Self-Trickery for Health and Well-Being

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A Better Alternative to New Year's Resolutions

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As an alternative to New Year resolutions, try a little self-trickery for your own self-care and health. It works for me! Here are ideas to take better care of yourself in the year 2021!

Here’s the dilemma: I know that I need to change something. I’m also aware that I don’t want to do the work that seems to be required, or I would have changed already. Escaping an established habit or routine feels uncomfortable, and I’m likely to slip back into the comfortable, wellworn grooves of habit.

We all know how this feels.  We’re good at fooling ourselves or rationalizing our behavior, especially when it comes to our physical health and mental wellbeing. 

The kind of trickery I’m suggesting is entirely intentional and stays intentional throughout the change process–the opposite of magical thinking, self-deception, self-sabotage, delusion, and denial (although self-trickery can easily slip into one of those pits and derail an intention).

Everyone, no matter how smart, rich, beautiful, or well educated, struggles with making and sustaining changes that protect their own or others’ health and well-being. The tricks are equally available to all and don’t cost anything but a moment or two of mindful attention.

For me, self-trickery has three essential requirements:

  • The initial insight that I need to change something. Lacking the insight, there’s no motivation to change.
  • The acknowledgment that my mind has a powerful propensity to forget or ignore almost immediately any decision to change.
  • A concrete, intentional act in the direction of the desired change.

I find change especially difficult when it looms as a big change. I’m most likely to move meaningfully in the direction of change when the act is small and immediate. Big changes feel abstract, far off, and impossible—easy to put off until tomorrow.

So, self-trickery is the strategy. Here are a few of the tactics that work for me:

  • Negotiate. Negotiating between and among my various selves is one of my favorite ways to initiate, and especially to maintain, a change. It’s reliable, and anyone who’s worked with children and/or adolescents already has a sense of the nuances involved.
    For example, I don’t feel like exercising today. I’d hoped to walk 3 miles. I’ve dressed to go, but I just don’t want to. So, I start the negotiation: “Okay, how about I walk for 10 minutes? Then I’ll come back, sink down into my armchair, have a snack, and start that delicious novel.” When even 10 minutes seems too long, I’ll knock it back to 5, or maybe a specific distance—from here to the sawmill road or perhaps half a dozen telephone poles. Once I’ve set out to fulfill the bargain we’ve “all” agreed to, I’m generally able to keep it going until I meet my original goal of 3 miles.
  • Do the hard stuff first. This simple tactic is analogous to the trick we play with 3-year-olds: Eat your veggies before you get dessert. It’s actually a form of negotiation.
  • Just do it! I love that old Nike slogan. It fits well with my rural Vermont upbringing: Just summon up the courage and step up, in the moment. Let’s say that I need to apologize for a rude, insensitive, sarcastic, or patronizing remark that I made to someone. For my emotional wellbeing, I need to do it, but I cringe at the thought of it. If only I could “Just do it!”—say I’m sorry. That remark was insensitive and hurtful, and I shouldn’t have made it. I’ll feel better. I may be more likely to hesitate the next time that one of my inner saboteurs gets ready to sling a caustic remark.
  • Surprise yourself. The element of surprise is a time-honored strategy in war, romance, marketing—and selftransformation. Why? Because it jolts the mind from its grooves of habit, a requirement for change. I once slept in my clothes—shoes and all—for several weeks one summer after I had started a regular exercise program. I didn’t trust myself not to get too “busy” to move my bones that day. So, I’d pajama up in my exercise clothes, rise with the Sun, swing my legs over the bed, gulp a swig or two of coffee, and get right out for my long walk, which later became a run. I eventually outgrew the need to sleep in my shoes, but the whole time I did, I felt a secret thrill of delight at how successful I’d been at tricking myself.
  • Defy yourself. This tactic involves facing down the bullies and naysayers within. It involves summoning the courage to say, “Hey, you’ve pushed me around long enough! I won’t do what you tell me to do. Here’s what I am going to do.” Then quickly perform a small, positive act in the direction of the change that you want to make.
  • Stop! That’s right. Just stop. Stop moving. Hold still. Let your gaze rest on whatever lies before your eyes. Don’t think about anything. I find this tactic most useful when my mind is racing around in one of those negative feedback loops and everything seems impossible. After a short pause, I find it useful to get up and move around vigorously for a few seconds (or minutes). Exercise does wonders to calm the chattering mind.

There are many more such tricks (some of which involve buddying up with others committed to their own self-health), but note that each one of them stops working if repeated too often. So … mix, match, combine, and come up with a few of your own!

About The Author

Margaret Boyles

Margaret Boyles is a longtime contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. She wrote for UNH Cooperative Extension, managed NH Outside, and contributes to various media covering environmental and human health issues. Read More from Margaret Boyles

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