By Barbara Pierce
Picture this drawing: A woman jogging, carrying weights. In the next drawing, she is sitting in a chair working the remote control. In the last picture, she is sitting on the floor stuffing chips and pizza into her mouth.
“The evolution of my New Year’s resolution” is the title of this cartoon by Shannon Geary in the Tufts Daily.
Pretty good description of how New Year’s resolutions go for most of us. We firmly resolve to do some good behavior regularly, or stop an undesirable habit. “It’s a new year! I’m going to change!” we declare, with every intention of sticking to our goal of adding a good practice or eliminating a bad practice.
The reality is that resolutions are tough to keep, most are set up for inevitable disappointment and eventual burn-out.
When our new habit gets challenging or boring, we abandon it for something easier. Or something more fun. Or something that offers more immediate gratification, like something that tastes really good with ketchup.
On average, 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail by the second week of February.
So how can you ensure that your determination to get healthier in 2021 sticks around past Valentine’s Day?
“We really can do anything we set our minds to,” says Jen Sincero in her book “Badass Habits.”
One of the main reasons we fail to stick to new good habits and ditch negative ones, she says, is that we do not embrace this desired habit as a new and valuable part of our identity.
“For example, if you decide you’re going to lose 30 pounds, along with filling your fridge with healthy low cal food and working out, you also need to become the person who weights 30 pounds less, who struts round like ‘Yeah, this is my body, these are my excellent eating habits; it’s who I am!’
“If you identify instead as the heavier version of yourself who somehow miraculously dropped 30 pounds, you’ll likely put the weight back on because you’re still identifying as someone with a weight issue.”
In AA, along with laying off the booze, you’re also asked to identify yourself at a meeting as: “Hi, I’m Janice and I’m an alcoholic.” By owning the fact you’re an alcoholic and cannot touch a drop of alcohol, you’re much more likely to successfully dump your drinking habit than if you identify yourself as “Hi, I’m Janice and, even though I wake up hungover and unsure of where I am on a regular basis, I can handle the random cocktail here and there, no problem.”
By shifting your identify to align with the habit you’re working to adopt, you prepare yourself for a totally new reality.
If you continue to feel like an impostor in this new habit, it probably won’t last, because it’s not really who you are.
Another example: If you decide you’re going to quit smoking, you stop hanging out with smokers, you get rid of cigarettes. You do all this, but if you identify yourself as a smoker who’s quitting, it’s very different than if you identify as somebody who doesn’t smoke. If you’re trying to quit but you’re still a smoker, you’re still thinking, “Maybe I’ll just have one puff; that’s okay while I’m quitting.” If you’re a nonsmoker, you don’t really think about smoking. It’s not on your radar.
Another reason people fail to keep their resolutions is that they’re not specific enough. For example, resolving to “exercise more” or “lose weight” are easy ways to set yourself up for failure, as they lack ways to mark progress and are unlikely to keep you motivated throughout the year.
Pick a specific goal — not just “I’ll get more exercise,” but specifically how much and when. Something like “I’m going to bike for 30 minutes four days per week.”
Instead of saying “I’ll lose weight!” think about how much weight will you lose? How will you measure your progress? What smaller goals can you break this down into? What obstacles could get in your way?
Break your goal down into small steps so you will have a feeling of accomplishment after you achieve each step, then reward yourself. We’re wired to respond to rewards.
“Your badass habits have the home team advantage,” Sincero adds. “You’ve been participating in them for a long time, and now you’re trying to make a change. So, when you fall off the horse, you gotta get right back on.”
When you don’t succeed, consider it as an experiment. What can you learn from why you didn’t succeed? What did work? What didn’t work? For example, if nailing down 30 minutes of exercise never sems to work, could you break it into 10-minute segments two/three times a day?
Research shows that it generally takes at least 18 days for a habit to become automatic, usually longer. So, give your resolution a fighting chance.
Barbara Pierce is a retired licensed clinical social worker with many years of experience helping people. If you would like to purchase a copy of her book, “When You Come to the Edge: Aging” or if you have questions for her, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.