How to Make (and Keep) New Year's Resolutions
Is it already that time of year again? The time of year when everyone starts contemplating the turning over of a new leaf - deciding what their New Year's Resolution is going to be.
The start of the New Year is traditionally viewed as the ideal time to begin a new phase in your life, to reinvent yourself into a better you. Unfortunately nobody seems to consider that the New Year is also a pretty terrible time to decide to do this, considering the holidays tend to be one of the most stressful times of the year. Nobody wants to start their resolution to get in shape amidst all of the holiday feasting, and it will be harder to resist the goodies. But everyone makes New Year's Resolutions, and so even though you know it might not be the best time to do it, you want to do it anyway.
My old boss used to make resolutions for the whole family. The list was daunting and about a mile long, and I can say with certainty that they didn't make any changes despite this impressive list: "Lose weight. Watch less TV. Spend more time with kids. Eat healthier." These resolutions look great on paper, but they're also very broad, and they require a lot of dedication, not to mention there's several of them. This is essentially setting yourself up for failure. What's worse, is past the initial list, they didn't put anything else down in terms of how they were actually going to achieve their resolutions. Recipe for a failed resolution.
It's not their fault, though. Self-restraint is a rational desire that lives in the front of the brain, the section most recently evolved and therefore most vulnerable to being overruled by survival instincts. Pleasure resides in the brain's most primitive part, which has spent millions of years learning to reward us with a satisfying jolt of dopamine when we give in to these kinds of urges. This means we now get a rush from giving in to anything we want, whether it's a drug, chocolate, or buying expensive items we know we don't need, even when part of our brain tells us we'll regret it. This helps to explain why resolutions fail.
That's why it's important to make resolutions that are realistic, and that will be easy to keep. That's why I'm here to help, with some research-proven strategies to making (and keeping) your New Year's Resolution.
1. Reflect On The Past Year
Reflecting on the mistakes and mishaps of last year is a good place to start when making New Year’s resolutions. The New Year isn’t meant to serve as a catalyst for a sweeping character change. It is instead a time for people to reflect on their past year’s behavior and promise to make positive lifestyle changes.
Where could you have done better? What do you want to see change? No need to be down on yourself. Just look at your weak points (we all have them) and see what you can do about them this year.
2. Plan, Plan Plan
To ensure success you need to research the change you’re making, and plan ahead so you have the resources available to you when you need them. If you don't plan ahead, you risk feeling defeated or discouraged when you don't have the proper tools at the ready when you need them.
Do a little research on the subject at the library or online. Whether you want to quit smoking, take up yoga or go vegan, there is a wealth of information to help you prepare for it.
Researching and planning might even help you realize that your resolution isn't for you - maybe you thought you wanted to take up yoga, but after doing some research you decided that hot yoga is more your pace, or that you don't want to try yoga at all but instead want to try rock climbing.
If you do enough research you'll probably end up even more excited than before, and you'll even be looking forward to making the change.
Once you've done your research, then you can get everything ready so things will run smoothly. If you’re taking up yoga, make sure you have a yoga mat, some comfortable clothes, a water bottle, and maybe even an iPod loaded with some soothing sounds at the ready. Having everything prepared will help you keep your resolution on track.
Furthermore, not only is it important to plan for what you'll need, but also plan for the unexpected, plan for the anticipated problems you might run into. Make a list of these problems, and once you've identified them, you'll be better able to work out ways to cope with them when they inevitably surface. Don't be afraid to highlight a weakness - if you know you make a lot of excuses, write those excuses down and decide how you'll handle it when you make them.
3. Be Realistic
As was always the case with my former boss, it is daunting when your New Year’s Resolution list is as long as your grocery shopping list. It might feel good to make a long list of all the things you want to improve in the New Year, but is it realistic?
By making your resolutions realistic, there is a greater chance that you will keep them throughout the year, incorporating healthy behavior into your everyday life. It is important to make resolutions that you actually think you can keep. Telling yourself you'll give up all junk food just isn't realistic. A goal like that would need to be made in small, incremental changes unless you have the willpower of a god.
4. Only Sith Deal In Absolutes
It's important to leave some wiggle room, so we need to avoid making "absolute" resolutions like "I'm giving up all junk food" or "I'm going to walk to work every single day". What about on your birthday, no cake? What about during a thunder and lightning storm, still walking? These absolutes will only set you up to try to get around your own strict rules. Instead, try drafting more limited restrictions like "I'll have sweets only on special occasions".
5. Start Small
A lot like being realistic, making "small" resolutions is a great way to get toward those bigger goals. Your self-control is finite, so it's important to make resolutions that require small acts. For example, if you want to "lose weight", you need to break that resolution down into an achievable goal - say, to go to the gym three days a week for an hour. If your resolution is to "eat healthier", make a smaller resolution to replace your junk food with a healthy alternative at least once or twice a week, or make a goal to make your lunches for work the night before so you're not rushed and throwing together junk just to get through the day.
You'll feel good when you accomplish each goal, and your success will help bolster your resolve: The better you are at making small changes, the easier it will be for you to keep going.
