Making Effective New Year’s Resolutions That Work!

“The begining of a new calendar year is a great time to change your life and improve your health,” says AMARC President and CEO, Al Sanchez, Jr. “The future is filled with uncertainties, but each of us has the ability to control our  behaviors and our health.” Research indicates that keeping New Year’s Resolutions is easier for some than others.  While certain individuals can simply make a decision to change and then do it, about 70% of people are not able to change or maintain resolutions that they make.  The research on long term health behavior change is rather complex, but much of the research can be synthesized down to a few basic principles. What follows are some strategies that have been proven effective in assisting people to make lifestyle related changes.  If you are serious about improving yourself, the following guidelines will help with any behavior. Where to Start? Most people have a general idea of what they would like to change when they decide to set a New Year’s resolution.  Others are a little less sure of where to begin, and still others go overboard trying to change everything all at once.  Trying to exercise daily while making significant changes in your diet, quitting smoking and altering your sleep patterns may be a bit too stressful to change and maintain over the long run.  Although healthy changes -like practicing relaxation exercises and quitting smoking – can compliment each other, it is sometimes better to initially concentrate on one behavior at a time.  Once you achieve success in one area you can always move on to the next. 1. Identify and set behavioral objectives Clearly defined written goals are the tools which make resolutions achievable. To be successful, resolutions must be desirable, specific, measurable, and realistic.  The toughest thing about making a lifestyle change is the ultimate realization that the behavior will have to be maintained.  Begin by making sure that the resolution is something you really want and is well thought out.  You must think about this as a lifetime change. Be honest with yourself.  If you do not enjoy running, don’t tell yourself that you will go out and jog every day.  Why would you do that to yourself? It is not unusual for people to make unrealistic demands on themselves.  When someone is trying to cure a serious addiction such as tobacco or alcohol, we hope that the individual will be able to quit for good.  When focusing on other behaviors, it is important to be careful with absolutes.  I once had a friend who ate chocolate on a daily basis tell me that her resolution was to never eat chocolate again.  Why?  Obviously she enjoyed chocolate.  She was setting herself up for failure.  Wouldn’t if be more reasonable to suggest that she only allow herself to eat two small pieces a week? One of the reasons most diets fail is because people go to extremes.  They go on and off diets, losing weight and then gaining back in a vicious cycle.  If you want to eat healthy, you have to see yourself eating that way for the rest of your life. Another reason people fail at New Year’s Resolutions is that their resolutions are intentionally or unintentionally vague, e.g.,  “I will be healthier this year,” or “I get in shape.” Be certain to focus on goals that identify specific behaviors.  Saying that you will lose 10 pounds of fat is not a behavior.  Losing weight is an outcome of behaviors such as exercising aerobically four days a week, or reducing your daily calorie intake by 500 calories a day. In writing about successful achievers, Dennis Waitely has said, “Winners in life have clearly defined, constantly referred to game plans and purposes.  They know where they are going every day, every month, every year. Objectives range all the way from lifetime goals to daily priorities.  The reason most people never reach their goals is that they don’t define them, learn about them or even seriously consider them as believable or achievable.  In other words they never really set them.” An additional reason for behavior change failure is that individuals fail to set short and intermediate objectives in addition to their long-term goals.  It is difficult to stay focused on a long-term goal with out weekly and daily benchmarks.  Weight control programs are a good example.  Indulgent lifestyles may be responsible for a weight gain of 15 pounds over ten years.  Unfortunately, people tend to look for quick fixes.  They are not content with waiting and working through an additional 10 years of prudence to return to a significantly lower body fat percentage.  Measurable short-term behavioral objectives will provide the reinforcement for continued motivation and attention to the intended behavior.  Using weight loss as an example, rather than obsessing about daily trips to the weight scale, one should focus on the daily behaviors that will lead to the desired outcomes.   2. Explore the behavior and formulate a strategic plan To increase the likelihood of success with a resolution, it is important to formulate a detailed plan.  Entrepreneurs and CEOs have explicit business plans to guide their operations.  Financial planners advocate the need for a well-researched fiscal plan for our future.  A construction crew can not build a building without a plan.  Why should we view health behavior changes any differently?  Poorly planned behavior changes result in failure.  To effectively plan a successful resolution one has to do their homework.   Baseline In examining an existing behavior, it is important to note when and how often the target behavior occurs.  If we have a baseline measurement of the behavior, it also becomes easier to set realistic objectives.  Examples include how often and when a person uses tobacco, or eats high calorie snacks, or displays outbursts of anger.   Triggers If we know when a behavior occurs then we can begin to identify possible motivations and antecedents (triggers).  For example, is this a behavior that is related to certain stressful situations, or other emotional triggers?  Is one accustomed to lighting up a cigarette when they have a cup of coffee or a glass of beer? What need (e.g., relaxation, emotional relief, socialization) does your current behavior fill and how will you fill the void in the future?  If the motivations and antecedents are known then we can plan for alternative coping mechanisms.   Learn from your past Understanding your behavioral history can also provide clues to winning resolutions.  If you have tried to change this behavior in the past, but have not been successful, what went wrong?  Why will it be different this time?  In the case of tobacco addictions, one may need to attempt to quit a number of times (three to four times for most people) before they finally become successful.  The point is, every time you try, you learn something new about yourself and the behavior which can be applied to the next attempt.   Plan for stress management Two of the most common explanations for health resolution failure are poor time management and/or increased levels of stress.  Behavioral changes are difficult enough without the added demands of trying to balance work, relationships, family demands and life in general.  