Realistic expectations, effective strategies are keys to keeping those New Year's resolutions

December 29, 2012 9:02:21 PM

Carmen K. Sisson - [email protected]


This is the year. It's now or never. How many times have we said that? How often have we sat at rock-bottom, looking at some too-distant light, promising ourselves never again? 


By Valentine's Day, more than a quarter of resolution makers have already given up. 




Take heart. You're not a failure, and there's nothing wrong with your willpower. You're not the problem, but your resolutions -- and your strategies for accomplishing them -- might be.  


People are often motivated to change when the pain of not changing becomes too much to bear, and that's not a bad thing.  


People should seek growth and examine whether the life they have is the life they want, says licensed professional counselor John Hawkins, who has operated a private practice in Columbus for more than a decade. If there is something that is not right in your life, or something you've wanted to change for a long time, it might provide fodder for a New Year's resolution.  


But resolutions aren't good for everyone, cautions Carrie White, a clinical coordinator and licensed professional counselor at Baptist Behavioral Health Care. 


If you tend to think of yourself in negative terms, as a "failure" or a "loser," New Year's resolutions won't help. In fact, they could make it worse. For people who are easily disappointed or are already struggling with depression or feelings of failure, a New Year's resolution can become the catalyst for an epic crash instead of a major coup. 


Part of the problem is "all or nothing" thinking, White says. For those who are particularly motivated and driven, a resolution can be just the kick in the pants they need. But for others, a slight setback can provoke a vicious cycle of self-loathing and despondency that can have a ripple effect.  


For those people, the best resolution might be one of the first tenets of success and the precursor to a better life.  




Accept yourself 


Have you ever stopped to think that maybe you're OK just as you are? It's not about accepting where you are in life, it's a matter of accepting who you are -- a human with flaws and foibles, just like everyone else. 


"We're so busy trying to put on this 'look,' or image or personality, and really, that's not who we are," White says. "That causes a lot of dysfunction in our society. We're so busy trying to be something we're not." 


You have to come to terms with yourself and love the person you are today, Hawkins says.  


Popular culture makes us believe that happiness lies in attainment. We watch a movie and make "bucket lists" of things we think we should do, and that's fine -- but happiness is not an end to a means. The brain can never be fully sated, says Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, author of "Stumbling on Happiness." Happiness isn't something you can find or create, he theorizes. Happiness is a byproduct.  


"The fact that we often judge the pleasure of an experience by its ending can cause us to make some curious choices," he writes. "Our inability to recall how we really felt is why our wealth of experiences turns out to be a poverty of riches." 


People are terrible judges of what will make them happy, Hawkins says. After the initial rush of accomplishment, they are just as unhappy. The key, he believes, lies in loving oneself, regardless of circumstance.  




Lighten up 


People put too much emphasis on New Year's, Hawkins says. The more pressure they place upon themselves, the greater their chances of failure. Some stress can be a good thing, pushing people to try harder. But too much stress, and the wrong kind, can cause the brain to completely shut down.  


"We think of new years as new beginnings, and so many people become very optimistic and say, 'OK, I'm going to change my life, and this is the year,' putting an awful lot of pressure on themselves," he says.  


His recommendation? Make every day, every moment, an opportunity for a new beginning. The past is over, and the future is not yet here. Operate in the present -- one choice, one step at a time.  




Know what you want -- and why 


Still, there are things you are certain would improve your life. But do you know what they are and why you want them? If you make a resolution without knowing why you're making it, it's harder to keep, experts say. 


"Everybody's goal is to lose weight, but why?" White says. "If it's something that is meaningful to you, you're more likely to succeed at it. Your purpose becomes your motivation." 




Keep on the sunny side 


Research supports the theory that people who make gratitude a daily part of their lives are happier, healthier and more successful in achieving their goals.  


Like many counselors, Hawkins recommends keeping a gratitude journal. That one small act fosters optimism and positivity, which can have a systemic effect across all areas, he says. It helps you see the big picture rather than focusing on negativity.  


