Every year, people make resolutions to change something in their lives, whether it is weight, health, relationships, or kicking a bad habit. Unfortunately, resolutions don’t always lead to results. Lifestyle changes can be difficult to implement, so here is a guide to making and keeping your resolutions.
1. Explore your personal qualities and choose which ones you want to change
Make a list of all of your qualities, including those you consider positive and those you would like to change. It is important to include your positive qualities so that you can utilize them for making changes. Choose one quality to focus on. Trying to change everything at once is likely to backfire and can become overwhelming. If you start with the change you believe will be easiest, you build your cofidence and practice your skills before tackling the more difficult challenges.
Note: I have included practice worksheets for each step. The italics indicate an example of the kinds of answers you might have for each question.
Practice Observing Qualities:
- Hard worker
- Care about others
- Spend too much money
What I would like to change:
- Spend too much money
Using my strengths to make changes:
Change #1: Overweight
Strength: Hard worker (I am good at following through on a plan and persisting when I have a goal). I can think of this as a project at work. When I am tempted to "get lazy", I can ask myself what I would do if this were a work project.
Change #2: Spend too much money
Strength: Creative (I think outside the box). I can use this to come up with ways to make whatever I am tempted to buy or to creatively re-use what I already have.
Change #3: Smoking
Strength: Care about others (I would never want to hurt my friends and family and often go out of my way to take care of them). Every time I have the urge to smoke, I can picture in my head the faces of my friends and family when I am in my death bed many years before I should be. I can think of my grandchildren never knowing me and of my children not being able to benefit from the wisdom I am accumulating. I can imagine being hooked up to an oxygen tank and relying on my family to care for me.
Choose one to focus on first:_______________________________
2. Decide to Change
Intention is the key to change. You must have a clear intention to change your life, or you will not even know what you are trying to do. Are your behaviours and thoughts regarding this area fully intentional? Chances are, if it is something you intend to change, you have been responding automatically to your experiences. As soon as you set an intention to change this area of your life, you focus your attention on it. You can begin to notice which behaviours are automatic. You can begin to recognize when the urges come up and make a decision to either do something different or continue to behave the same way you always have. This opportuinity to choose puts the power in your own hands.
Do your best to keep the emphasis on your own behaviours and experiences. Other people might have done things to you that led to you responding, but they do not force you to keep doing it. The blessing and the curse of relationships with other people is that they influence us and impact us, but they cannot control us. No one else can control your emotions or make you smoke 20 cigarettes a day. This means that you have the power to change how you respond to the situation, rather than feeling helpless because you are telling yourself that someone else makes you feel or do something.
Practice Understanding my Behaviour:
Answer these questions for yourself:
When do I usually experience this thing that I would like to change ?
What are my emotions before, during, and after I experience it?
Which of my beliefs about the world and myself are relevant? (example: Which beliefs lead to me spending too much money? Is it because I believe I will fill a need? Do I believe that owning something will help me feel better? Maybe I feel more in control of my life when I go shopping.)
Why do I wish to change it? What are the outcomes I no longer wish to experience?
Pros to Staying the Same:
It is familiar
It is easier
My life is not that bad the way it is
Cons to Staying the Same:
I am tired of hating my body
It is not healthy
It isn't working for me anymore
Pros to Changing:
I would feel better about myself
I would be less likely to get sick
I could climb stairs without huffing and puffing
Cons to Changing:
It is hard
I don't know what to expect: what if people expect too much of me?
People might think I'm doing it because that person called me fat
Note: When doing Pros/Cons it is important to write out all of them. It is not necessarily about the number of items in each section. Some are more important than others, so numbers will not tell you what to do. Your answer will come from doing the exercise, as you find yourself leaning toward one decision or the other.
3. Get Specific
Focus on one quality you would like to change and break it down into specific behaviours.
Practice Observing Specific Behaviours:
What I intend to change: Overweight
Specific Behaviours: eat when not hungry, eat unhealthy snacks, drink sugary drinks, eat more than I need to feel satiated
4. Plan Responses to each Behaviour
Once you have figured out exactly which behaviours need to change in order for you to accomplish your goal, you can change them. Do not try to accomplish all of them at once. Instead, pick one at a time. It is much easier to pick one behaviour, get used to that change, then move on to the next one.
Practice Changes to Specific Behaviours:
What I intend to change: Overweight
Specific Behaviour changes:
Eat When Not Hungry: Notice how my body feels before choosing to eat. If I can feel hunger pangs, I know I am hungry.
