Making SMARTer New Year’s Resolutions (Repost)

I was thinking about what to write about New Year’s Resolutions this year, and I had a few different ideas, but I realized I’m just not crazy about the topic.  I do like the idea of resolutions, and of course I’m all for self-improvement, but I also know the reality is that most resolutions come and go without very much effort or progress, leading to frustration, giving up, and probably the same resolutions being made the following year.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t make resolutions or that we shouldn’t try to make our lives better.  On the contrary, we should- we just need to go about it in the right way.  Resolutions should be about life change, and not something we’re only sort-of willing to do.  So the first step is thinking about what’s really important to you.  If you really want to be a nicer person and you’re ready to do what it takes, go for it.  On the other hand, if this isn’t really YOUR goal, or if it’s only kind of important, then any effort here is unlikely to last.

If you’re really willing to commit to some sort of change, here is one way that you might do it.  And if you do, you might just get the lasting results that you’re hoping for.  Best of luck for a happy, healthy 2014!  Here is a post I wrote last year about New Year’s Resolutions that might be helpful:

When it comes to this time of year there seems to be three kinds of people: those who make new year’s resolutions; those who have given in to not making them (because they know they won’t stick to them); and those who say resolutions are stupid (probably because of past experience not keeping resolutions- or maybe they’re just oppositional).  Whichever part of the continuum you fall on, we all have goals and work toward them each day, whether we realize it or not.  We set long-term goals, like making more money, buying a house, getting married, having kids, and so on.  We also have short-term goals, like making it to school or work on time, completing an assignment or project, finishing a book, or going to the gym or grocery store.

That’s all new year’s resolutions are is goals- but I think people find added motivation and a sense of hope at this time of year that they might not have ordinarily.  A new year might feel like a clean slate (that we haven’t yet messed up); it could be because others are making resolutions so we’ll have company or support; or maybe because a new year reminds us that we are another year older and it’s time to buckle down and really work toward some goal.  Of course, we may have some other reason why January 1st feels right- because it’s cold now (here in the northeast) and in a few months it’ll be time to hit the beach or pool (and starting now gives us plenty of time to get in shape).  For me, the six weeks or so between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day is a tough time to stay in shape, with all of the wonderful food, celebrations, and seemingly less time for things like going to the gym.  By January I’ve had enough and am ready to get back into some kind of routine.  Regardless of one’s reasoning or source of motivation, I think that setting goals- particularly goals to be healthier or happier in some way, is a great thing.  There are a number of problems with most people’s resolutions, though, which is why their goals remain unmet and may contribute to why people become discouraged or negative.

An article I read recently by a psychologist, Dr. Pauline Wallin, “Why don’t we keep new year’s resolutions“, provided me with some insight as I was thinking of my own resolutions.  I won’t repeat the article, but I thought it hit on some of core problems with most resolutions.  For one thing, there is nothing magic about January 1st.  For the reasons I’ve already mentioned, it may be a good time to start working toward change, but maybe it’s not.  You can start December 31st, January 2nd, June 25th, or whenever you feel ready.  You need to be in a place where you can commit and put forth 100% effort, or else it might not be the right time.

Second, resolutions often aren’t realistic.  If you don’t go to the gym now or have never seen the inside of a gym, don’t set a goal to go 7 times (or even 5 times) a week.  For one thing, that’s a good way to get yourself hurt.  You might want to meet with a trainer to get started, or speak with your physician even before that.  When you do decide to go to the gym, start with 2 or 3 times a week, or even 1 if this is a stretch for you.  When you’ve met that goal for a time (say, 30 days), then think about stepping it up- gradually.  Or, if you’re 35 years old and you hold on to dreams of playing in the NBA, you might want to think of a new goal.  Maybe you can join a local adult basketball league, or play some pick-up games once or twice a week at a YMCA or park.  Whatever your goals, you should challenge yourself- but if you set the bar too high, it’s too easy to get discouraged and give up.

