New Year is almost always associated with New Year’s Resolutions. Many people wisely use this quieter time of the year to reflect on their lives and consider ways to enhance them in the coming year. They then resolve to do things differently, or – less wisely – to aim for a particular outcome.
There is much evidence in the psychology literature for the benefits of self-reflection. Many of us don’t stop much during the year to think about life and our place in it, how we are travelling or what we would like our lives to be like. So we decide to do this in anticipation of the new year. This custom originated in colder climates, though, where people were forced inside around the fire, and had long dark nights suitable for reflection. In the Australian summer, many of us make resolutions based on little other than a quick thought that “weight loss would be a good idea”, or “I need to exercise more”, without the consideration as to how those things would change our lives or even whether they are relevant changes to make.
Weighing up what has worked for you and what was problematic in the previous year can assist choices to change behaviour, so as to achieve different outcomes in the coming year. Without that reflection, unachievable goals are set in the guise of resolutions, and by mid-February many good intentions have well and truly come undone. However, if you really do believe, on proper reflection, that there are some things worth changing in your life, then here are seven things you can do to increase the likelihood of making those changes stick:
- Ensure that you want to change in the way that you are about to resolve. You not only have to intend to change, you have to be motivated to make the change. That is, you can see some benefits that outweigh the effort you will have to expend to make this change. For example, you may like to lose some weight (the most common resolution made on and off Australian beaches this year). In order to do that, you will definitely have to change the way you eat and the way you exercise or expend energy. Are you sure you want to do that?? It is all very well to want an outcome, but do you want to put in the work to make the outcome happen. Making a resolution is not the same as wishing for an outcome.
- Ensure that your resolution is about the behaviours or actions you will change, rather than being dependent on other people’s actions.
- Ensure that your resolution is worded in a positive way i.e. resolve to do something rather than not do something. For example, resolve to eat a sensible diet rather than resolving to not eat certain fun foods. Success has to come from what you do, because that is clear. You can’t rack up a successful day from not eating a biscuit – rather, your day will be successful if you have had a balanced day of eating, even if the biscuit was included in the balance. Resolutions to exclude things from your life that you enjoy are rarely kept.
- Ensure that you word your resolution around measurable changes in behaviour that can be rewarded. For instance, if your resolution is to stop smoking cigarettes, then yo should resolve to do something else specific to your needs, whenever you feel the urge to smoke. As you are successful at behaviour change, reward yourself. For example, a reduction in the number of cigarettes smoked in a week could lead to a reward of the cost of a packet of cigarettes going into a slush fund for a future enjoyable activity. Then every non-smoked cigarette is given extra credit for the money that is now available for another enjoyable (but healthy) activity. The accrual of funds in that account will help motivate you to find an activity other than smoking when you are stressed or bored.
- Tell a friend about your intentions to change your behaviours and even see whether they would be prepared to join you in making those changes. There is good psychological evidence that behaviour change occurs best when people share common goals and work together towards them. Even if you don’t have someone who wants to make the same behaviour change as you do, find yourself a supporter, a coach, a cheerleader, from amongst your acquaintances, who will listen to you when you are finding it difficult and support your efforts, and who will cheer as you have success as you move towards change.
- Recognise that you are only resolving to make change because you have been doing things that haven’t worked for you. However, they have become habits, and you will need to work hard to change your behaviours to be more effective in your life. There will be obstacles – temptations to give up, triggers for your old maladaptive behaviours. You need to plan for these obstacles and have some ideas about what you will do when you meet them. For example, if you are resolved to reduce your alcohol intake, recognise what triggers led to excessive drinking in the past (perhaps a bad day at work or an argument with your partner). Assume you will still sometimes have a bad day or an argument and plan other behaviours in response. For instance, after a bad day at work, come home and change, and go out for a brisk walk. Or phone a friend. Or have a relaxing bath. Then reward yourself for avoiding that pitfall, by telling a friend or writing it down or just saying “well done” to yourself.
- Remember, although the new year may be the time to reflect and make resolutions for the future, it is alright to work up to behaviour change. It is not a failure if you make some changes then revert for a while. Once you have recognised that you can take charge of your own life and make changes that will work for you, it is practice and hard work that will make the changes the new way of life that will work for you, and help you life a more effective life.
If you are keen to resolve things for 2019 contact Armchair Psychology to see how we assist you define your resolutions and help incorporate real change into your life.