Don't Sabotage Your New Year's Resolution Efforts Before You've Even Started: 6 Simple Steps

If we come at New Year's resolutions with a teeth-gritted determination to change, we inevitably defeat ourselves. Why? Because when we assume a fighting stance, bracing ourselves against temptations, we actually limit the resources that we bring to our challenge.
12/31/2012 04:34 pm ET Updated Mar 02, 2013

Is 2013 the year you want to eliminate your debt, your extra 17 pounds, your excessive drinking? Laura wants to become a non-smoker. She wanted to last year and the year before. She's gotten good at quitting smoking -- good at picking it up again as well. Like so many of us who feel tyrannized by our own cravings, Laura beats herself up for being too weak to defeat hers. She's tried nicotine patches, Wellbutrin, acupuncture, acupressure, hypnotism, reward systems, penalty systems... Like a swimmer ambushed by a rogue riptide, she summons her maximum willpower, thrashes mightily to fight the cravings, then, drained of all willpower, exhausted by the fight, she gives up and shamefully resumes the habit she'd sought to overcome.

For the approximately 45 percent of us with New Year's resolutions, "baby steps" might work better than severe "cold turkey" surges of willpower (see Newsweek's Oliver Burkeman column). And as Matt Cutt's must-see TED talk shows, committing to one single behavioral change for one month can yield extraordinary results.

But what about our inner demons that thrive on sabotaging our best intentions? The ones that nudge and prod us to succumb "just once" to our cravings for nicotine, Chablis, more sleep instead of a 6 a.m. spin class, that pricey indulgence, this delectable warm chocolate lava cake lightly dusted with confectioners sugar?

If we come at New Year's resolutions with a teeth-gritted determination to change, we inevitably defeat ourselves. Why? Because when we assume a fighting stance, bracing ourselves against temptations, we actually limit the resources that we bring to our challenge because we are stressed out, rather than relaxed in ourselves. That means we are closed off to the very assets we need during the most difficult times: our creative and resilient coping resources. (See prior post: "When Stress Is Soul-Shredding: A 3-Step Plan.") We physically cannot sustain a heightened level of stress for protracted periods of time, so we crater and relapse.

Worse, the more driven ferocity we bring to our resolution, the more we empower the very problem we're trying to overcome. When we prepare to engage like we're facing an enemy, we convey to ourselves that we're in for a dreaded fight. Think of the advice we give to bullied kids: "If you act like the bully scares you, you'll only empower him/her; bullies feed on fear. " Bad habits feed on white-knuckled cravings.

Finally, most of us have a defiant streak that drives us to oppose any "shoulds." The minute we feel a scrutinizing "should" looking over our shoulders, we get defiant. Maybe we want to prove to ourselves that we don't have to conform to anyone's attempts to control our behavior -- even when we're the ones trying to impose control on ourselves! This dynamic can get amplified when we rely on external products or programs. In Laura's case, the smoking cessation aids became the repositories of her motivation to quit. She herself didn't "own" the drive to overcome her cravings. But she did "own" the urge to oppose those external anti-smoking products by resuming her habit.

Here's what I urge Laura, and you, to consider to help out with those defiant self-defeating demons. This is not a "program" but a preparatory mindset to get and keep yourself on your own "team" before you start:

1) Before you start, sit down and catalogue every single way your habit takes a toll on you: physically, medically, socially, financially, vocationally, psychologically and, if relevant, parentally (what are you modeling for your kids?).

2) Include in your list your psychological self-abuse after you indulge. Do you recognize what I'm referring to? Think of it. Do you ever say to yourself: "Wow, I'm really pleased with myself that I got drunk/ordered chocolate chip pancakes with ice cream and bacon for breakfast/racked up a record-breaking balance on my credit card bill/smoked another pack today!" No, you condemn yourself for your lack of self-restraint, then feel so contemptible that you sooth/punish yourself with more indulgences that you then feel wretched about. And so it continues. This is how the negative vortex of self-sabotaging behavior gets perpetuated.

3) Write down the benefits you will enjoy when you liberate yourself from the tyranny of your self-defeating behaviors: again, physically, medically, socially, financially, vocationally, psychologically, and, if relevant, parentally. Consider too, how much brighter and lighter you will feel when freed from those self-hate attacks. At this juncture, some folks discover that they seem to need to feel bad about themselves. They feel oddly empty and alone without that inner self-berating loop. They may come to recognize that they are treating themselves the same ruthless way someone important to them treated them in their past. Their self-hate attacks keep them feeling connected to that person, however awful it might feel. Therapy can be very helpful at this juncture.

4) Can you fully align yourself with the mindset that you really and truly want to free yourself from the clutches of your overindulgence? In other words, can you earnestly embrace that you want to change, out of your own heart of hearts, instead of should change, out of some societal judgmental imperative, which leads you to demoralized defeat?

5) Here's a blasphemous suggestion: If you cannot get yourself into a genuine place of wanting this change for yourself, you might consider not embarking on an attempt to change your behavior until you can! The thing is, you cannot truly chose to change unless you have a real choice not to change.

6) If you can commit to really wanting this change for yourself, then it's time to practice your physiological stance of "releasing." This crucial posture replaces the old, counter-productive approach of clenched bracing against cravings, which inspires not confidence but fear and weakness. Releasing your cravings empowers you, because you are in the stronger position of electing to let them go. How do you assume a "releasing" stance in relation to cravings?

A. Relax: Practice deep breathing (see prior post: "When Stress Is Soul-Shredding: A 3-Step Plan") to settle your core so you have a heavy centered calm in your gut, and you're "idling lower" with optimal access to your best coping resources.

B. Release: Envision opening your hands to release your habit and its cravings to the universe. Your old self-destructive habit, once a comfort, has outlived its utility and overstayed its welcome. It is now a burden to free yourself from.

C. Remind Yourself. Reread: This is not about depriving yourself, but about nurturing and freeing yourself from the tyrannical grip of an unwanted dependency. Reread both your lists that support your New Year's resolution, and remember, you don't have to change, you want to and choose to change.