Third, resolutions often are not specific.  “I want to be healthy”, “I want to lose weight”, or “I want to make more money” aren’t very specific.  How would you know when you met your goal?  How would you measure progress?  Think about what this means for you and then set a specific goal (or course one that is also realistic!), such as, “I want to have dessert only on weekends”, or “I want to lose 10lbs by spring”, or “I want to increase my income by 10% over the next 3 months”.  Specific goals allow us to measure progress, help us to stay on track, and allow us to know when our goals  have or have not been met.

And fourth, don’t expect perfection.  We (Americans, at least) tend to polarize most things as good or bad, black and white, or all-or-nothing, which is part of why we’re our own worst critics.  If you set a goal to only drink alcoholic beverages on Fridays or Saturdays and you have a drink for your friend’s birthday on a Wednesday, does that mean you’ve failed?  Sometimes we need to make exceptions to our own rules, provided that we don’t find ourselves making “exceptions” more often than not.  Don’t minimize the hard work or discipline that might be necessary to reach your goal.  Giving in too often can lead to sliding back into old habits, or at the very least put your goal even farther off.  As another example, if you plan to hit the gym on 4 days out of the week and you only make it on 3 days, should you give up?  Of course not, but too often this is exactly what we do.  We start to feel bad about ourselves for not being disciplined enough, which eats away at our motivation and leads us to quit.  Realize that perfection isn’t possible and that you will at times deviate from your goals, no matter how realistic and specific they may be.  When you find yourself deviating from your goal- no matter for how long or how badly, get yourself back on track.

Hopefully you’ll find some of these points to be helpful and you don’t give up before you’ve really started.  There is a lot of information out there and there is more I haven’t discussed, but I think this is enough to get you going in a successful direction.  Here is an excellent resource for making better (or SMARTer) new year’s resolutions, or really any goals in your life.  SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely.  A good goal includes all of these elements, and if you set your resolutions in this way, utilize whatever sources of motivation you may have, and work hard, you’ll make progress.  I’ve always heard that a habit takes 2 weeks to form.  I’m sure it varies by individual, but I would encourage anyone to commit to a good 60-90 days if you want any real change to happen.  Even if your goal is something like losing 5lbs, which may not take 60 days, keeping the weight off requires changes in habits which will need more time to become engrained.  If you commit to a certain time frame, then you can give yourself time to create new habits, rather than sliding back into old, familiar ones.

Of course, some habits we can’t easily change on our own, such as something we’ve been doing for 20+ years like smoking.  Some people can quit cold turkey, but most might need the assistance of a good smoking cessation program or aid such as medication or a nicotine substitute.  And if we’re talking about dependency on other substances like alcohol, most people require the support of a 12-step program like AA or NA, or even formal substance abuse treatment in order to be successful.  Most people could benefit from the help of a professional such as a psychologist, particularly if they feel stuck or discouraged with regard to making changes.  Psychologists can help people to overcome barriers that have held them back, or to find the motivation needed to start or continue working toward a goal.  So good luck to everyone, and happy new year!

Here are a few other articles I thought were good:

http://blogs.wsj.com/speakeasy/2012/12/27/why-new-years-resolutions-fail-and-how-to-do-them-the-right-way/

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/29/new-years-resolutions-sleep_n_2365980.html

http://lifehacker.com/5971803/top-10-strategies-for-making-your-new-years-resolution-stick

Dr. Jesse Matthews is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Chester Springs, PA.  He helps people of all ages to address many kinds of issues.  You can view his Psychology Today profile here.  For any questions or to arrange an appointment, please contact him at 610-482-4496 or drmatthewspsych@gmail.com. 

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About Dr. Jesse Matthews

I'm a private practice psychologist in Chester Springs, PA. I provide counseling and coaching services to people ages 12 and up. Specialties include: depression; addiction/substance abuse; relationships; anxiety; ADHD and behavioral issues; and Autism/Asperger's.
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