"We get very caught up in what we don't have," White says. "Be appreciative and grateful for what you do have instead of focusing on what you don't." 


Instead of framing your resolution in the negative, such as "I'm not going to eat ice cream this year," think, "When I want a snack, I'm going to choose something healthy instead." 


And you don't have to be Merry Sunshine to become a more positive thinker. You don't even have to believe the positive things you tell yourself, White says. Negative begets negative and positive begets positive. The more positive your thoughts, the more readily you will encourage yourself and the farther you will go, so nix the negative chatter.  




Forget willpower 


Research has proven that willpower just doesn't work.  


In a study published by the Wall Street Journal, Stanford University professor Baba Shiv gave one group of people a two-digit number to remember and gave another group a seven-digit number. They were then told to walk down a hall, remembering their number. At the end of the hallway, they were presented with two snack choices: A slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad. 


The group with seven digits to remember was twice as likely to choose the cake, leading Shiv to reason that the extra numbers created a "cognitive load" in the brain, taxing the ability to make good choices.  


Now you know why you go home from work and grab a bag of potato chips and the remote control. The brain wants a break from not only the emotional stresses of the day but also the cognitive stresses.  


This is because willpower is not powerful enough, Hawkins says. It takes more than raw grit to reach the top. 




Get ready 


Once you know what you want to accomplish, make sure you have the proper tools.  


If you want to be healthier, visit your doctor first and eliminate any factors that may sabotage your success. Are there limitations you should know about? Are there psychological issues like depression that must first be confronted? Are there addictions that must be faced? Do you actually want to change? 


White, who led a tobacco cessation group earlier in the year, says smoking is a good example of a learned habit that many people try, often repeatedly, to quit.  


But quitting smoking involves more than just stopping cold turkey. There are physical, emotional and habitual cues. And they must be dealt with, one at a time. Physicians can prescribe medications or recommend nicotine replacements to help with at least one aspect -- the withdrawal symptoms.  


"Nicotine is a drug," she says. "The brain is going to react to it like any drug. Once you hit that high, you don't want to come back down." 




Find a support system 


Perhaps it's a nod to our frontier heritage; Americans tend to embrace going it alone. But when it comes to initiating positive change, people are more successful when they have a strong network of supporters, Hawkins says.  


The reason is two-fold: Encouragement and accountability. 


It helps to have people who believe in you -- even when you don't believe in yourself. Knowing someone is in your corner can make the difference in a moment of weakness.  


Essentially, a resolution is a pact with yourself. But when you involve other people, letting them know what you want to accomplish and why, then you're making an implicit promise to them also. And for some, that is a strong enough incentive to keep their commitment. 


Many people, especially those who have tried a resolution and failed, are afraid to tell people they are trying again, White says. But some battles are hard, if not almost impossible, to fight alone. 


Don't be afraid to ask friends not to offer sweets or smoke around you. If you're trying to save money, feel comfortable enough to eschew the morning coffee break -- and explain your reason to your coworkers. You might be surprised to find them join you in your goal. Hire a trainer. See a counselor. Find someone who expects the best from you. 


"Personal coaching has become something that's very stylish nowadays, but it's just another form of having someone there who can advise, cheer, document (progress) and help you fix problems in reaching whatever you want to reach," Hawkins says.  


But don't discount your responsibility to yourself and the power of the "integrity of choice," he cautions, referring to author Stephen Covey's "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." 


"It means nothing to put it on your list if you don't do it," Hawkins says. "There's nothing more discouraging than to have something you've wanted to do for a long time and you keep putting it off. You hate yourself for it and begin to get almost fatally pessimistic." 




Make one goal at a time 


Many people fail at their New Year's resolutions because they try to change too many things at once, Hawkins says. Focus on one thing and see it through.  


