Self Improvement — 11 January 2004
The challenge of keeping your New Year’s resolutions

Making a New Year’s resolution and failing to keep it is a familiar scenario for many people. Why is it so difficult to honor a silent, personal agreement with oneself? What can we do to become more successful with this process?

Many of the New Year’s resolutions involve changing an undesirable habit or improving some aspect of one’s life. Some people vow to stop smoking, drinking, lose weight, start an exercise program or improve their attitudes or conduct. They are very sincere about their intent, may begin the process only to lose heart soon thereafter.

What goes wrong between the determination and the execution of our desired change? Some of the factors that may interfere with a successful execution of our resolution are 1. Poor planning. 2. Magical thinking. 3. Resisting hard work. 4.Low internal motivation. 5. Impatience. 6. A negative attitude about setbacks.

1. Poor planning: Previously sedentary people who sign up for a gym membership may go a few times and then lose their resolve. These people are not “weak”, just poorly prepared for the process involved in behavior change. They may benefit from help in devising a personal workout plan that is more likely to be enjoyed and thus followed. A grueling or difficult routine is a recipe for failure. Having a sensible plan that utilizes one’s preferences and abilities may lead to results that reinforce the habit of working out regularly.

Everything worth having- requires energy: relationships, friendships, education, health, fun and even material possessions. The willingness to use the energy is the first step in designing a long-term plan for success.

2. Magical thinking: Another reason that habit-changing decisions are so hard is that they require adult determination rather than childlike hopes. “I wish I could stop smoking” is an expectation of a magical solution that does not include the necessary steps needed to accomplish the task. “I wish I could wake up tomorrow weighing less than I do now” is a statement of fantasy rather than a bracing for the hardships of change.

3.Resisting hard work: Many changes require tolerating the deprivation of a previously destructive conduct while replacing it with a new initially less rewarding habit. Refraining from eating as much, drinking, smoking, inactivity or using bad language is extremely hard since these habits served certain emotional needs not rewarded by abstinence from them. Before the rewards of weight reduction, clearer thinking, easier breathing, fitness, or social acceptance can begin to be felt, we have to resist the compulsions to resume our previous ways. It is a very hard process and often requires introspection that has previously been avoided.

4. Low internal motivation: The desire for change must not only originate from the individual, but the rewards have to be clear and personal. If the sole incentive for change is because it is “good for us”, it is unlikely to succeed. If we are told that we “should” do it, we may resort to rebellion and resentments- not to a self- motivated response.

If the resolution for change is initiated primarily to please another person, its life expectancy is short. The outcome of altering your behavior must be pleasing and fun for you. “I would be better able to frolic with my grandchildren” is a better incentive than “my partner wants me to shed this weight.” The thought of a joyous outcome is helpful in supporting you through the pain involved in altering your habits.

5. Impatience: Change occurs gradually. Expectations of instant results, as are often promised in misleading advertisements, are hazardous to success. The demand for quick transformation leads to feelings of defeat when the results are slow in coming. Some people tend to get impatient and discouraged by the amount of effort required to achieve small gains. They incorrectly determine that they may not be able to withstand the slow progress. Recruiting help from those who have successfully altered their ways is helpful.
The choice to change your habits must be phrased in your mind as a process- not an event. Instead of “I am going to lose ten pounds by Feb 1st”, consider rephrasing this resolution to: “I will make it a priority to eat healthily.” The latter is more likely to achieve the positive results.

6.A negative attitude about setbacks: Keep your resolve by being kind to yourself in assessing your progress. Reprimanding yourself for minor setbacks is ill advised. Use encouraging thoughts to gauge your progress and praise yourself for your gains.

Changes are very hard to make. The decision to modify our habits must be voluntary and feel rewarding. It should follow a plan with a realistic timetable, and have the support of others to render the best results.

Succeeding in your resolution may require the following process:

  • Make a resolution. Such as “I will become more fit this year”.
  • Detail the benefits to you of achieving your goal: “I will enjoy being more active and be able to go hiking with my partner with ease.”
  • Devise a plan: “I like to swim, so I will join a club and swim three times a week and increase the frequency and distance as I progress”.
  • Gets support: “I will invite my sister to join me.”
  • Reward yourself through the joy of weekly hikes with your partner.
  • If you find yourself not following through with your resolution, do not get discouraged and refrain from negative self-talk. Re-evaluate your plan and your needs, assess the difficulties and solicit help to get back on track.

Successful self-improvement is a joyous experience, it reinforces your determination to keep up with the changes and feel better about yourself.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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