By guest author Warren Holleman, PhD, LMFT. Originally posted here.
When we make big changes in our lives–or try to make big changes–they can be like a sunset I saw last week, as I was walking to my car at the end of the workday. The Texas sky looked like it was on fire. I couldn’t decide if it was beautiful or eerie, alluring or scary, an exciting omen or the dusk of doom.
New Year’s resolutions are like that. They have the potential to make our lives new and different and better than ever. But for most people I’ve known, New Year’s resolutions do more harm than good. That’s because we put all our energy into setting the goal rather than into the homework necessary to meet that goal. By the time February arrives, we’ve not only relapsed to our old habits, but also we’ve given up hope of ever losing that weight or running that 5K, and on top of that we feel incompetent, ashamed, and/or depressed.
It takes a lot more than a “resolution” to change. It takes preparation and planning, motivation and self-efficacy. It takes self-understanding, skills, strategies, and social support.
So, if you’re thinking about losing weight, ask yourself not only why you want to lose weight, but also why you might be ambivalent about losing weight. Be honest and ask what positive purposes comfort foods play in your life. Analyze, make lists, journal, discuss with friends.
Or, let’s say you’re thinking about watching less TV. Then you need to identify not only the no-so-good-things about watching TV, but also the benefits of watching TV. There must be some positive reasons you like watching TV. You’ve got to identify those reasons—those personal needs that TV meets—and find other, healthier ways to meet them. Or not! Who knows? Maybe you’ll conclude you actually need that time in front of the television.
After all this thinking, you might be like my cat Martin here, and conclude that things are pretty good just the way they are. You might decide the cost of changing isn’t worth the benefits. Or that you aren’t yet motivated to do the hard work necessary to change a life-long habit. That’s okay! That’s a lot better than a precipitous decision that is doomed to fail, and to leave you feeling incompetent, ashamed, and depressed.
But let’s say you decide the cost IS worth the benefits, and that you ARE motivated to do the hard work. So now it’s time to make a New Year’s resolution—right? Wrong! You’ve still got some preparation to do. Specifically, you need to identify the skills, strategies, and social support you will need to make this fundamental change in your lifestyle.
Let’s say your goal is to lose weight. Here are the tools you’ll need in your toolbox BEFORE you set your goal or resolution.
- Skills: How will you respond when your office serves doughnuts and bagels at the Monday morning meetings, or birthday cake and ice cream at the monthly birthday celebrations? How will you say “no” to your relatives when they serve you high-carb feasts over the holidays? You don’t want to appear rude, but you don’t want to eat all that food, either. You might actually consider asking someone to coach you in handling difficult conversations.
- Strategies: What will you do about your triggers—the candy in your pantry and the ice cream in your freezer? If your Achilles Heel is eating junk food and drinking beer while you watch football, what are you going to do to keep that from sabotaging your success? Stop watching football? Eat apples? Drink Lite beer? Walk on the treadmill while you watch the game? Go out and play football instead of watching it? These are HUGE changes and they don’t come easily.
- Social support: Who will hold you accountable to these changes and help you get back on track if and when you relapse? Will you give them permission to call you out? Will you listen to their input while taking full responsibility for doing the hard work yourself? Are you going to join a formal accountability group, such as Weight Watchers, or form your own personal support group of friends and family?
So, if you’re thinking about a New Year’s resolution, that’s good! My advice is to keep thinking and thinking and thinking until you have a really good plan. If you decide you’re not ready to make a change, that’s fine, too. Changing a life-long habit requires honest reflection, careful analysis, and comprehensive planning. Premature resolutions are not only doomed to failure but also may cause you to give up hope of making lasting changes in the future. It’s better to take all the time you need to prepare before you commit to a goal or resolution.
To summarize, here are the 3 things you should do before setting a New Year’s resolution, or any other major goal, for that matter.
- Think through the pros and cons of change. You should ponder this for weeks and months, not hours and days.
- Make lists, make schedules, journal, discuss with friends. Imagine that you’re the CEO of a large organization, and you’re plotting a major restructuring. You wouldn’t do that impulsively on December 31 with a notion to implement on January 1. Would you?
- Marshal the skills, strategies, and social support you’ll need not only to “make” the resolution but to complete it. You might need to take a course or read a book to develop a key skill. You will definitely need to identify sabotaging situations and develop strategies for dealing with them. And you will need to share your plan with key friends who can encourage you toward success.
Given all the preparatory work that’s needed, it might make more sense NOT to make a New Year’s resolution for a major lifestyle change. Rather, make a resolution “simply” to accomplish the 3 steps above in the coming year. That in itself would be a major accomplishment.
Warren Holleman, PhD, LMFT is Professor of Behavioral Science and Director of the Faculty Health & Well-Being program at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. His scholarly papers have appeared in Nature, Lancet, JAMA, and numerous other journals, and his workshop “Nurturing the Spirit of the Healer” has been presented in 27 cities throughout the United States. Warren also enjoys writing plays and telling stories. His romantic comedy, “The Turning of the Screw,” was recently presented at the Pittsburgh New Works Play Festival, and one of his stories was recently selected for The Moth Radio Hour. He writes a blog on work-life balance: http://www.workwellbewell.com.