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The Folly of New Year’s Resolutions

Why It’s Better to Make Changes at Your Own Speed

It’s that time of year again, when we decide to quit smoking, lose weight and spend more time with our family. It’s a new year, so how about a new you, right?

Yet few of us stick to our New Year’s resolutions for any sustainable period of time. (And many of us make the same ones year after year.) Just ask any health club manager. He’ll tell you that all those members who signed up so excitedly in January stopped coming around by St. Patrick’s Day, often sooner.

What’s worse, many who fail in their attempts to turn over a new leaf return to their vices with a vengeance; now the smokers have gone from one pack a day to two and the dieters have switched from tofu and celery to doughnuts and Doritos.

All of this begs the question: Why do we continue to make these empty promises to ourselves every year?

Of course, much of it has to do with our belief that the first day of the year is magical, transformative. For many of us, January 1st represents a clean slate, a new beginning, a fresh start – choose your euphemism, it’s all the same.

The truth is we’re no more likely to make a significant change in our lives between December 31 and January 1 than, for example, June 22 and June 23. January 1st is an artificial date for resolutions, much like February 14th is for romance. (If you love someone, do you really need a national reminder to show it, particularly with such banal gifts as roses and chocolate?)

We make changes for a variety of reasons. Perhaps we’ve hit rock bottom; we’ve had a brush with death, or we want to be a better role model for our children – none of which have anything to do with the date on the calendar.

When we make changes when we want to, rather than being influenced by the calendar, they have much more meaning to us. More importantly, it greatly increases the likelihood that we follow through with our plan.

A second problem is that declaring your New Year’s resolutions has become less about personal choice and more about societal expectation.

Each year between Christmas and New Year’s Day, friends and colleagues ask us about our resolutions for the upcoming year. We feel obligated to come up with something because everyone else seems to have made a resolution and we don’t want to feel left out or appear that we’re not trying to improve ourselves. So, we provide a canned response like “exercise more” without really meaning it, dooming ourselves to failure.

Another problem is that most people don’t understand how difficult it is to make changes. Lasting change takes time and often involves many fits and starts. That’s because old patterns die hard, even when we want to destroy them.

However, many of us believe that come January 1st we need to make a clean break with past behavior, or begin a new behavior altogether. So, people go cold turkey with their vice or they throw themselves headlong into some new activity like jogging and believe that some nebulous inner strength will act as a substitute for any real plan, one that involves accountability and measurable, realistic goals.

When we invariably slip up – and so many of us do — we tend to believe that we have failed in some deep and meaningful way and we return to our old ways. This is faulty thinking.

Ask any substance abuse counselor and she’ll tell you that relapse is not failure, it’s simply part of the recovery process. Most addicts require several relapses, of varying lengths, before complete abstinence.

To put it another way, change isn’t a sprint around the block; it’s two steps forward and one step back. Expect bumps in the road, embrace the little victories and keep moving in the direction of your goal.

A few tips on making changes:

  • Keep it realistic and measurable (it’s easier to stick to a goal of 20 minutes of walking per day than the vague ‘work out a few times a week’)
  • Limit yourself to one change at a time
  • Do something you genuinely want to do rather than something you think you should do (for example, don’t vow to drop 30 pounds if what you really want to do is learn Japanese)

So, this year break from tradition and resist the temptation to make a New Year’s resolution. Instead, make changes at your own pace throughout the year. You’ll find that you’re happier and healthier for having done so.

This article appeared on 4therapy.com in December 2007.