it by introducing another thing. Over time, your schedule will adapt and you’ll find the ways to make the changes without them feeling so big.
Exercise is the same way. Rather than sign up for a year’s membership at the gym and workout 2 hours a day for the first week only to find yourself so sore and tired that you can’t imagine going back, try upping the activity level you engage in with different strategies. If you don’t go to the gym at all, starting there might not be the best option. Try walking a little more around your neighbourhood or take the stairs when there is an escalator. Maybe get off the bus one or two stops early and walk the rest of the way home. Once you start doing that, try a day pass a gym and do some very light weights or some simple cardio workouts like walking on a treadmill. As you build up over time, you will find what works and doesn’t work in terms of your likes and dislikes and what seems to be effective. This is called feedback, another critical component of complex systems.
By paying attention — being mindful — of what you’re doing and how it is working, you can start to build a longer-term strategy or pattern of activity that moves you along to where you want to go. It also prevents you from the let down at having not achieved your goals, but setting yourself up for success rather than failure. In doing so, you work with the complexity of human systems and our daily lives rather than against them.