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Friday, December 23, 2005

The Problem with New Years Resolutions

This is the time of year that people often decide upon New Years resolutions. While there is nothing wrong with making a resolution, my clients often tell me that they often don't follow through with them. What are some things that you can do to make changes in your behavior and make them stick?

First of all, while New Years Day may be a convenient time to decide to make behavior changes, realize that there is nothing magical about it. Treating New Years Day as some kind of magical point in time could make you discouraged and wanting to quit altogether if you relapse. If your behavior change relapses to your old behaviors on January 26, then January 27 is just as good to begin all over again. There is nothing magical about January 1.

Similarly, don't let setbacks ruin your determination. Setbacks are normal. Relapses happen. It's only human. Sometimes a relapse makes people feel hopeless and helpless. While some people can stop drinking or smoking or some other bad habit all at once and forever, that is not the most typical pattern of change.

Thirdly, make a list of all the reasons why you really want to change. What are all the advantages of changing and all the disadvantages of not changing?

Fourth, if there are circumstances which act as trigger events for you negative behavior, remove them. For example, if you are trying to diet, and you are snacking too much, remove the snacks from view. In fact, remove them from the house altogether. If you are trying to stop smoking, remove not only cigarettes, but also the lighters, ashtrays and anything which would remind you of smoking.

Fifth, create a setting which encourages healthy behavior. Again, using the dieting example, tempt yourself with healthy foods. If you are reaching for healthy foods, then you are not reaching for unhealthy foods. If you are satisfied with healthy foods, then you will not crave unhealthy foods as much.

Sixth, reinforce yourself for behavior change. Treat yourself to something positive in a healthy way as a reward for positive behavior change.

Seventh, watch out for negative thinking and don't allow negative thoughts to undermine your behavior change. Some typical sabotaging thoughts might be, "I can't do this," "I don't deserve to have things go well in my life," and "one relapse means that I have failed altogether."

Eighth, take it one step at a time. Work from one success to another. Don't make it into an all or nothing proposition ("Either I lose a hundred pounds or I haven't lost anything.")

Ninth, focus on the process of healthy behavior and not simply eliminating negative behavior. For example, instead of thinking that one will NOT eat, focus on eating in a healthy manner. Every meal that you eat that is healthy is a success. This is a different way of thinking from focusing on what you are not going to do. Eat healthy three meals a day, and you are having three successes a day. One failure is only one failure among many successes. Life itself is a process. The process can be healthy or not. It can be positive or not. Don't just focus on the end goal. Also focus on daily process of living your life in a healthy way.

Tenth, realize that when you decrease a negative behavior, you are essentially creating a type of vacuum. There is a saying that "Nature abhors a vacuum." That is, a vacuum tends to suck things into it. If a person has been smoking, they have been lighting up, smoking cigarettes, emptying ashtrays, going to the store for more cigarettes, and so on. These are behaviors that fill time. If they give up smoking, there is now extra time, and there is a vacuum of sorts. They need to fill the time with something positive and constructive or the extra time on their hands will "suck" the old behaviors right back. If a child is writing on a wall with crayon, you can punish them and they will stop. But if you don't give them constructive alternatives, they may go right back to doing it. On the other hand, if you go to the toy store and bring back a white board with markers or a large paper tablet with markers and encourage them to mark on it, then they are much less likely to go back to drawing on the wall. This is because you have filled the vacuum. So if you give up on one behavior, look for positive behaviors which will give you something to do with your hands, or your mouth, or your time.