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Why Don't We Do The Things We Know Are Good For Us?

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Mark Twain was a keen observer of human nature - making him a great storyteller, a folksy philosopher, and a moralist for modern times. As we begin 2010 with our lists of resolutions, I'm reminded of Twain's quote: "To promise not to do a thing is the surest way in the world to make a body want to go and do that very thing."

Twain wasn't the first to point this out. St. Paul wrote about the same paradox: "I don't understand myself. I want to do what is right but I do not do it. Instead, I do the very thing I hate ... It seems to be a fact of life that when I want to do what's right, I inevitably do what's wrong." (Romans 7:15)

What IS it with us humans? Why do we act so contrary to our own self-interest ... and so often?

Our problem isn't lack of information. Bookstores are stocked with countless books about how to eat less and exercise more; dozens of experts advise us to save and invest our money; wise friends warn us to stay away from troublesome lovers. We have plenty of information on getting rid of clutter, managing time, taking care of our bodies, managing our finances, fulfilling our career dreams. But all this information doesn't change our behavior. We know what to do but we still don't do it.

In fact, sometimes we do just the opposite of what we know is good for us! We overeat and under-exercise; we spend every last nickel (or more); we pick the wrong partners to fall in love with (again and again). We buy stuff we don't need, procrastinate and fritter away time, neglect our bodies, mismanage our money, and bail out on ourselves in countless ways. If anyone else treated us the way we treat ourselves, we'd be outraged!

Why don't we do the things we know are good for us? And what can we do to change it?

Therapist and author Dr. Pat Allen says, "The only way you know you love yourself -- or anyone else -- is by the commitments you are willing to make and keep." I know this sounds like a cliche, but one of the main reasons we don't keep our resolutions and commitments is that we don't love ourselves. Heck, sometimes we don't even like ourselves!

We are our own worst critics -- berating ourselves for flaws and foibles. Who among us is not haunted by failings and mistakes? The seven deadly sins of lust, greed, gluttony, sloth, envy, anger and pride are alive and well in all of us -- along with fear, resentment, pettiness, gossip, and all the rest. It's hard to love ourselves when we're all-too-aware of our dark sides.

Another reason we also have difficulty acting in our own best interest is because immediate pleasure exerts a stronger influence than concern for long-term health. Chocolate now is more appealing than weight loss later. A purchase today feels more pleasurable than a savings account balance at the end of the month. We Americans, in particular, have a hard time delaying gratification. We want what we want when we want it -- now.

Additional factors influence our self-care practices: gender issues (women are socialized to put everyone else first); religious traditions (self-sacrifice is seen as a virtue in many religions); family history and lack of good role models also play an important role in shaping our own choices and habits. In short, there is no one reason why we don't do what's good for us -- there are many reasons.

So, what's the solution?

Changing a habit is simple -- but not easy. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

Re-train yourself with love. When I adopted my first dog a few years ago, a friend advised me about training. "Dogs respond best to training with love," he said," just like people." Wise advice. Teaching ourselves new habits works best with it's done lovingly.

Drop "should" and "ought" from your vocabulary. "Should" and "ought" are moralistic, negative words -- certain to de-motivate you. Instead of "should" and "ought," try using "want." It's a positive word that is more likely to get good results. Example: "I want to be fit and trim," instead of, "I should lose weight." See the difference?

KISS: Keep It Small and Simple. Set yourself up to succeed -- set small, achievable goals. Ask yourself, "What three simple things could I do today that would make a positive difference in my life?" Wash your car; clean out one drawer, try fruit instead of candy for snacks, take a walk at lunch. You'll be surprised at how small changes can make a big difference.

No one can do it for you, but you can't do it alone. Ask for help. Get an action buddy, an exercise pal, or someone to keep you company doing things you don't like to do. Consider hiring a personal trainer, a life coach, a professional organizer, a therapist -- someone to help you keep your commitments to yourself.

Success is about progress, not perfection. As long as you're moving in the direction you desire, you're successful. Give yourself credit; pat yourself on the back; acknowledge the changes you're making, even if they're tiny changes. Catch yourself doing something right -- or, approximately right.

As Mark Twain wisely pointed out: "A habit cannot be tossed out the window. It must be coaxed down the stairs one step at a time." Happy New Year, everyone!

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