The science behind being a hot mess

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First Posted: 1/12/2015

You’re a hot mess and you know it.

You were in three weddings last year but you can’t so much as get a third date with a Tinder match.

You’re almost 30 and you’re still a bartender who isn’t using your degree.

You quit smoking for three days but stress at work drove you to pick up a carton of menthols — and you hate menthols.

You joined a gym but quit after the first day because your legs felt better kicked up and relaxed to binge-watch “Friends” on Netflix and stalking your ex on Instagram.

You gave up alcohol for a week but found out Pinnacle released a new flavor of vodka and it was game over.

Why is it so difficult to change your habits and be the best version of yourself?

Fifty percent of people who resolved to make a personal change in 2015 have already called it quits and returned to their old behavior patterns.

According to John C. Norcross, professor of psychology at The University of Scranton and author of “Changeology: 5 Steps to Realizing Your Goals and Resolutions,” the reason you’re a hot mess is because people look for self-help in all the wrong places and are unaware there is a science to successful personal change.

There’s a science to it?

Norcross spent 30 years conducting scientific research on personal change in hopes to “better understand self-change and better help other people make self-change.” He said his fascination on the topic stemmed from the amount of people who seek change without professional assistance.

His research showed that 85 percent of people who have made and maintaine weight changes did it on their own and 90 percent of people who stopped smoking kicked the habit without professional help.

Norcross said he is particularly interested in studying New Year’s resolutions because it is one of the few times when people attempt to change behaviors on the same date.

“Sixty percent of adults in the United States say they intend to make New Year’s resolutions. Come Jan. 1, 40 percent actually do, so literally, 40 percent of adults in this country are trying to change their behavior at one time. It’s fascinating,” he said.

So why do people choose to adopt the ‘new year, new me’ mindset at the beginning of January? According to Norcross there are many reasons.

“First, it’s embedded in tradition. It began in ancient Roman times when worshipers would offer resolutions of good conduct to Janus, the god who the month of January is named after. It has symbolic and traditional significance. Also, any transformational date inspires people to change. Turning 30, turning 40, turning 50. When someone has their first grandchild. These are all times when people wake up and say it’s time to look at my life,” Norcross said.

Still, with so many people aiming for a change, why are half the people who started a resolution a few weeks ago now defeated? It comes down to science, Norcross said.

One of the tools often misconceived as an effective method to aid personal change is self-help books, which Norcross said can often be discredited by scientific data because they are not regulated by science.

How to succeed in personal change

So, how are you doing with your New Year’s resolution?

Katie Wilson of McAdoo is among the 50 percent of adults still working to reach their resolution.

After switching from an overnight shift to day shift as a materials expediter at Tobyhanna Army Depot, Wilson found herself less active during the day. When her weight reached 182 pounds, her blood pressure drastically went up. She chose to start the new year with a new, healthy lifestyle.

“I’m eating better. I’ve been eating healthy. No pizza. No cheesecake. It’s all gone. I used to always have to have a soda with dinner, but now the temptation to have a soda isn’t there. When my blood pressure went up, it motivated me to change. I didn’t even weigh myself yet, I’m just focusing on the habit of eating healthy. Ideally, I would love to lose 35 pounds, but my focus isn’t on the number, it’s on keeping up with making healthier choices. I’m setting short-term realistic goals, and when I achieve them, I will set more,” Wilson said.

If you’re one of the 50 percent still aiming for your goal, you’re about to survive what Norcross said is the most critical period in the success of your resolution.

“If you make it for a full month, chances are excellent that you will be maintaining your resolution at six months. At the end of six months, between 40 and 44 percent of resolvers are still going strong,” he said.

Not setting a realistic goal is the top reason a person will fail at a resolution Norcrosssaid.

“Some people say if they go more realistic, they don’t have the same motivation. When people resolve to change too much, they quickly become dispirited and demoralized because they are not making the progress they want as quickly and quit. The type of goal doesn’t determine success, the realism of the goal determines the success,” Norcross said.

For Jake Lehnowsky of Mountain Top, setting an unrealistic goal resulted in an unsuccessful resolution.

Lehnowsky resolved 2015 would be the year he joined a gym.

“I work out at home about six days a week, but I don’t have all of the resources I would have working out at a gym. January is just a difficult time for me to set new goals because of work,” he said.

Lehnowsky is an accountant at Baker Tilly in Wilkes-Barre and January through April is his busiest season, he said.

“I’m working 55 hours a week in January. New Year’s isn’t the most realistic time for me to set a goal of getting into a new routine,” he said.

There are many people, like Lehnowsky, who make resolutions at New Year’s even though it is not the best time for them. Norcross discourages people who desire self-change from getting caught up with the hype.

“There are people who may be ready in November, but they delay and rationalize that they should wait for the new year because so many other people do. When it comes to making resolutions, you can wait too long and you can jump too quickly to make the change toward self improvement,” he said.

To prevent quitting their resolutions, some successful resolvers practice the buddy system.

Owen Christman, fitness director at Odyssey Fitness Center in Wilkes-Barre, encourages the buddy system when it comes to achieving goals.

“The reason I got into this business is because I became involved with the gym when I was involved with basketball in school. Looking back, the reason I was involved with basketball is because I loved the comradery among the players. That’s what I miss the most about it, but working at a gym, that’s what I see develop with many of the members here. Going somewhere that you feel comfortable, and having people who are encouraging you and holding you accountable for being there, it’s almost like a support group. Without that structure, it’s easy to take a day off when a buddy isn’t encouraging you to go,” Christman said.

Are you suddenly feeling more motivated to accomplish a goal?

If you’re part of the other half who called it quits, there is still hope for you. In his book, Norcross outlines the science of personal change in five steps: Psych (getting ready), Prep (planning before leaping), Perspire (taking action), Persevere (managing slips) and Persist (maintaining change).

In the end of January, people are likely to experience slips, which can cause people to quit their goal in the most critical period to succeed at it. Norcross explained having slips don’t make you a hot mess, it’s how you handle the slip.

“Many people conclude their first slip of a pursuit concludes their incompetence. That is not true. Slips happen. Don’t expect to slip, just normalize slips. In no other pursuits would you not expect to slip. Think about it. The first time you rode a bike, did you fall? It’s like learning how to ride a bike. You have to get back on. It’s not how frequently you slip, either, it’s how you handle it. Virtually everyone is going to slip in January,” Norcross said.

Research in Norcross’ book proved that among successful resolvers who followed through with their goal had 74 percent attesting that there first slip actually strengthened their success.

So you still think you’re a hot mess.

You’re not the person you say you’ll be — yet.

At least now you understand there is a science to personal change.

Now it’s time to take science by the horns and be the change you want to see in yourself.