The Great Resolution

I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions. If quitting sugar, eating a meal without checking the phone or purging toxic friendships is a challenge all year, it’s unlikely that a date will help beget real change. The research supports this—only 8 percent of people actually achieve their January 1st resolutions.

This year, instead of relying on the calendar, try something different. The chances of successfully executing a resolution increase when there is a compelling reason to do so. One of my patients, Cynthia, desperately wanted to lose weight. Year after year, she made New Year’s resolutions, but each year by the end of January, she found herself overindulging again. That was until two years ago when her first grandchild was born. The desire to be around to watch him grow up provided Cynthia with the real motivation she needed to begin making healthy life choices and she hasn’t looked back since.

Real motivation comes in many forms: a doctor’s warning, a life experience, a relationship or a financial awakening. But this kind of drive usually can’t be sparked by a date on the calendar. Be patient. Honest, lasting change might need weeks or months to take shape and requires the same enduring commitment.

Start increasing the chances of success by making the goal clear. Quitting cigarettes is too vague. Instead the mantra should be to smoke one less cigarette per week until stopping all together. Because the steps are clear, measurable and easier than a drastic change, they are more likely to be effective.

Still, in some cases goals are clear, but the means are unrealistic, like losing 15 pounds in a month, which is often abandoned after the first chocolate-fueled slip at dinner. Again, a realistically gradual, quantifiable change is more likely to reap results.

Taking small steps is something Kevin learned after he resolved to get home from work by 6pm every night to spend more time with his family. I pointed out that since he is rarely ever home before 8pm, achieving his goal is unlikely and will only leave him and the family frustrated when he fails. I explained that a better resolution would be to commit to coming home by 6pm one night a week and slowly building from there.

But even with achievable goals success is rarely a straightforward trajectory. Victory is not simply about having enough willpower. After a moment of weakness, it’s important to understand that changing behavior is difficult and a plan to execute a “resolution” wouldn’t be necessary if it were easy.
Cynthia doesn’t eat perfectly all the time, nor does she always meet her goal of exercising three times a week. When she falls short, she focuses on all her successes so far and plans her next healthy meal or power walk. Sometimes outside help is required, too. An alcoholic who can’t stop after one drink should quit cold turkey, but may need support from friends and family.

As much talk as there is about the “R” word, more should be made of the redemption it brings. Successfully completing a life change requires accepting momentary failures without giving up, then starting back on track the next day.

dr. susan bartell

dr. susan bartell

Dr. Susan Bartell is a nationally-recognized psychologist and author practicing in Port Washington. She also speaks throughout the country on a wide range of topics to help individuals and groups improve emotional and physical health and life balance.