Optimism is good -- as long as it's realistic. If your exercise level right now is going from the couch to the kitchen, don't vow to run in the Boston Marathon next year. Start one block at a time. 


And don't try to lose weight, quit smoking, build up your savings account and begin your online business all at the same time, experts caution. It's a recipe for failure.  




Be specific 


Some resolutions, like losing weight, actually require a chain of resolutions, Hawkins says. You need to change your activity level, change your eating habits, maybe even change your environment and the people you spend time with.  


Decide what you want, then break it down into manageable goals you can accomplish in a reasonable amount of time. 


"There are a lot of things you really need to be aware of in creating a resolution," Hawkins says. "Something like, 'I want to lose weight,' is probably not going to be a resolution, because you need to target it. 'I'm going to lose weight,' really doesn't mean anything in and of itself in terms of a behavior you're going to change. If it's not detailed enough, if there's no real good plan, it becomes overwhelming. You can get discouraged easily." 


Instead of focusing on pounds, consider setting a goal to maintain a specific caloric intake and increase your activity to walk three times a week, he suggests. And write down those goals, says White. It's a proven key to success.  


Many dieters have found the same thing to be true. Researchers have found that simply writing down what you eat and the calories consumed results in better food choices and, sometimes, weight loss.  




Set mini-goals 


Some people fail because they don't allow themselves to reevaluate and change course if necessary, White says. People don't want to accept that a goal may be too high.  


"There's nothing in writing that says you can't change your New Year's resolution, but people don't give themselves that flexibility," she says. "By Jan. 3, they give up everything because they're attached to accomplishing this in so many days. People smoking a pack a day try to drop it cold turkey, then in two days, they scream, 'I can't do this!'" 


Mini-goals work better, she says. If you're a pack-a-day smoker, drop to 15 cigarettes a day, then 10, eight, five.  


"You get a little success under your belt and that encourages you to do a little more and a little more, and the next thing you know you've accomplished your goal," White says. 




Make success a no-brainer 


The hardest part is overcoming inertia and trading old habits for new ones. A new habit needs to become as automatic as brushing your teeth in the morning so that you eventually make the right choice, even when you're not trying.  


But the key is finding a way to fit new habits into your life in a way that makes sense, Hawkins says. Make it easy to do the right thing by setting up your environment in such a way that failure is almost impossible. 


Figure out your resistance to the new habit and eliminate it while forcing yourself to exert effort if you decide to revert to your old habits. 


If you join a gym on the other side of town, on a road you never travel, it's easy to forget about it. If you want to replace a potato chip habit with carrots, keep the potato chips out of the house and have the carrots washed and sliced before a craving strikes.  


If you tend to smoke after dinner, place your cigarettes and lighter on a shelf that's difficult to reach, White suggests. Go for a walk after dinner. If you smoke when you're upset or angry, make a plan in advance to deal with those emotions when they arise.  


"Habits, a lot of times, will trigger the physical (cravings)," she says. "You associate them with lots of things. If you don't change the habit, it's going to be a lot harder." 




Lose the attachments 


Humans are hard-wired to want -- and need -- affection, love, friendship, companionship. 


Psychologist Harry Harlow became famous for his "monkey experiments," in which he examined the correlation between maternal separation, social isolation and cognitive development. In a highly controversial 1930s study, he raised infant rhesus monkeys in isolation chambers, depriving them of touch for the first two years of their lives. They emerged strange, reclusive, and in some cases, psychotic and prone to self-injury. 


He then provided infant monkeys with wire "mothers" that held bottles and cloth "mothers" that held no bottle, reasoning the babies would prefer the wire mothers over the cloth, because sentient beings are motivated only by base needs like nourishment, not emotional needs like comfort. 


He was wrong. The monkeys grew attached to the cloth mothers, patting their faces and repeatedly choosing them over the wire mothers -- and the bottle.  


Interpersonal relationships are critical to becoming well-functioning, happy adults. But attachments to people and circumstances can lead to problems, because people and circumstances change, White says.  


