Personal Change that Works: Forget “Resolutions”

BY dr. bert pitts

Despite their historical popularity, personal “resolutions” (such as those made around New Year’s Day) usually don’t work and tend to set us up for failure. Specifically, let’s examine a typical New Year’s Resolution: Let’s say I have the thought, then to hold myself accountable, I tell a friend that “losing 15 pounds” is my New Year’s Resolution.  Or maybe “not biting my fingernails anymore” or “reducing my alcohol intake”. OK, great! Then I have a few drinks on New Year’s Eve (OK, more than a few), watch the ball drop at Times Square, and enter the new calendar year! But has anything else changed to assist me in actually meeting that goal? (Usually, it has not.) Thus, without any plan or support, armed with sheer willpower alone, I wake up on January 1st (perhaps with a whopping headache), hoping to find the strength to resist what often is a “comfort behavior,” like those above. Small wonder most New Year’s Resolutions are broken before the end of January, and many of those before the end of the first week! So, whether you are reading this article around New Year’s Day, the 4th of July, or any of the other 363 days, choose to make a plan for change that will WORK!

  1. First, ditch the word “resolution”: Whoever chose that word did not understand much about human nature! Getting rid of unwanted habits or comfort behaviors is not easy: We need a plan with reachable goals, including a plan for how to handle “slips.” The word RESOLUTION is simply too strong—it sounds like a decree sent down from Heaven, the breaking of which should make us feel very bad! (The problem is that guilt works very poorly as a motivator toward making positive changes.) Guilt from having “broken” a resolution is more likely to disappoint us, perhaps lead us to abandon our goals, and return to the comfort and ease of our tempting habit. So, no more “resolutions,” only “plans” and “goals!”
  2. Understand that NOT setting a goal for personal change (i.e., just because it is the beginning of a new year) is perfectly fine (as is waiting until another time of the year).
  3. If you do want such a plan, though, spell out your strategies to reach your goal in detail—this is your “plan.” Ask some people you trust for advice. Be realistic. However, PREPARE TO SUCCEED! It’s not a matter of if, but when!
  4. Anticipate a “slip” or two. These are a normal part of breaking habits, for most people—and a slip is not the same as throwing in the towel! There is an adage that “it takes a month to make or break a habit.” It’s not easy to change and takes time to release (and eventually forget about) a behavior that has been a “salve” for nervousness, stress, boredom, or other emotional pain. When you slip, think about a few things you can do to give yourself accountability (like confessing the slip to a friend) and remind yourself in a positive way about what you want (your goal) and/or how good it will feel to reach it! If you have more than 2 or 3 slips within the first 2 weeks, that’s OK, but you need to lower the bar (re-adjust your initial goal). Here’s the secret: You have to set goals that are easy and reachable enough to GUARANTEE success (at some level), give your mind/body a chance to get used to that (usually at least 2 weeks), then raise the bar just a little. Be realistic, move slowly, don’t be in a hurry, and YOU…WILL…SUCCEED. (Why? Because working in the above manner, you leave yourself no other choice!)
  5. Use 3 x 5 index cards to make yourself a stack of motivational and reminder cards to carry with you, and go through whenever you need a boost, and repeatedly, if needed. Whenever you have a positive thought about your goal, or hear a good one, make a new card! Make cards with motivational quotes like JUST DO IT (thanks, Nike!) and DISCIPLINE IS REMEMBERING WHAT YOU WANT and WORK THE PLAN. Make a card with the dictionary definitions of words like STRIVE and PERSEVERE and ARRIVE and GOAL and FINISH. Make cards with your favorite comforting and/or inspiring scriptures. Make cards with pictures or symbols representing your goal and/or points along the journey.
  6. Track your progress, set mini-goals along the way. Celebrate reaching these all-important interim goals! If it floats your boat, make a good old-fashioned chart and reward yourself with gold stars.
  7. Touch base regularly with others (who also are striving toward personal change goals, perhaps in the same area, but this is not mandatory). As a notable example, the “group” aspect of Weight Watchers, and various other structured weight-loss plans is the “X factor” that gives them their power and success rate (for those who stick with it). Take away the friendships, support, and accountability provided on check-in/weigh-in days, and none of these programs would ever have become so famous or stood the test of time.
  8. At the same time, if you are shooting for a weight-loss goal, it is not a requirement to use a structured program. A few more tips: Avoid “gimmick” or fad diets. Keep it simple, focus on portion-control, eliminate dessert or make it fat-free and sugar-free, limit carbs, eliminate snacking between meals except for raw vegetables or small serving of fruit (like a small apple), drink 8 glasses or more of water a day. Exercise at least 4 days a week, a brisk 30-minute walk works well and is plenty (and it is fine to start with less and work up to this—whatever level is chosen, though—do it at least 4 days a week). In doing so, you are getting yourself used to the weekly routine and rhythm of days of exercise and rest.
  9. Now go, strive, persevere, and finish. “Never give up! Never give up! NEVER GIVE UP!” (Churchill)