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Firming Resolve

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By Dan Gordon '85

Published Jan 1, 2012 12:00 AM


What is the psychology behind New Year's resolutions, and why are the vast majority of promises we make to ourselves broken before spring? An expert offers insights and tips on how to fulfill our best intentions.

art

Illustration by Alessandro Gottardo

I'm going to lose weight. I'm quitting smoking. I'm going to be a better person …and this year, I mean it. If you're hearing these types of proclamations lately — maybe even out of your own mouth — it must be the New Year, when gym memberships soar and earnest declarations about life changes abound. And yet, for too many of us, these vows are likely to be just distant memories by spring.

Kicking It

Many resolutions are about kicking habits, and a lot of the advice on keeping resolutions comes from addiction treatment. Learn more about staying on track at the UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Programs website at www.uclaisap.org.

According to Suzette Glasner-Edwards '98, a research psychologist with the UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Programs, it's only natural to use the turning of the calendar as a time to embark on behavioral changes. "It's symbolic of starting with a clean slate," she says. "As much as we try not to be, a lot of us are black-and-white thinkers — either fully engaged in something or completely disengaged. If someone has been thinking about doing this for a while, the new year has a certain appeal as the time to start."

If you've resolved to make an important change this year, she adds, you've already taken a positive step: Simply making that firm promise to yourself increases your likelihood of success. Of course, that might not be enough. What distinguishes those who are able to keep their resolutions from those who don't? Research has shown that people most likely to succeed are those who are strategic in how they set about to make the desired change, Glasner-Edwards notes.

Here are her suggestions:

Establish a Reward System

At regular intervals, set achievable goals and promise yourself that when they are met, you will treat yourself, whether it's going out to dinner or buying something you've wanted. When collecting your reward, acknowledge that you've earned it. "It's about taking the time to pat yourself on the back, frequently and tangibly," says Glasner-Edwards.

Tell the World

By announcing your intention to change to others, you make yourself more accountable. "A lot of people don't like to say, ‘I'm trying to lose weight' or ‘I'm trying to quit smoking,' because they don't want to experience that sense of disappointment if they aren't able to achieve the goal," says Glasner-Edwards. She suggests recruiting friends and family members who are the most positive and supportive, telling them your goal and inviting them to check in on your progress. If they're likely to feel a bit let down by your failure, that's not such a bad thing. Fearing others' disappointment can be motivating, as is knowing that you will be applauded should you succeed.

Remove Barriers

Think about what might hinder your chances of meeting your goal and clear those hurdles in advance. If you're trying to eat well or cut out alcohol, enlist others in your house to keep the home free of what you're trying to avoid. If child care or other responsibilities always seem to get in the way of going to the gym, get babysitting or whatever else you need to ensure unencumbered time.

Avoid Temptations

Be smart, not strong. That's what Glasner-Edwards and colleagues often tell patients they're treating for addiction. "Many people like to test their fortitude," Glasner-Edwards says. "They will say, ‘I'm going to go to a party where everyone is drinking and if I can resist, it means I've succeeded.' " That might be OK once you're confident the lifestyle change you've made is permanent, but at least in the earlier stages, it's best not to tempt fate.

Keep a List

Write down the reasons you're doing what you're doing and keep those reminders accessible — in your wallet, on your refrigerator — to draw strength from in times of weakness. Include the most powerful reasons on such a list: If you're trying to quit smoking, for example, maybe it's a friend or relative who died of heart disease or lung cancer, or a partner who doesn't like the way the habit makes you smell.

Stay Positive

If you are constantly down on yourself for failing to meet a goal, the process of adopting a new behavior will begin to feel unpleasant, and you'll be more likely to decide it's not worth it. If your goal was to work out three times a week, and you managed to do it only twice this week, it's more constructive to congratulate yourself for having exercised more than you used to than to beat yourself up for having failed. Allow partial success.

If at First You Don't Succeed …

You'd been doing so well in sticking with your diet, but last night that dessert tray got the better of you and now you're drowning in remorse. You'd been working out religiously for a month but you've blown it off for a week now and … well, maybe it was unrealistic to think you could do this. Such is the thinking for many who experience setbacks in their efforts to change, but Glasner-Edwards cautions against having that mind-set.

"If you think about how long it takes to learn a certain behavior, it makes sense that it would take time to unlearn it," she says. "If you fail, it doesn't mean you won't succeed the next time — and you don't have to wait until next January to try again."

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