To the extent that New Year's resolutions are the triumph of hope over experience (how did last year's go?), we are modern torch-bearers for time-honored human hopefulness. I rather like what that says about us!
The ancient Babylonians practiced the resolution craft, and according to historians often made a new year's pledge to return borrowed farm equipment. Where is that darn plowshare, anyway?
The Romans, who named January for us after their forward-and-back-facing god, Janus, often took stock of their past behaviors, and vowed to make improvements in the year ahead. We are told they frequently sought forgiveness from enemies -- who doubtless had close encounters with the Roman sword.
However the Babylonians and Romans fared, we tend to do rather poorly in making modern resolutions -- few of which involve either swords or plowshares -- stick. Most sources suggest that fewer than half survive past February, and at least one study suggests that less than 20 percent have a lifespan of two years or more. Based on personal observation, I'm surprised the numbers are that good.
To some extent, this poor performance is a by-product of the tradition itself. While we all make New Year's resolutions at the same time, there is no reason to think we are all comparably ready to make lasting behavior change at the same time.
The well-known "stages of change" from the science of behavior modification states very explicitly that we are not; some of us are ready, some are set, and some are already going. But others simply aren't there yet. So even as we honor the tradition of the resolution, perhaps we might fortify it with the use of modern insight, and modern tools.
I can think of few better sources of relevant insight than the venerable father of invention, Thomas Edison, who told us that genius is one-tenth inspiration and nine-tenths perspiration. If even genius is more about preparation than inspiration, how much more so the pledge to change our prevailing ways.
The ways in question likely relate to health, relationships, or both. Weight loss is generally at or near the top of the modern list; smoking cessation always makes the top 10. Treating ourselves and one another better is always on the short list as well.
I will focus on weight loss for illustration, both because it is apt to be the number one resolution again this year, and because I have been working on applying the tools of behavior modification science to weight loss for most of my career.
Recently, I have had the privilege of working with a team of colleagues to assemble a comprehensive, state-of-the-art weight management program that will launch in the New Year. I look forward to you having access to that program, but for now -- I can at least share the core principles.
While the New Year's resolution tends to be a "ready or not" kind of venture, attempting change for which you aren't truly ready is doomed to fail. Assess your motivation, and readiness, with a "decision balance." On a piece of paper, make a grid with "change / don't change" across the top, and "pros / cons" along the side. With your particular resolution in mind, fill out the grid, and then do the math. If the pros of change and the cons of the status quo have greater weight than their counterparts, the balance tips toward "go." But if not, you need to cultivate your will -- or pick a different resolution -- before you are likely to find a way forward.
The way, even when you have the will to follow it, is paved with skill. Here's where your own perspiration is required, because acquiring skills takes some work. In my work, we apply an approach called "impediment profiling," which we first developed for smoking cessation, and have subsequently applied to exercise, and most recently, in collaboration with Viocare, Inc, dietary change. As the name suggests, the method involves developing a personalized profile of the obstacles in your path, and then designing a route around them.
While expert impediment profiling requires expert help, you can certainly set off in that general direction by yourself, by resolving to look before you leap.
If you want to lose weight, do you know how to identify and choose more nutritious and less caloric foods? (Of particular interest to me, as many of you know.) Do you know how to cook with them? Do you know how to fill up on fewer calories so you can be thinner, without being hungry all the time? Do you know how to choose the best dishes on a restaurant menu? Do you know how to fit physical activity into your hectic daily routine?
If not, you need a friend, counselor, book, website, or program that can help you build the skills in question. One place to start your shopping for a credible option is www.healthfinder.gov (go to 'w' and you will find 'weight loss' on the list of options). Note that you will not find the suddenly trendy "Dukan Diet," the quick-fix weight loss choice of the mother of soon-to-be English Princess Kate Middleton, among the credible choices. Quick fixes are quicker disappointments.
Whether you are planning to beat a sword into a plowshare and return it to a Babylonian, be nicer to your mother-in-law, or drop a few pounds -- make this year's resolution matter by getting ready and set before you go. Get all ten of your tenths in a row, and grease the skids with the requisite dose of sweat. Prepare and plan. Identify the resources you will need (in the hope that I may have some to offer, I invite you to visit Turn the Tide Foundation and check out the programs there). Engage the support of your loved ones, because in unity, there is strength. Be patient, because slow and steady wins the race.
If you want to be thinner, healthier, happier in the New Year, I truly believe you can be. I just can't promise you'll get there without preparation, and perspiration.
So with that in mind, I convey to you and yours my very best wishes for a healthy, happy and slightly sweaty 2011!
Follow David Katz, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DrDavidKatz