If Christmas music in supermarkets in October is too much for you, then I bet (like me) you get a bit narked by the barrage of resolution-inspired advertising for 'New Year, New You!' that starts appearing before you've even finished your turkey.
Don’t fall for it! Promise yourself now that you won’t rush out to stock up on Innocent smoothies, gym memberships and self-help bibles.
Back to my roots
I'm all for change. And sometimes it can come about quickly, but when it comes to making really fundamental changes in our habits and behaviour - we need to think about some strategies that really work. In other words - we need to give making changes in our lives some proper thought and genuine respect and start now.
So - for this week’s post I’m returning to my roots as a Psychology undergraduate to shine a light on some successful strategies for meaningful and lasting resolutions.
Resolution Reality Check - The Stats
The good news is that if you make a resolution - even just on a whim - you are 10 times more likely to change your behaviour than someone who makes no resolution at all. Curiously - if you're in your twenties you are also 3 times more likely to achieve that change than someone over 50.
The bad news is that despite good intentions, research shows that of the 45 percent of us who make New Year's resolutions every year, only 54% of us will keep them for 6 months and only 8% of people keep them for a year or more.
Before we learn about success let me just highlight two types of resolution that are virtually guaranteed to fail.
'Pie in the Sky' aka Resolution without Action.
This sounds obvious, but whatever you resolve to change must have concrete actions associated with it or you are just wishful thinking. In researching this I came across a lot of self-help websites with new-age notions about the ‘power of intention’ or ‘law of attraction’. Just wanting something badly enough without acting is not going to cut it if you want real change.
‘Resolution Dilution’ aka the Scattergun approach.
The most common resolution pit-fall is creating an extensive wish list of resolutions. We all know that changing one behaviour is hard enough, but a long list of major life changes all beginning on 1st January is a big ask and it diminishes the chances of succeeding at one - let alone all.
The key to success is having one or two as your priorities and working systematically to change them.
So what does work?
Eating an Elephant
New Year's resolutions fall into the area of research known as 'self-initiated change' which Behavioural Psychologists have studied extensively and found a number of key factors that can help improve your chance of success.
1. Habits Vs Resolutions
‘How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time’.
Think about your resolution as a new habit you want to gradually develop rather than a massive change to undertake in one go.
So - if you want to eat more healthily, start by changing one thing per day for a healthier choice - swap your dessert for fruit or a coffee for water. Good habits are just as powerful as bad ones, so develop them slowly and they will become habitual.
How gradually you develop this habit is the object of much debate.
Some models of behavioural change favour miniscule daily changes e.g. flossing just one tooth, doing 2 press ups or walking for 2 minutes. The key lesson here is one of consistency of behaviour which builds over time.
2. Avoiding the 'All or Nothing' Trap
Also known as 'dichotomous thinking', the all-or-nothing trap is thinking that if we break our resolution that we have failed completely.
Smoking is a perfect example - if we have that 'last cigarette' and vow never to smoke again as long as we live, we set ourselves up for failure because perfection is so hard to attain.
Giving up smoking has been shown to be more effective as a gradual withdrawal rather than going 'cold turkey'. Why?
Because failing often in a small way and then repeatedly getting back on track actually builds our long-term resilience.
The Secret? Preparation. Action. Maintenance.
This is a formula I’ve used a lot with patients over the years - especially for weight loss and giving up smoking - and it’s a well established approach to behavioural change used by psychologists.
You need to prepare for change by thinking about how you will create your new habit.
If you are trying to lose weight do some homework. Learn about nutrition, plan the meal or snack that you will change initially. Plan how you will reward yourself for positive change.
Likewise, prepare for problems, so think about the factors that may lead you to break the habit and how you will deal with them e.g. how will you deal with people offering you a cigarette, how will you cope with any temporary set backs?
It’s helpful to write up a plan of your intended actions and strategies.
Just do it! Set a start date and start taking small actions. Hopefully your preparation will help you to avoid the 'all-or-nothing' trap. Big life and health changes tend to take time so take baby steps and don't worry if you have the odd slip up.
Once you have taken action and are developing the new habit or behaviour it's a good time to contemplate what is helping to reinforce and maintain your habit and what is acting against it.
In other words, what do you need to do more of to keep it up? Do you need to reward yourself more? Do you need to change something in your environment or social circle to maintain the change or avoid a recurring problem?
Respect is due
As I said earlier, if you respect how hard it is to make fundamental changes in your life and not be whimsical in your approach you can achieve lasting change.
So - let’s give ourselves the best chance by thinking seriously about January 1st before January 1st arrives.
Have a great Christmas and New Year.
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