It’s that time of year again, as we go straight from the hectic (but hopefully happy) bustle of the Christmas season into the double edged sword of the New Year. New Year’s resolutions are a popular way to turn a corner on an old issue, or wipe the slate clean on an unwanted habit and start over.
And while this is a great opportunity to look your life in the face and make changes, it can be too easy to inadvertently let resolutions add stress, pressure, and guilt to your day. And nobody needs that.
Some studies show that as many as 50 – 80% of people abandon their resolutions after six months, often even sooner. But if you know yourself, understand a little bit about human behavior, and plan accordingly, you don’t have to join those statistics!
Here are some tips on making (and keeping) New Year’s resolutions that you can feel good about:
Avoid outsized resolutions that don’t have a clear path to achievement.
Grand goals sound great on paper … “I’m going to lose 50 pounds by June.” Or, “I’ll quit my two pack-a-day 20 year smoking habit cold turkey, or cut up all my credit cards and get rid of all my debt!” Who wouldn’t want to achieve those milestones? The danger is that lofty goals can quickly feel overwhelming. They take a long time to achieve, and most people don’t have that patience. When they don’t see rapid progress, they throw up their hands and give up.
Break a larger goal into smaller, achievable landmarks.
“I’d like to lose 5 pounds by Valentine’s Day.” Or, “I’m cutting back to one and a half packs over the next 30 days.” Sure, these aren’t as dramatic, but they are practical. With the right tools and support, you can make them happen.
Get specific, and focus on your day to day progress.
If you want to lose weight, make a list of specific steps you’ll take to do that, but avoid making sweeping deletions from your life, such as giving up all sugar or carbs. Think instead about where you can make smaller changes: If you usually eat two or three slices of pizza, can you stop at one or two?
Think about what has worked best for you in the past, and what hasn’t. Are you at your best in the mornings? That’s the time of day to try to work in your new habits. Planning to take on a difficult challenge as soon as you arrive home from work, tired and annoyed after your commute, is probably not the way to set yourself up for success.
Be kind and forgiving to yourself.
We’re all much more likely to offer understanding toward others than to ourselves, and changing old habits takes time. So be nice to yourself. You’re gonna have off days, and that’s okay. Don’t view an off day or a step backward as a failure. That’s the point where you’ll criticize yourself and give up. Tomorrow is a new day, and a fresh chance to work toward your goals.
Psychologists know that humans need time to break old habits and form new ones; we’re talking weeks here, not days. If you stick with your efforts, they will slowly pay off. We live in an era of instant gratification. Most resolutions require us to leave that mindset for a while and look at progress over weeks and months, rather than minutes, hours, or days.
Don’t forget that resolutions can involve fun topics also. Maybe this is the year you learn to draw, save up for that amazing trip to Iceland, or take up swing dancing.
For health related changes, always talk with your primary care doctor before getting started with an exercise program. Your doctor is also an excellent resource to help you quit smoking, or if you have concerns about alcohol or other substances. This article is not intended to be medical advice, and does not connote any type of doctor-patient relationship.
Diana Graham, M.D. is a psychiatrist who lives and practices in Raleigh, North Carolina. She received her medical training at Harvard Medical School and NYU School of Medicine. Diana also runs Bonnie’s Book Foundation, a small family nonprofit dedicated to improving children’s literacy by putting books in the hands and homes of at-risk kids, many of whom have no books of their own. Learn more at bonniesbooks.org.