So many people made fitness resolutions for 2010…but why are they so hard to keep? I can offer many practical reasons (unrealistic goals, inadequate planning, etc.) but instead let me give you an analogy for what’s going on inside your head…

Let’s say you want to implement an exercise program, starting Monday. Assuming you’re very sedentary and want to start slowly, your resolution is to start walking for 20 minutes a day after work. But you already have another behavior that you engage in when you come home: grabbing a bag of chips and plopping in front of the TV. That second behavior is not healthy or beneficial, but you’ve nurtured it for a long time and it’s become a well-established pattern.

Think of that pattern as hardened ruts on a dirt road. When you get home, you put your brain on autopilot and it slips into those ruts. The body does its own thing, you don’t even have to think about it. As a matter of fact, as you’re unlocking the door to your house, your brain is being bombarded with all sorts of familiar cues. As a result, it knows that the chips and Wheel of Fortune are coming, and it starts preparing for them mentally and physiologically.

Now, you decided that you’d go walking instead, right? Changing that usual pattern of behavior is going to require some conscious, deliberate action on your part, because your body is expecting something less effortful. With steely resolve, you strap on your shoes — a completely novel behavior in this context — grab your iPod and head out the door. Once you’re outside, you’re in a different environment, listening to music, moving. It feels….good! In fact, it feels GREAT! You get home, tired and sweaty, but feeling like you accomplished something big. You have a healthy dinner prepared and you hydrate sufficiently. That was EASY.

There’s only one problem: Tomorrow.

Tuesday you miss lunch so by the time you’re on the way home, you’re starving, not to mention, stressed by the day and traffic. You walk through the front door, get hit by those familiar cues and WHAM! Your brain goes on autopilot…yeah, you should get your shoes, but faced with all this discomfort, you turn to that old well-established pattern.

Whaaa happened? You’re trying to fight a habit. That can be hard to do. Note, I said  hard, not impossible, but you’ve already got a pattern wired in your head that responds to all sorts of sensory and psychological cues. Engaging in that old pattern feels goooooood. Not as good as endorphins from exercise would feel, but that pattern isn’t established yet so it takes too much conscious effort. When push comes to shove, you prefer the path of least resistance.

Back to the ruts in the road analogy: on Monday, you drove over them and started creating a new path. On Tuesday, you slipped back into them because the new path was too bumpy and hard to manage. The old way was much smoother and less stressful for you.

Take home message: breaking an old pattern requires effort, awareness and planning. Don’t expect it to happen easily. It’s not a one day deal. It’s not even a one week deal. Popular wisdom tells us that it takes 21 days to establish a new behavior, but even that fails to address the fact that the behavior pattern you’re replacing may have a lot of history with you. Each time you follow the new pattern, you strengthen it. However, each time you go back to the old one, you make that one even stronger. Focus on both aspects of the process: being consistent with the new behavior, and avoiding falling back to the old one. If you keep cutting yourself slack on the old behavior, you’re going to make the change a lot harder.