How To Stick To New Year's Resolutions
As I read the Sunday newspaper last weekend, I was struck by the large number of ads for dieting programs and the volume of coupons for reduced calorie/fat/carbohydrate foods. This time of year it seems like stories about how to exercise more, stop smoking, save money, get organized, etc. are everywhere. In a typical year, approximately 100 million Americans make resolutions. If you are one of those people who are still making progress toward your goals- congratulations, and keep up the good work! If you are starting to venture back into old habits, or have stopped trying altogether, it's time to put some basic cognitive and behavioral psychological principles into practice.
Why do people abandon their resolutions? Primarily because behavior change is hard work that requires both initial motivation and persistence across time. A researcher at the University of Washington found that only 40 percent of people who achieved their No. 1 resolution did so on their first attempt. 17% required more than six tries to reach their goals. Another reason we often fail to keep our resolutions is that we want quick, dramatic and painless results. We want to lose 30 lbs or cut our credit card debt in half by spring, goals which (for most) are simply unrealistic. The final reason is poor planning- we typically fail to come up with an appropriate strategy to reach our goals.
Here are some tips to help you keep your resolutions in 2007-
1) Examine your resolutions and write them down. Pay attention to your phrasing. How your resolutions are stated can affect your thoughts and subsequent behavior. Your resolutions should be realistic, achievable, specific, and amenable to tracking.
The following resolutions are probably doomed to failure:
1) "I will never eat french fries or chocolate again"
2) "I will save more in 2007."
3) "I will only be happy and successful if I lose 10 lbs."
Resolution 1 is unrealistic (particularly if you really enjoy french fries and chocolate). If your goal is healthy eating, then try something like this: "My goal is to eat five servings of fruit and vegetables for at least five days each week. If I succeed on those five days, one day each week I will have one serving of a "treat" like french fries or chocolate." It's a bit wordy, but this type of goal allows for a few "off days" as well as building in additional motivation and a reward.
Resolution 2 is vague. How much is more? How will you know whether you are succeeding? Try something like this: "My goal is to automatically put $50 (or whatever is appropriate) from each paycheck into my savings account." This is a specific goal that you can track very easily.
Mental health professionals call a statement like Resolution 3 a cognitive distortion (unhelpful thinking). There are many paths to happiness and success besides weight loss. Focusing on this one goals as means to ultimate happiness can set you up to feel sad, angry, or confused when the expected outcome does not follow your change in behavior. Combining a behavioral goal and an emotional outcome into one statement is also problematic. If you are trying to change a behavior, focus on it in your goal statement. "My goal is to lose 1 lb each week for the next 10 weeks," is a better way to phrase this resolution.
2) Examine your level of commitment and motivation. In response to the typical food, drink, and spending overindulgences of December, it's easy to come up with a very long list of resolutions. Focus your energy on 1 or 2 goals. To help prioritize, make a list of pros and cons for each resolution. Choose the most important goals and save the others for later in the year (or next year). To help with long-term motivation, enlist the support of caring friends or family members. They can serve as sounding boards, cheerleaders, and troubleshooters. Also consider directly involving them in your behavior plan (as an exercise buddy or a healthy eating partner, for example). Remember also that there is no shame is seeking professional help
3) Examine your plan and write it down. Once you have whipped your resolution into shape, form a specific plan about meeting it. Research shows that breaking your large goal into gradual, short-term goals is easier and more likely to lead to success.
Make the goals non-negotiable. For example, put exercise days or savings deposit days on your calendar. Treat your goals as you would a job or other serious commitment. Just as you wouldn't skip work (hopefully), don't skip your plan.
Tracking your progress is important. Keep a journal, chart, or graph of your behavior across time. Use this data to help "tweak" your plan. If you have a good day or week- take note of what went well, and try to repeat it. Similarly, determine what prevented you from meeting your goals and come up with some coping strategies to deal with this road block in the future.
Speaking of coping strategies, when creating your plan, determine ahead of time how to handle problems or challenges. How will you deal with the next craving for a cigarette? Call a friend, take a walk, listen to some music? Build these solutions into your plan.
Don't forget to include rewards in your plan. Reinforcement is powerful tool for promoting behavior change. For example, if you've met your exercise goals for the week, treat yourself with a coffee or a new lipstick (or whatever is rewarding to you). Remember that the rewards, like the corresponding goals, should also be reasonable and practical. Rewarding yourself with a new outfit every week that you lose weight may create other problems. Research also suggests that reinforcement is more effective than punishment in the long-term, so try to avoid a plan that involves taking things away for failing to meet your goals.
Watch out for black and white thinking (such as I am a perfect or a terrible person) or overgeneralization (such as I messed up so the whole plan is ruined and I should give up). These types of unhelpful thoughts are called cognitive distortions, and can derail your progress. You will make mistakes and have less than perfect days or weeks. Thoughts such as "Even though I made a mistake, I am having some success overall (you can pull out your tracking chart for concrete evidence)" or "Even though today was difficult, I can continue on and plan how to handle this in the future" can allow you to go forward without beating yourself up.
Finally, don't give up! You likely didn't develop the habit that you are trying to change overnight. Similarly, it will take time for the changes to become part of your typical way of doing things. Altering your rewards (try to keep them varied and interesting) as well as relying on your support network can help. Also, as mentioned earlier, consider seeking professional help. Counselors, psychotherapists, nutritionists, personal trainers, etc. are experts at helping people reach their goals.