Beware of limp New Year's resolutions
The new year is a logical time to 'start afresh' for many people as the beginning of January can feel like a symbolic starting point for something new. New Year's resolutions are lined up by many people in an attempt to make changes believed to be positive ones for themselves. If you are one of these people, don't get sucked in by the assumption that you will have a better chance of success because it happens to be the 1st of January.
Instead, it may be helpful to mull over the following practical strategies to help make your good intentions turn to actual success:
1. Tell yourself that changing behaviour can be very hard! Do not underestimate how much preparation, persistence and support you will need, even to make seemingly small changes. This message is not designed to leave you feeling less optimistic. Instead, use this philosophy to ensure you lean on the side of over, rather than under-preparation.
2. Never rely on willpower to get you through. Ask yourself "How will I achieve this change?" If your answer is something like "I'll try really hard" or "I'll be extra determined" then you are already in trouble. Instead, rely on practical, concrete strategies and plans, such as setting SMART goals...
3. Most of us know about SMART goals. SMART stands for:
- Specific - you will have a better chance of success if you give very specific details about your goal.
- Measurable - have a way to measure if the goal is/is not being achieved.
- Achievable - make sure your goal is in the realms of possibility. Start with steps that are about a six or seven out of 10 in degree of difficulty for you.
- Realistic - pick goals that are reasonably achievable given your skills, experience, support, etc.
- Time-limited - have a deadline, or series of deadlines to meet in trying to reach your goal.
A goal such as "I'll try and cut down my cigarette use a bit this year" does not stick to SMART goal principles. Try restating this as "I will cut down from 25 to 20 cigarettes from today until the end of January".
4. It is important to re-state the need to have achievable goals for change. You want to get the feeling of success straight away, and then on a regular basis. This can help build motivation and promote even more future success. Being a bit less ambitious early on is not taking the easy road. Lot's of tiny successes are the best way to begin changing.
5. Think about introducing new, more helpful behaviours, alongside attempts to stop old patterns. You got to fill the void left by trying to eliminate old ways of being. For example, if you would normally have a cigarette when stressed, try adopting positive stress management strategies (e.g., relaxation) as a replacement for the previously relied upon nicotine hit.
6. Think about the power of the people around you. Friends and family can both help and hinder progress towards positive change. If there are supportive people, think about telling them what your plans are. Perhaps use them to help keep you on track, or even join in on your new activities (e.g., exercising). Conversely, you may need to think about minimising negative influences. For example, if you are trying to cut down your drinking, but all your friends drink regularly, spend more time with non-drinkers (or go meet some if you don't know any!).
Finally, if you fall off the horse, use this as a valuable learning opportunity. What went wrong and why? What can you do to reduce the chances of this happening again? People are often tempted to give up because they think they have 'blown it'. Get right back on the horse - your day, week, month, etc has not been ruined by a slip-up. Getting off track is very, very normal and is to be expected. Think about your plan for when, not if this happens.
Good luck with any changes you are making this year.
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About Jason Spendelow
Jason is a Clinical Psychologist based in Guildford, UK. He runs a busy private practice helping adolescents and adults with a range of mental health and psychological difficulties.