Eat Unhealthy Snacks: I will keep healthy snacks in my desk drawer at work and eat an apple or a handful of almonds when I need a snack at home.
Drink Sugary Drinks: I will drink only water or unsweetened tea. If I get bored of water, I will add fruit to my water.
Eat More Than I Need: I will serve myself small servings, using salad plates. If I am still hungry after finishing the food on my plate, I will get a second serving of vegetables.
5. Set up Rewards for smaller goals and the final goal
If it was easy for you to make this change, you would have done it already. Adding in rewards (read, "motivation") will help you keep going when it gets tough. Some goals do not have natural rewards, so it can be even more difficult to keep going. For example, quitting smoking is difficult and the rewards are not always obvious right away, especially if you are cranky without the nicotine. It is therefore important that you build in your own rewards. Building a system of rewards can be fun! Start by making a list of things you enjoy. If you need help, here is a list of pleasurable activities you can draw from. Make sure none of these rewards are the actual behaviour you are trying to stop doing. If you are quitting smoking, the last reward you should use is a cigarette! Then, break the list into "little" rewards, "medium rewards", and "big reward". The little rewards are for mini-goals, like going four hours without a cigarette. The medium rewards build on the smaller rewards. You might choose to give yourself a medium reward if you go a day with only 15 cigarettes rather than 20, for example. The big reward is for reaching your goal, in this case no cigarettes all day. The Mega reward would be for going two weeks without smoking, or a month, or whatever you have decided is a long enough time to deserve it. For example, you might book a cruise for yourself when you reach the goal of two months without a cigarette. The key here is that you start small, recognizing each step along the way. If you start out just looking at two months without smoking, it could be very diffcult to succeed, but going 4 hours isn't quite as hard to imagine or to follow up.
It is important to choose rewards that you will not otherwise get. If your reward is to play 5 minutes of Candy Crush, then you only play Candy Crush when you have earned it. If your Mega reward is a cruise, you only get to book your cruise if you have reached your final goal of two months without a cigarette. Also, you might want to be flexible with your rewards. What you find motivating could change along the way, requiring a revamp of your reward structure. It will get to a point where the smaller goals are too easy and you need to change which behaviours are linked to which level of reward.
This step is easiest to do with help. Having someone help you come up with a system will give you accountability -an important part of change- and realistic goals and rewards. You might also ask someone to be the "keeper" of your rewards. If you allow yourself to read that new book only after you are down to 15 cigarettes per day, you can give that book to a friend to hold for you, only to be given back when you are at your interim goal of 15 cigarettes per day.
List of rewards:
Little: 5 minutes of Candy Crush, Whipped cream on my afternoon coffee drink, check my social media for 5 minutes, flirt with that attractive person in a neighbouring office, listen to a favourite song, give myself a footrub
Medium: Start that new book I've been wanting to read, purchase a new DVD/CD/album on iTunes or Netflix, go out to the movies with friends, make a special meal at home with candles and nice table settings, take an afternoon to follow my whims and do whatever I please, get a massage
Big: Spend a weekend away, take a short road trip out of town, purchase that new t.v. I've been eyeing, Go skiing
Mega: Cruise, Vacation in Mexico, Renovation of a room in my house
How to earn rewards:
Little: 4 hours without smoking
Medium: Every time I smoke one less cigarette during the day
Big: An entire day without smoking a cigarette, then three days witohut a cigarette, then a week without a cigarette
Mega: Two months without smoking
6. Plan in "vacations" and allow for "slips"
Change can be difficult and people often lose hope when they find themselves "slipping" or "relapsing". Believe it or not, this is a natural part of change. You are used to doing things a certain way. The new way is hard and does not always feel good. Planning a "vacation" from the change can give you a controlled method for "slipping", therefore keeping you from feeling like you have failed. It helps to contain any slips that happen, giving you guidelines to follow. Anyone who has ever overcome addiction will tell you that you can expect to relapse at least once before you reach your goal. The key is to learn from the slip and keep going.