6. One Goal At A Time
It's okay to have a lot of goals to work toward, but the New Year isn't the time to tackle them all at once. Once you understand that you have only a limited amount of willpower, it's easy to understand why multiple resolutions aren't likely to work. Most resolutions require many behavior changes; a resolution to lose weight calls for more than just a decision to eat less. You'll have to learn to shop and cook differently, you'll have to begin or ante up an exercise routine. Thinking through these sub-strategies will help to boost your success rate, but it isn't feasible to do all of that and also decide that you need to pay off all of your debt, quit smoking and go on a vacation.
Change one behaviour at a time. Unhealthy behaviours developed over a long period of time, and it takes time to reverse those behaviours.
If you’re successful with the first change you can go ahead and make another change after a month or so - you don't need to wait until the New Year to make a new resolution, especially if you've already conquered your first one!
By making small changes one after the other, you still have the chance to be a whole new you at the end of the year and it’s a much more realistic way of doing it.
Having a hard time picking just one? Try to put your resolutions into a hierarchy - getting healthy may be at the top of your list for things you know you need to do, but if you don't want to do it, and you're not truly passionate and really want to change that part of your life, start with something that really matters to you. Maybe that means going to more social events ("Go to a social gathering once a week") - if that's what you most want to change, then that should be your first resolution.
7. Write It Down
People who put their goals on paper are significantly more likely to achieve them than are those who merely make mental vows. Not only do we need to write down our resolution, but also the sub-strategies to make the resolution happen. A New Year's Resolution might say "Lose weight", but it will need to have achievable actions underneath, such as "make a healthy grocery shopping list and stick to it", "join a gym class", "take the dog for a walk every day", "buy a healthy cookbook", etc.
Once you've written it all down, post your goal in places where you will see it often. Your will matters most the very moment you make a resolution, and you'll want to be able to recapture the intensity of that moment again and again.
Share what you've written, too. When we tell our friends and family about our goals, we tend to do better than tbhose who keep their goals to themselves. As an added bonus, social approval — "You look great!" — gives your brain a surge of soothing oxytocin.
8. Get Support
Consider joining a support group to reach your goals, such as a workout class at your gym, or a group of friends with a similar goal in mind. Sometimes we feel like we're all alone in our resolution, but having someone to share your struggles and triumphs with can make your resolution that much easier.
You can also look for support from psychologists, people trained to understand the connection between mind and body. They're able to offer strategies to adjust your goals so that they're attainable. You can even find books on the topic, chock full of useful information.
9. Failure Is Okay
Perfection is an illusion and we need to anticipate problems - if we do this in the planning stage, it will be less of a blow when the problems arise. A few hiccups on your way to your goal are to be expected, but it's important not to just give up completely if you give in or misstep. So what if you ate a brownie instead of some hummus? So what if you missed a gym day? So what if you spent a little bit too much money? We all have ups and downs, all we need to do is get back on track as soon as possible, and not beat yourself up about it. Recognize the possible triggers in your life that might've led to you get off track, and resolve to work harder.
Some of us just lack willpower altogether, plain and simple. But willpower is like a muscle, the more you use it, the stronger it gets. When you redirect your damaging behaviour (binging on unhealthy foods) into a productive behaviour (cleaning, exercising, listening to music, etc), you can help your willpower to grow. Whenever you feel the urge to give in, try to redirect. For example, I'm constantly working on late-night eating, and I've found that my desire to eat *junk food* late at night is directly related to watching movies. I'm not about to stop watching movies at night with my husband, so instead I like to redirect - I paint my nails (which takes FOREVER, so it's a very useful redirect), or I sew up some clothes that need mending, or I call my cat to lay on top of me so I don't want to get up and disturb her. All very effective redirects for me. Find a redirect that works for you.
11. Lift Yourself Up
When you feel you have no self control left, and you've been failing left, right and center, take a little break to bring your spirits back up. For some, this could mean watching a motivational fitness video, for others it could mean going to a concert, or watching a funny movie - doing something you truly enjoy doing, something that makes you happy, makes you laugh. This will help to recharge your self-control.
Conversely, this could also mean taking a moment to appreciate yourself and everything you've accomplished. Whenever we're feeling discouraged, we tend to focus on everything we've failed at, and overlook the long list of things that we've done that have required self-discipline. Maybe you've already lost 10lbs. Maybe you've already cut out chocolate. Maybe you've already started exercising more. Even if you're appreciating yourself for simply getting out of bed when you don't want to, it will remind you just how much willpower you really have.
12. Keep A Visual
The primitive cravings center is highly susceptible to visual cues. Draw on the strength of images by putting a photo of yourself photo-shopped with muscles, or a thinner you on the fridge, or a picture of a beach in your wallet near your credit cards to remind yourself of the vacation that you're saving for.
The Bottom Line
Setting small, attainable goals throughout the year, instead of a singular, overwhelming goal on January 1st can help you reach whatever it is you strive for. Remember, it is not the extent of the change that matters, but rather the act of recognizing that lifestyle change is important and working toward it, one step at a time.