Blog #68 – New Year Resolutions
By Dr. Mark Barry
It’s that time again. A new year has rolled around and many of us have, therefore, become preoccupied with losing bad habits, cultivating good habits, and generally trying to make our respective bodies a temple, as opposed to a temple of doom. In other words, it is resolutions season.
By the time this blog goes live many of you may already feel like you have failed, given in to despair, and possibly dived head-first into a tub of chocolate. Understandable as that might be, overdosing on chocolate isn’t going to make things better… assuming weight-loss is on your list, and let’s face it, it is for most of us. Not many are going to have emerged from the wreckage of Christmas feeling positive about their waist-line, but giving in so soon, even if we make early missteps, is counter-productive in the extreme. It is important that we avoid an all-or-nothing mentality, as thinking that way will inevitably see you end up with more of the latter and less of the former.
I wrote about resolutions in this blog in early January two years ago. The core message I sought to get across at that time was to avoid setting the bar too high, and instead to make modest goals in the short-term, with a view towards building on those achievements as the year unfolds. The logic was (and continues to be) that setting the bar too high is tantamount to setting yourself up for failure, even though that tendency seems to come with the territory. The zeal we feel in late December about the changes we are going to make in the new year can act as a rationalisation for the excesses we indulge in during the festive season. Worse, while thinking that way can lead to us giving ourselves a free pass in anticipation of the spectacular will-power we will bring to bear in January, it also puts too much pressure on us when the new year arrives and can make it harder for us to achieve our objectives.
There is more that can be said about how and why resolutions fail, but this blog series – as you will hopefully have noticed by now – is more concerned with what goes right in life than what goes wrong. That being so, what can we do to try to give ourselves the best chance of success in 2019? How can we lose weight/quit smoking/exercise more/drink less and generally stay on track throughout the year?
Some people are better than others when it comes to organisation and projecting ahead, but when it comes to resolutions, it seems clear – having a plan pays off. That’s not to say that we can’t take it day-by-day, but the ‘one day at a time’ mentality does not preclude having an overarching plan.
United States-based psychology professor John Norcross has written about the importance of planning as it relates to following through on resolutions in his book Changeology: 5 Steps to Realising Your Goals and Resolutions.
Norcross partially frames his ideas through the prism of the human tendency towards being routine driven. This can manifest in positive or negative ways, but in this context the idea is that if we can maintain good behaviours long enough for them to become routine, then those behaviours can become the norm for us. With regard to resolutions, that creates the potential for positive and long-lasting change.
So, how long does it take to transform conscious effort into a new routine? There is no definitive answer to that question, but Norcross points to research findings showing that it can take approximately three months for change to become routine. Beyond that, he also reports that by about six months into any given year, 40% of people will have stuck to their resolutions, and once they get that far, then they are likely to continue.
But how best to get that far? With regard to planning, Norcross emphasises the importance of avoiding snap decisions. This will be of little consolation to those of you made a resolution just after the midnight fireworks, but if you are still hanging there, keep going! As for Norcross’s idea of the ideal way to proceed, he maintains that the most successful will have spent at least one week getting their head around the idea of quitting or taking up whatever activity they are concerned with. Taking this time gives people the thinking space to come up with good strategies to get from where they are to where they want to be, e.g., if weight-loss is your thing, create modest short-term goals that, if sustained throughout the calendar year, would add up to a big achievement.
Norcross points to several other strategies that can help, including removing temptations/triggers that test your determination, tweaking your environment to support and reinforce positive change, avoiding self-blame when you experience inevitable bump in the road moments, and seek out social support, i.e., spend more time with friends who actively support your efforts and perhaps a little less with those who don’t.
Ultimately, you are the one will do the work, but if you approach the task in a well-thought-out manner, then you will increase your chances of success.
Mark Barry was awarded a PhD by University College Cork in 2015 for his research into adolescent well-being. He has lectured psychology at UCC since 2013 and is also a freelance writer.