I don’t want to sound pessimistic. In fact, I appreciate the power of optimism, as long as you temper your optimism with realism. But as I mentioned in a previous column, the sobering truth is that most New Year’s resolutions bite the dust by Valentine’s Day. Eventually, most dieters stray, smokers relapse, slobs create more clutter, and aspiring exercisers turn back into couch potatoes.
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It’s not that their intentions aren’t good. Rather, when it comes to keeping New Year's resolutions, most of us stack the odds against ourselves right from the start. Although we often blame ourselves when our resolutions fail, often it's the nature of the goals themselves that sets us up for failure. Willpower and dedication cannot compensate for goals that are unrealistic, such as going cold turkey on cigarettes after smoking two packs a day for 30 years, or suddenly transforming a deeply ingrained personality trait. The good news is that by making thoughtful decisions up front, we have a much better chance of succeeding.
Want to maximize your chance of success this year? Follow the S.M.A.R.T system to set your goals or tweak the ones you've already chosen.
Make sure your resolutions are:
Specific. The goal you set should be as straightforward as possible. How much weight do you want to lose? How many points of cholesterol do you want to improve? Define the specific goal you want to reach, along with the steps you are going to take to achieve it.
Measurable. Once you have a specific target, you need a way to measure your progress as you move toward achieving your goal. Instead of saying “I want to go to the gym more” say “I will work out on the elliptical machine at the gym for 30 minutes four times a week,” and keep track of how many times you do. Choose a goal that is quantifiable. Keep a journal and track your progress. Tracking keeps you accountable to yourself and sustains motivation over the long term. Also keep a record of how you feel as you move towards your objective. Chronicling your emotional reactions to the positive changes you make enhances your self-esteem and self-awareness along the way.
Attainable. The goal you set needs to be within your ability. That doesn't mean it should be easy; pursuing it may push you out of your comfort zone (if it that wasn't the case, you probably would have achieved it already). But the goal itself needs to be potentially achievable given the time and effort you're capable of investing. Instead of aiming to lose 20 pounds in a month, try to lose two pounds—once you achieve that goal, aim to lose another two pounds the following month. The feeling of success that comes from setting and achieving attainable goals keeps you motivated and gives you the momentum needed to continue making progress in the long run.
Realistic. Not to be confused with “attainable,” setting a realistic goal means that you devise a plan for attaining your goal that works for you. If you’re a lifetime smoker trying to quit smoking, gradually cut down on the number of cigarettes you smoke each day rather than quitting all at once. If your goal is to run a marathon, don’t go out tomorrow and try to run 10 miles.
Timely. Make sure to set a timetable for your goal, and for each step that will take you there. Timeliness adds urgency and reinforces accountability. Instead of pledging to "read more," decide that a month from now you will have finished that book you’ve been meaning to read. The timetable must be realistic, measurable, and attainable.
Two other tactics will aid you in keeping to your New Year's resolutions, or any other positive change you want to make in your life. First, be sure to enlist help. Many people find it is easier to keep resolutions when they have outside support and encouragement. Ask a trusted family member or friend to be an ally you can discuss your progress with. You want someone who can play the role of a coach, cheering you on and perhaps giving you a push when you need it.
Second, don’t get discouraged by setbacks and relapses. These are normal! Many resolutions require breaking with old, ingrained behaviors or attitudes. It takes time to transform habits and emotional reactions. So don’t give up because you ate a piece of cake or missed some gym time or snapped at a coworker or sibling. Genuine and lasting change does not come easily and it does not come overnight. It happens one day at a time, with a series of sustained, practical actions. If you are willing to be smart about pursuing your goal, you can be successful.