When things get tough, people often revert back to old behavior patterns.  Knowing this ahead of time allows one to prepare and plan for such occurrences as they arise.   Research success Not only should you explore elements of your behavior, but it would also be helpful to see what you can learn from research on your specific behavior.  A wealth of information is now available the best practices for a number of difficult behavioral changes.  Stay away from unhealthy regimens and avoid experimenting on yourself when valid and reliable information is available.  The internet offers access to a world of health information never before available to so many people.  Unfortunately, as with most sources, not all information found there can be considered reliable or valid, so spend time looking at multiple sources and tap into the knowledge of others who might know better.   Get expert help There is also nothing wrong with seeking help from qualified experts in your area.  A certified health education specialist can assist you in putting together a generic plan for any health behavior.  Other professionals offer advise in their area of specialization such as a certified personal trainer for exercise programs, and a registered dietitian for nutritional improvement.  Make sure to ask questions about a professional’s qualifications (for example – how long have you been doing this? how much experience so you have with my particular need?) and don’t hesitate to ask for scientific references to support the advice you are given.   3. Develop a support system for your resolution Tell everyone about your intended behavior change.  Research indicates that one of the qualities of those who are successful at making changes is that they have excellent support systems.  Many of those who make resolutions never tell others about them.  Consciously, or subconsciously, they think, “If I fail, no one will view me as a failure if they don’t know I was trying to change.” Communicating your resolution and intentions increases your accountability to the behavior.  From the very beginning it is important to share your objectives and goals with those around you so that you can enlist their support. It is very difficult to remain smoke free when smoking friends keep offering you cigarettes, or to practice good communication skills with a partner that doesn’t want to put in any effort, or to control your eating when your family insists on eating large quantities of unhealthy foods in front of you.  As part of the plan described above, include strategies to initiate involvement of others in your efforts.  In an ideal situation, you may be able to lure a buddy into joining your behavior change with you.  Having someone to work out with or quit chewing tobacco can give a big boost to success.  Whether it is a spouse, boyfriend/girlfriend, roommate, co-worker, or just an acquaintance, knowing that you are accountable to someone other than yourself will help to keep you on track.   4. Program for success and maintenance Harry Truman once said, “A pessimist is one who makes difficulties of his opportunities, and an optimist is one who makes opportunities of his difficulties.” With any endeavor as important as a lifestyle change, it is vital to have the proper mental attitude.  The first recommendation is to expect success.  Winners model the behavior they are working toward and have the mindset that their goals are within reach.  This can be enhanced through both positive self-talk and visualization.  One must visualize themselves already having achieved their new lifestyle. Have an image of who you want to become and then act as if you are already that person.  You must see yourself as a non-smoker, as a physically fit – active person, as an emotionally happy individual.  To see yourself in any other light invites self-doubt and contradictions. Keeping this positive mindset isn’t always easy.  With difficult changes one must expect the occasional setback.  Setbacks should be anticipated and planned for.  Some set New Year’s Resolutions with an all-or-nothing attitude.  At the first sign of difficulty they assume that they will never succeed and back out of their behavior change.  Examples include the ex-smoker who lights up a cigarette, or the problem drinker who takes that first drink, or the dieter who sinks their teeth into a hot fudge sundae and then decides that they shouldn’t even bother to try anymore.  The important thing is to think of setbacks as just that, a temporary setback and not a failure.  So what if you screw-up.  You’re human, it happens.  Get right back in there, learn from your mistakes and move on. Reward Yourself One of the ways to stay positive in light of difficulties is to continually reward any achievements.  Rewards and incentives reinforce behaviors and proper attitudes.  Ultimately, rewards must be intrinsically focused.  We assume that success is its own reward, however new behaviors are uncomfortable, so it is helpful to add external stimulus, so that one can feel good in the face of discomfort.  As an example, beginning an exercise program can be painful and time consuming, with few quick results.  An effective exercise prescription would involve activity that is not viewed as total drudgery.  In this situation, you have to have something to look forward to.  Something has to be done to make you feel good about your workout, so try and couple your exercise with a pleasurable activity (or make your workout a pleasurable activity!).  Whether it is a well-deserved massage, hot tub, or an enjoyable healthy meal, the behavior needs reinforcement so you can feel good about your effort. Some people choose to punish themselves when they don’t meet objectives, e.g., I didn’t go to the gym today, so I won’t allow myself to watch my favorite TV show.  I personally feel that people tend to beat themselves up enough and that you don’t need to punish yourself.  What you are trying to do is feel good about your new behavior, not feel worse.  Focus on rewarding the positives.  Advertise your success and celebrate achievements with your support system.   Provide a Visual Record Another way to keep yourself motivated is to keep a visual record of your success.  This can be as simple as a calendar with stars on it, or a chart of progress toward some intermediate goal.  Many individuals choose to keep track of their daily achievements or setbacks in a journal.  The journal becomes a means of documenting what is working and what requires modification.  Writing about daily accomplishments or setbacks also encourages further accountability to the behavior.  If you know that you are going to write about your efforts, then you are more likely to follow through. So, in closing, remember….. Adopting a new healthier lifestyle can be challenging, but also very rewarding.  I hope this article has given you some ideas on how to increase the chance of becoming successful.  If you are still undecided about trying to make a healthy New Year’s Resolution consider this: While during our lifetime advances in medical sciences will add about 2 years to your life, changes in your personal behavior (lifestyle) can add 15+ years.  Isn’t it about time to make some changes?   Have a happy and healthy New Year with your new lifestyle!