On January 1st, millions of people began the annual ritual of New Year’s Resolutions. Memberships at health clubs and diet programs soar, whilst sales of chocolate and alcohol decline. People take a long, hard look at their spending habits as they sort through the January bills.
Now we a few weeks into the New Year and despite all this good intention, most people will fail at their resolutions. Come February, most New Year’s resolutions will be a dim memory. How can such apparently strong determination fizzle out so quickly? What can we do to increase the likelihood that our desire for change will translate into permanent positive change?
Let’s first examine the psychology of the New Year’s Resolution. During the month of December people tend to overindulge in eating, drinking, spending money and neglecting exercise. Rather than moderate these behaviours, we promise ourselves that after the holiday season is over, we will definitely take control. In the meantime, we give ourselves permission to overindulge without guilt. Our resolve is at its peak when we feel full, drunk, or broke. It’s easy to think about going on a diet as we groan from a bloating holiday meal. It’s no problem to plan to quit smoking when we’ve just had a cigarette and replenished our nicotine level. At this point we feel confident about our New Year’s resolutions because we have not yet confronted any prolonged physical deprivation or discomfort.
In early January, we are often so sick of rich food and drinks, and feeling so sluggish from lack of vigorous physical activity that it’s not difficult to abstain from overindulgence. In fact, some people look forward to more structure and discipline in their lives. However, a few weeks into the new discipline, our appetites have returned, and we start to feel deprived. It is at this point that we are most at risk for reverting back to old behaviours.
Soon we start rationalizing that this is not a good time of year, what with cold weather and our numerous obligations. When spring comes, we’ll really get into shape. Thus, we make another promise to ourselves, and, now free of guilt, put off habit change for another few months. Chances are that when spring arrives, we will have another temporary surge of motivation, only to abandon it within a few weeks.
So why do people abandon their resolutions? One reason is that we become discouraged when results don’t come quickly enough, or when we find that we are not necessarily happier because of them. Behavioural change requires sustained effort and commitment. It is also typically accompanied by physical discomfort. For example, reducing food, alcohol or nicotine intake from a level to which you have become accustomed, results in cravings. Forcing yourself to get off your cosy chair to exercise is often difficult when you’re tired. And of course, it’s easy to procrastinate until tomorrow, so that you can rationalise not disciplining yourself today.
Therefore, if you are going to try to keep your New Year’s resolutions this year, be sure you are ready for the challenge. Here are some tips to maximize your success:
1. Examine your motivation for change
Are you just feeling full and bloated at this moment? Do you have a hangover from last night? Did your last cigarette give you have a hacking cough? Or is there a more enduring reason for your desire to change? If you can’t think of a better reason than the fact that you’re uncomfortable at this moment, then you’re better off not making promises to yourself that you probably won’t keep. However, if you are realistic and accept the responsibility of discipline required for change, your motivation will be sustained long after the discomfort from over-indulgence has passed.
2. Set realistic goals
Habits and behaviours that are changed gradually have a greater chance of success.
3. Focus on the behavioural change more than on the goal
For example, if you decide to control your eating, your goal for the day is not to lose a specific number of pounds, but to stick to your program. Such focus on your behaviour will help you feel in control of your life. You will gain satisfaction from making sensible choices several times throughout the day.
4. Learn to redefine physical sensations of discomfort
Whenever we restrict ourselves, we have both physical and mental reactions. For example, a smoker feels bodily sensations when his nicotine level drops. However, he has a choice as to how he interprets these symptoms. He can define them as extremely unpleasant, or alternatively he can interpret them as his body cleansing itself of the drug.
5. Make tasks non-negotiable
People who are most successful at implementing such changes are those who make their tasks non-negotiable. For example, if you debate with yourself at 5:30 a.m. whether you feel like getting up to exercise, you will probably opt for staying in bed for another half hour. But if getting up for exercise is no more negotiable than getting up for work, then you’ll do it regardless of how you feel about it. The same goes for organising your closet or taking charge of your finances. One can almost always find an excuse not to do these things. However, if you make a non-negotiable decision that’s based on a sound logical reason rather than on how you feel at the moment, you will be successful.
6. Allow for imperfection.
No one is exactly on target all the time. In fact you should expect to falter every now and then. If you give in to temptation, do not use this as an excuse to abandon the whole program. Learn from your mistake and move on.
7. Do it now.
If you’re waiting for a more convenient time to begin behavioural change, it won’t happen. It’s almost never convenient to change ingrained habits. Now is just as convenient as any time.
So I could say good luck, but we all know that it has very little to do with luck. It has everything to do with commitment and planning.