“A habit cannot be tossed out the window, it must be coaxed down the stairs…one step at a time,” and so goes the timelessly relevant advice of Mark Twain.
As we head into the New Year, 2015 to be precise, we are once again drawn to make a resolution or two; usually some combination of trying harder, doing better, and accomplishing more. And if this year is anything like the years gone by, these best-intentioned plans are off the path of success somewhere around early to mid-February, leaving us wondering what went wrong.
It is in the spirit of supporting the success and longevity of this year’s batch of best-intentioned New Year’s resolutions that we offer the following simple and effective suggestions:
1. State all resolutions in terms of positive and personally achievable actions, and avoid focusing on just “stopping” undesirable behaviors.
For example, say, “I will eat a fresh salad with grilled fish or chicken for lunch at least 5 days a week,” rather than saying “I will stop eating fast food for lunch.”
2. Pick a goal that is a small but measurable improvement from your current baseline, rather than focusing on some more distant, but highly desired end state. Then, as you gain some success, gradually increase the positive target goal or activity.
For example, if you currently are not walking on any regular basis, say, “I will walk for 10 minutes a day, 3 days a week, for the next 2 weeks, then I’ll think about increasing the goal based on how I do and feel,” rather than saying “I will walk for 45 minutes a day 5 days a week, starting on January 2.”
3. Select at least one resolution that positively improves the quality of life of someone else in the world; there are few better elixirs for our own happiness than altruism.
Pick an activity that involves some investment of your time and includes face to face contact with those we set out to help, for example, “I will spend two to three hours every other Saturday, volunteering at the local (insert you favorite population in need, or charitable organization here!).”
4. Find a resolution “buddy” who wants to accomplish the same goal for the New Year and agree on a partnership for success, someone you can nudge when they lose a little motivation, and who can in turn nudge you when you falter with your new goal.
Let’s say you’ve both set out to become photographers in the New Year, and the plans involve taking an Adult Education course for 3 months, complete with weekly photography homework outings. You might share driving duties for class, meet for lunch or coffee before or after your homework outings and compare photos via email throughout the course, and celebrate your new skills.
5. Have fun with at least one of your resolutions. In addition to the harder, healthier, or task-focused goals, pick at least one that makes you laugh, or is intrinsically enjoyable and adds some daily joy to your life.
As one example, buy a daily desk flip calendar of something that you really like, a favorite cartoon strip, photos of classic cars, or whatever brings a smile to your face and resolve to treat yourself to it each morning when you begin your daily tasks and duties.
6. Finally, be a tough but forgiving “boss” when it comes to evaluating your adherence to your resolutions, and adjust the standards by which you define “success.”
A suggestion might include re-structuring your thoughts and deciding to label the occasional resolution setbacks as lapses rather than failures. Give yourself the opportunity to succeed again tomorrow without undue harsh self-criticism. When it comes to behavior changes, the perfect is indeed the enemy of the good.
Helen Keller offered the following advice regarding New Year Resolutions: “Your success and happiness lies in you. Resolve to keep happy, and your joy, and you, shall form an invincible host against difficulties.”
All of us here at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC resolve to wish you a Happy, Healthy, and Successful New Year!