What a year that was! But I for one do not see it as all negative. Of course, my heart and thoughts go out to anyone who suffered with COVID-19 or the disastrous effects it has had on health and employment. But I want to be positive and concentrate on the plus points from 2020 before we move onto 2021. For many there was time to reflect, time to rethink, time to learn new things, time to get things done that we never had time for before. So, before we finally say goodbye to 2020, I do not think it is a good idea to be too negative about what it bought us, as that does not help us to appreciate the things we have or to move forward in a positive way.
It is and it should be an exciting time and a time to reassess our lives and goals. Even though these are extraordinary times, like every other year before it, on January 1st, millions of people begin the annual ritual of New Year’s Resolutions. Memberships at health clubs (when they reopen) 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 following the excesses of Christmas.
Despite all the good intention, most people will fail at their resolutions. Come February, most New Year’s resolutions will be a dim memory. So, how is that that such apparently strong determination fizzle out so quickly? What can we do to increase the likelihood that our desire for change will actually translate into permanent positive change?
The Psychology of Resolutions
To do this, first we need to 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. This is still true even in times of lockdown. Rather than moderate these behaviours at the time, 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 make New Year’s resolutions this year, here are some tips to maximise your success this time around.
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.
Making changes to your life should not just be for the New Year. Try writing a 12-month plan. I will tell you why and how in another blog soon. Also, I find that doing quarterly reviews are much more effective than once a year resolutions. Again, I will talk more about that in my next blog.
I would wish you luck, but I don’t believe in luck; I believe in cause and effect. I also believe that if you want something enough and you have the right knowledge and tools, then you will achieve it.
Happy New Year! Stay safe and well, and let’s make 2021 the best year ever. Despite pandemics and recessions, it’s still all in our hands.