What is it about New Year’s resolutions that for so many people almost predict failure just by declaring them? The answer lies in the vacuum in which so many of us “resolve” to do better next year. To eat better, to work harder, to get fitter, to generally be better.
The problem is, when making New Year resolutions, we’re essentially deciding to replace old habits with new, and changing habits is not as easy as simply deciding to do so. It takes approximately three weeks to develop a new habit, and that means three weeks of commitment to behaving in the way you now wish to. For some lucky people, once they decide to do something, they just forge ahead and do it, and their dedication pays off with new habits formed in a short space of time.
But for most of us, it’s extremely difficult not to fall back into our “old ways”, and so in order to ensure a higher degree of success we need to do more than decide to behave differently. We need to put a structure in place that will make it easier for us to stick to our new behaviour long enough for it to become habitual.
So how do we do this? Well first of all, get clear on what it is you want to achieve. To take a typical new year (and my real) example: “I want to lose weight and get fit. ” Simple enough goal, with a simple enough strategy: eat more healthily and take some exercise. The difficulty though is that if healthy eating and regular exercise are not part of your existing habits then putting this strategy into action will be less simple and more of a struggle than you might expect.
So what kind of a “structure” do I need to put in place to make it less of a struggle? Well firstly, I need to make my goal as specific as possible, write it down and keep it in a place where I will see and read it regularly – I need to visualise a specific outcome. In the given example, losing weight could mean anything from two pounds to eight stone and anywhere in between. If I leave the goal unspecific, it will be easier for me to let myself off the hook at the first obstacle. If however, I have a particular target in mind, I’m more likely to get back in the saddle should I go astray occasionally. In my case, I want to lose half a stone, reduce my cholesterol by two points and be fit enough to easily deal with my weekly canoe polo training sessions.
So now I’m clear on exactly what it is I want to achieve, the next thing I need to do is break down my overall strategy into baby steps. What this does is makes it easier to get started straight away. “Sure I can start eating healthily and taking exercise today, but I’ve nothing healthy in the house, and it’s raining outside… I’ll start tomorrow. ” Sound familiar? However, if we take this overall strategy and break it down, a funny thing happens: we feel more motivated! And motivation is the key to both getting started and keeping going.
So my baby steps will be: plan a three week menu of delicious and healthy meals; shop for the right supplies (store cupboard staples for this three week supply, enough fresh fruit and veg to last three to four days, and healthy, low fat (but also tasty) snacks; recruit an exercise buddy and schedule regular exercise sessions together; find a photo of me at the weight I want to be (or stick my face onto a picture of somebody else at the weight I want to be) and stick it to my fridge!
So, I can start today without venturing out into the wind and rain. Just by browsing through recipe books and websites to plan my three week menu, I can feel my motivation increasing, and this drives my desire to go shopping as soon as possible to stock up on the foods that will support me in achieving my goal. And as I get started, it’s easier to take the next step and ring a friend to make a commitment to go for a long walk together the next day, no matter what the weather. With each little step, I further cement my resolve, and as each day goes by the easier it becomes to maintain my new behaviour.
But to keep it up long-term, I’m going to need even more support. Why? Because life will bring with it little obstacles that will make it more difficult to stick to my plans. I’ll have occasional unplanned meals out, my exercise buddy will cancel every now and then, I’ll probably even have the odd pig-out day! Without additional supports in place, these little hiccups could result in my resolution being abandoned before I have solidified my new habits.
To put that in place, I need to try and identify what obstacles might arise which would increase the chances of me abandoning my new ways before they do become more habitual to me. And then, anticipating these obstacles before I actually encounter them, put in place supports to help me either avoid them completely, or recover from them quickly and get myself back on track.
I have already identified some potential obstacles, so what can I do to overcome them? Well, I could recruit two exercise buddies, not just one. I could also have a back-up plan, such as a yoga mat and video. I could allow myself a couple of days a month to misbehave food-wise without beating myself up about it psychologically, or going the “hung for a sheep as a lamb” route. I could join Weight Watchers (in fact, I already have). I could educate myself about food, good fats & bad, cholesterol reducing foods etc. And to keep my motivation up, I can remind myself daily of what my goal is, and what “baby steps” I need to take today to keep moving in the right direction.
These are all small and simple steps I can take, but added together equal a support programme which will significantly increase my chances of success. Instead of simply making myself a promise, I am committing to real and lasting change that will positively affect my life. And I expect to succeed! I hope you manage to keep your own new year’s resolutions this year.
Hilda Carroll is a life coach who specialises in helping people to be happy right now, and see achievement of their goals as a bonus rather than the source of their happiness. Visit her website at http://www.thehappinessbusiness.com