"A lot of dysfunction we see is when people get attached to their material circumstances, and when they lose it, they 'lose' it," she says. "They feel like their whole world is gone, when in reality, it can be replaced." 


But we love people, we love our pets, she acknowledges. The connections are not the problem. The problem is when the person or circumstance becomes so critical to your personal well-being that you don't feel you can survive without that relationship. 


"It's the attachment to that connection," she says. "(You think) if you lose that connection, you lose your whole world. But in reality, that's not true." 


Attachments sometimes make it difficult to move forward, something former professional organizer Jennifer Brady saw often in her Golden Triangle business, "A Place for Everything." 


One of the biggest obstacles was convincing clients to let go of things they thought they might someday need or possessions that had a personal meaning. 


"If you went on a vacation and you have a sweatshirt, a T-shirt and a box of brochures, plane tickets and photos, but you never use them, why keep all of that?" she says. "Why not frame one beautiful picture from that trip? There's no need to hold on to things just because they're sparking a memory." 


Whether it's empty boxes or a friend who brings you down, sometimes the only way to move forward, experts say, is to stop holding on.  




Don't be afraid to fail 


Failure is not falling down, it's failing to stand back up, White says. Just because you don't accomplish your resolution right away, it doesn't mean you have failed -- it means you need to try a different method.  


Hawkins suggests using visualization to reach your goals. Basically, he explains, visualization is a fancy word for directing movies in your head.  


You hold the key to your own success, and the best part is, you have everything you need, right now.  


Close your eyes. Imagine every detail of how it will feel to work on each step of your goal -- and what it will look like when you get there. If you have had a few small successes along the way, replay those in your mind, remembering what they looked like, sounded like, smelled like, tasted like.  


Such instant replay serves as positive reinforcement, and it is the secret weapon of many athletes and artists known for their accomplishments.  




Think big picture 


Monday night, or Tuesday morning, thousands of New Year's resolutions will be made. Nearly half will be related to self-improvement or higher education. The rest will be related to weight, money and relationships -- in that order, according to a December 2012 study in the University of Scranton's Journal of Clinical Psychology.  


But what if you aren't interested in self-improvement? What if you have something less self-involved in mind?  


That's OK, too, Hawkins says. Look around the community, and see if you can find a need you might be able to fill. Resolve to get more involved in that area, and don't hesitate to involve your family, friends and colleagues, too. 


"We can think much broader than just this personal, selfish thing we want to do," he says. "I've often encouraged clients who are depressed or severely anxious to get involved with helping others. Go help at the free clinic, start a food drive at your church, serve dinner to the homeless, go and help out those who have less than you do. The bottom line is 99 percent of Americans are better off than probably 99 percent of the world -- even the poorest among us. We often take a lot of things for granted. Resolutions tend to be very selfish, very self-focused, which isn't bad necessarily, but look at the broader picture, too." 


And if you fail this year, remember, there's always next year. 




Top 10 New Year's resolutions 




1. Lose weight 


2. Get organized 


3. Spend less, save more 


4. Enjoy life to the fullest 


5. Stay fit and healthy 


6. Learn something exciting 


7. Quit smoking 


8. Help others achieve their dreams 


9. Fall in love 


10. Spend more time with family 




New Year's resolution statistics 




45 percent of Americans usually make New Year's resolutions 


17 percent infrequently make New Year's resolutions 


38 percent absolutely never make New Year's resolutions 


8 percent are successful in achieving their resolutions 


49 percent have infrequent success 


24 percent never succeed, failing at their resolutions each year 




Length of resolutions 




75 percent maintain through the first week 


71 percent maintain longer than two weeks 


64 percent maintain longer than one month 


46 percent maintain longer than six months 




*Data based upon a December 2012 study in the University of Scranton's Journal of Clinical Psychology

Carmen K. Sisson is the former news editor at The Dispatch.