A vacation from change is a planned "slip." You allow yourself a day off or a specific opportunity to engage in the behaviour you have been working to change. It can be like a carrot, helping you maintain when you are tempted. For example, if you are changing your habit of overspending, you might allow yourself to attend one sale every month. That way, when you are tempted to overspend you can tell yourself, "I will have an opportunity to spend money without guilt on my vacation day." Since you are consciously choosing to "slip", some of the intensity of the activity will likely diffuse, as well. Without the guilt and the anxiety, knowing why you are doing it, the draw of the behaviour changes. I like this one because it is an experience of decreasing intensity, rather than just an understanding of it. When you engage in your behaviour on purpose and with purpose, you feel the difference in the control you have over your own behaviour. A note of caution: If the behaviour you are changing is an addiction, do not try this without professional support. Addicted individuals often have great difficulty limiting the activity. A vacation could then turn into an uncontrolled relapse, which is not the point of a vacation.
Should you experience a "relapse", however, do not despair! A relapse is a golden opportunity to figure out which kinds of things make you react with this behaviour and to plan ahead for future temptations. You will need to do a thorough analysis of the relapse, exploring your thoughts and emotions before, during, and after the relapse. You will write down what the outcomes were and make a plan for dealing more effectively with similar situations in the future.
Practice Relapse Analysis:
Describe the Relapse: I went out to lunch with my friend to my favourite mall. As we were walking back to the parking garage, I noticed a sale at HMV. I remembered that I've been wanting to get the newest season of my favourite tv show, so I went in. $150 later, I walked out and thought, "Screw it! I've already messed up. I might as well enjoy myself." I spent another $250 at the bookstore.
Behaviour(s): spent $400 at the mall
Thought(s): Screw it, I've already messed up. I might as well enjoy it. I know I will be buying this DVD anyway. It's always better to get it on sale. My partner is going to be soooo angry! I can't help it, I'm weak.
Emotion(s): excitement, anxiety, sadness, guilt, shame
Before the Relapse: My partner and I had a big fight. I had been feeling pretty good about my self-control, not overspending at Christmas and staying home on Boxing Day. When I mentioned it, my partner said, "yeah, okay" in a sarcastic tone of voice. I felt guilty for all the times I had overspent, but I ended up yelling at my partner and we slept with our backs to each other all night.
Urges: hit my partner, go shopping, break up with my partner, flirt with someone else
Thought(s): my partner doesn't care or understand. I have been so much better than I used to be; I should get credit for it. My friend understands how hard I try, why can't my partner see?
Emotion(s): resentment, anger, hurt, shame
After the relapse: I felt so ashamed. I wanted to hide the shopping bags, but I knew my partner would see the credit card statement. We had another fight and now my partner is out with friends and I am alone. I am scared that we will break up. I wonder if I will ever be able to keep from overspending.
Outcome(s): Feeling like a failure, possible loss of relationship, definite damage to trust in relationship, difficulty paying bills.
Thought(s); I am such a loser. My partner was right not to trust me. I can't do this.
Emotion(s): shame, sadness, guilt
What I can do differently next time I am tempted: meet my friend somewhere besides the mall, especially if I am upset; remember the consequences from this relapse; find another way of expressing my emotions, like writing or painting; go for a run instead of shopping
Part of the success of programs like AA and Weight Watchers is the accountability that is built into them. Weight Watchers has weekly weighing and AA has daily meetings for participants to share their progress and their challenges. The value of accountability, especially to other people, is that it forces you to be honest with yourself and take responsibility for your behaviour. If you slipped, you cannot get away with telling yourself that you didn't slip and you have to plan for dealing with future temptations. Some people are able to keep themselves accountable with charts or journalling. Most of us need additional help. Change can be difficult to affect and it requires effort.
If you can, find a friend to share your change program with you. You can have regular phone calls or meetings for comparing notes and sharing obstacles. Your friend can also be the "keeper" of rewards, such as the book I mentioned in Step 5. It is important to be honest with your friend. If you slip, your friend can help you through the relapse analysis. If you succeed in all of the week's goals, your friend can congratulate you and you will know it is deserved.
If your change goal is a popular one, such as weight loss or smoking, you might try joining a group. The group can serve as your source for accountability. It can help keep you on track if you get distracted. Who knows? You might even meet some new friends! If you do not have a friend to help you and you do not have access to a group or do not like groups, you can get professional help, such as a psychologist or a coach, to help you and keep you accountable.
Changing old habits and unhealthy behaviours can be difficult, but you are heading in the right direction. If you have tried before without reaching your goal, just notice what worked and what did not work. It was not a waste of time because you learned something about what does not work for you. You can make the changes you crave. Use persistence! If you have it naturally, utilize it and celebrate that you have such a wonderful strength. If you are not naturally persistent, this is an opportunity for you to build that strength.
Bonnie J. Sullivan, PhD; Rpsych #3245