It is easy to be cynical about New Year’s resolutions, but in our experience few if any great accomplishments or great people have cynicism in their mix.
Studies have shown that only one in five people actually achieve their resolutions to diet or improve their relationships (Norcross & Vangarelli, 1988). But achieving a resolution is not as unlikely as it seems. It does not take a special kind of person to make a resolution a reality, but it does take a special kind of mindset. What makes this mindset unique is that it’s realistic.
When people hear the term “realistic” they often think that it means they should not shoot as high as they normally would under more “optimistic” circumstances. They think it means to settle for mediocrity or to avoid struggle. But really, all it means to be realistic is to have a good idea of the way things are and the way things work. When it comes to making New Year’s resolutions about your health, the thing to understand is how you work.
There is a saying in Traditional Chinese Medicine: “One disease, long life. No disease, short life.” It means that people tend to live longer when they know their problems, because only a fool believes he has no weaknesses. For breaking unhealthy habits, it’s important to pay attention to your weaknesses. What are the circumstances that make you more likely to engage in the unhealthy habit? (This is a common approach in successful kinds of behavioral therapy.) If you’re a chronic overeater, think about the times when you are most likely to overeat. Think about the situations that promote your bad habit, and avoid them. Know your strengths before you give yourself a challenge.
If you have difficulty achieving your New Year’s resolutions, here is some advice. It is not earth-shattering insight, but it is a short list of simple reminders that we all need to hear.
- Make resolutions.People who make them are ten times more likely to achieve them (Norcross, Mrykalo & Blagys, 2002).
- Be realistic.You are not Superman. Reflect on what you have tried in the past, what has worked, and what has not worked. If you have succeeded whenever you have made a short list of goals (as opposed to a litany), then make a short list. If you know you forget about your goals come February, set a reminder in your calendar app to rewrite your resolutions at 9AM every first of the month.
- Be practical.Making a New Year’s resolution to get in shape is not going to help anyone. Make a resolution instead to go to the gym and lift every other morning, or to go for a 30 minute walk every morning, or to stop buying red meat, or to drink Bud Light instead of “Bud Heavy.” Make them into concrete, daily tasks that you can clearly see that you did or did not do.
- Try something new.Some people define insanity as doing the same thing and expecting different results. This is not completely inaccurate. Frankly, there is nothing about this year that is incredibly different from last year and is going to make last year’s method work.
- Be accountable.Tell other people about what you’re hoping to accomplish. Choose people who care about you and care about you achieving your goals. Tell them that you think it might be hard, and that you would appreciate them checking up on you every once in a while. Alternatively, sign up for something, perhaps a 5k. When you sign up, it’s hard not to show up, and a deadline can do wonders for motivation.
- Be patient. Heed the wisdom of an old Daoist saying: “A thousand mile journey begins with one step.” Note that it does not say, “A thousand mile journey is complete in one step,” or “in one day,” or “before you know it.” The Daoists were mystics, but they were not idealists. Take yourself at a pace you know you can keep up with, and don’t try to set any World Records. Even one step every day amounts to seven steps in a week.
Achieving a New Year’s resolution does not take a miracle or an intense emotional turning point. It’s a simple (not easy) process that takes reflection and a large number of small steps. Most importantly, it takes commitment. Be honest with yourself, set practical goals that you know you can actually accomplish every day, and get the support you think you will need. All lasting change takes time, but thankfully you have the whole year. Start early.
Happy New Year. Let's make 2015 our best year yet.
David & Dr. Geo
Norcross, J. C., & Vangarelli, D. J. (1988). The resolution solution: longitudinal examination of New Year's change attempts. J Subst Abuse, 1(2), 127-134.
Norcross, J. C., Mrykalo, M. S., & Blagys, M. D. (2002). Auld Lang Syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year's resolvers and nonresolvers. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(4), 397-405. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/jclp.1151