Every year, an estimated 50% of American adults make New Year’s resolutions. Yet, researchers have found that most people start backsliding after two months, eventually ending up to where they used to be by the end of the year. Sounds familiar?
If you have ever given up on your New Year’s resolutions (only to find yourself making the same ones a year on), you may have been set back by the following:
Starting Too Big
Working out for an hour, three times a week, sounds perfectly reasonable at the start of the year. You may have just put on a few pounds from the holiday feasting and feel highly motivated to shed all that off. Work may be slow, giving you plenty of time to hit the gym. Everyone you know is vowing to exercise more, and you easily make a pact with a few friends to work out together. But two weeks later, Jamie can’t join you any more because evening classes at the community college have started. Work starts to get stressful, and you work long hours on some days, leaving you exhausted. Going to the gym no longer seems appealing: it’s out of the way, you dislike the hassle of having to pack your workout gear in the morning, and the place is stuffy and unfriendly anyway.
How can you prevent this? Have realistic expectations about how much time you can commit on a regular basis, and what you can do if your initial supports start wavering. Look at your priorities and be honest about how important exercising is to you. If you no longer have the time to work out on weekdays, can you give up some TV time on weekends to make up for it? Plan for unexpected events, such as a companion not being able to keep up with your schedule, an illness, or a change in your financial situation. Thinking through alternatives beforehand increases the likelihood of your ability to follow through your resolutions.
Equating Slip-ups with Failure
Maybe you have resolved to stay away from sugary foods. You’re proud of your progress until your roommate brings home a certain world-famous chocolate cake from out of state. You think, what harm can a slice do? You accept your roommate’s generous offer of a slice of the divine goodness. The next day, you feel like an utter failure. Perhaps you feel a little depressed about blowing it yet again. And you soothe yourself with more sugary food, believing that nothing you can do is ever going to make a difference.
This is where we can learn a thing or two from the field of addictions treatment. Alan Marlatt, who studied extensively addictive behaviors such as alcoholism, called this the abstinence-violation effect. You could also call it the “F— It” effect: once you cheat, you’ve messed up, so you might as well binge. Your inner critic is responsible here, chiding you for lacking the willpower and being bad. As a result, you punish yourself for the transgression by intensifying your self-defeating behavior. You let yourself slip into a full-blown relapse – or at least throw your well-planned diet out the window.
The fact is, most people who try to change problem behaviors slip up once or twice. If you do, instead of berating yourself, focus on what you can do differently. Instead of saying how did I let this happen, tell yourself, “I made a mistake, like many people do. What can I do differently? How can I learn from this?” When you shift your attention away from your character flaw to active problem solving, you’re more likely to get back up.
Being Caught Off-Guard by Urges
You want to curb your spending. You work out a beautiful monthly budget for shopping and entertainment, and you’re committed to it. You’ve even stopped all retailers’ promotional emails. But then one day as you walk down the street, something caught your eye: an exquisite dress/suit/car sits in the store window/on the billboard, beckoning you. And it comes at an irresistible price/payment plan too! Your head starts to spin as you quickly think of dozens of reasons why you should have it and how your life is going to change for the better as a result.
Know that you may not be able to remove all the triggers to your urges. Prepare yourself for encounters like this. Marlatt’s acronym SOBER, originally developed for people with chemical dependency, can be very helpful:
Stop: Pause for a moment and be mindful of what you are doing.
Observe: Tune in to what you are thinking, feeling, and craving.
Breathe: Take a few slow, deep breaths.
Expand your awareness: Picture the consequences of giving in to your craving, especially how you will feel afterward.
Respond mindfully: Remind yourself that you have a choice and that you do not have to continue that unwanted behavior.
Tomorrow, I will continue with a discussion of how you can keep your resolution – with a simple change that might just give you the lasting impact you want.