01/03/2014 04:15 pm ET Updated Mar 05, 2014

New Year's Resolutions: 6 Ways to Achieve Lasting Change

Despite the burning desire for chocolate, extramarital sex, blackjack, cocaine, alcohol, cigarettes, and the like that usually shows up somewhere around Jan. 3, New Year's resolutions can play a significant role in establishing and maintaining positive behavioral change. However, as nearly everyone knows -- addict, couch potato, or otherwise -- such resolutions are often much easier to make than keep.

Typically, New Year's resolutions are pretty simple: "I will quit drinking permanently," or, "I will stop eating sugar," or, "I will stop looking at porn and cheating on my spouse," etc. Not to mention all the lesser commitments made to diet and exercise. These are all without doubt great resolutions, but quite difficult to maintain. (If eliminating troublesome behaviors was easy, we wouldn't need to make resolutions; we'd just drop the upsetting conduct and get on with our lives.) The good news is that recognizing the difficulty of long-term behavior modification is actually part of the change process. Another meaningful piece of the process involves recognizing the concrete steps you can take toward meeting your ultimate goals. New Year's resolutions can be especially effective here. Six that you may find helpful are:

1. Make yourself accountable. Write down your goals and share them with others. After you do this, you can frequently check in with them about your progress, giving yourself a much better chance for lasting behavior change. Sadly, most people, addicts in particular, attempt to alter longstanding patterns of problematic behavior on their own, often for years, without success. This failure is no surprise, as isolation and the shame of living life imperfectly are conditions that allow these problems to flourish in the first place. Getting your issues out in the open so that friends, family members, and loved ones can help you along the path of living differently is a terrific idea. Being accountable to others makes it much harder to slip up and return to old behavior patterns. Turning personal growth into a joint effort is one of the reasons 12-step programs and other support groups work so well, so whatever you are trying to do, involve others in the process.

2. Find trained (professional) help that is issue-specific. For some, the most effective way to jump-start behavior change is to make an appointment with a local therapist, nutritionist, physical trainer, addiction treatment specialist, etc. Find someone who specializes in (and is preferably licensed and/or credentialed in) your area of concern. If you live in a large urban area, you will find plenty of addiction and behavioral health therapists whose work is focused on drugs, alcohol, sex, eating, gambling, spending, and all the rest. Should your behavior problem be actively threatening to your life (health concerns, job loss, relationship loss, arrest, etc.), you might want to consider (and your therapist might well recommend) a brief period of residential or intensive outpatient treatment. These concentrated programs separate you from the people, places and things that drive your addiction, at the same time helping to ground you in the process of change so you can eventually return to your regular life with less chance of relapse. Treatment centers will also (nearly always) start you on the path of fulfilling your next resolution...

3. Attend and participate in 12-step meetings, faith based support/recovery groups, and/or group therapy. Letting friends, family, and employers in on what you are doing is great, but most of these folks are not themselves attempting to make profound life changes. So even though they are probably very supportive, they don't truly know what you are going through. Attending support groups on a regular basis not only helps with accountability, it is a highly useful way to meet and interact with people who "speak your language" and know how to help you through the rough patches you are likely to experience.

4. Change your routine. People needing to change problematic behaviors are people who engage in similar patterns of behavior over and over again, somehow expecting different (less troublesome) results. Consider the alcoholic who gets up, goes to work, and as soon as work ends he (or she) stops off at the bar for "a drink." Before the alcoholic knows it, he or she is drunk once again. And this happens day after day after day. When trying to change his or her behavior, he or she will need to do something different after work--maybe going to the gym and then an AA meeting. Honestly, the specific changes to the routine don't matter all that much, as long as they interrupt the patterns, rituals and associations that lead to the problematic substances or behaviors.

5. Find out about and focus on your physical health. Losing weight, quitting drinking or drugs, stopping smoking and similar endeavors are not just about the things you no longer do; these efforts are a lifestyle change across the board. Start off by establishing some new, healthy, perhaps even rigid (at first) routines for yourself and don't vary. This involves all the typical stuff you already know about like eating a healthy breakfast every day, exercising at least 20 or 30 minutes daily, even if that exercise is nothing more than going for a walk, and getting a physical checkup. If you haven't been to the doctor or dentist in a year or more -- and too many of us have not -- schedule a visit to make sure things are OK.

6. Resolve to try new things (have some fun). This is especially useful for people who've been playing the behavior change game for a while and feel as if they're not making progress, though newcomers can also benefit. The simple truth is that taking a cooking class, starting a new hobby, redecorating the house, re-entering the dating pool, and just about any other new activity can invigorate a seemingly stalled life and program of change. If you can find another person working on problems similar to your own (perhaps in a 12-step meeting or some other issue-specific support group) with whom you can enjoy these activities, all the better.

If you are one of the thousands of people who've decided to pursue a better life beginning right now, I applaud you. The road ahead is not an easy one to travel, but it is well worth the effort. In fact, I have never met a person who kept his or her New Year's resolution of behavior change who wasn't grateful for the transformation. By no means does eliminating a problematic behavior or two make for a perfect life. Life happens no matter what, both good and bad, and there's not much that any of us can do about it. But they don't have to drink or use or overeat or gamble or smoke or whatever and make things worse like they did before, and that's pretty darn good.

As a brief recap, I want to point out that the first three resolutions I've suggested all involve getting your problem out in the open and accepting help from people who are able and willing to provide it, be they family and friends, others battling a similar issue, or trained professionals. Local therapists specializing in addictions and compulsive behaviors can be found online and in the phonebook, as can treatment facilities dealing with just about any issue. Twelve-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and the like can easily be located via a simple Internet search. All 12-step groups list meeting times and locations on their websites. Most groups also have online meetings. General information about drug and alcohol abuse can be found on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website, and on the on the National Institute on Drug Abuse website. Treatment specific information for numerous addictions and psychological issues can be found on the Promises and Ranch websites. An excellent book for people interested in the basics of sobriety is Facing Addiction by Patrick Carnes, Stephanie Carnes and John Bailey. Similar books can be found for compulsive gambling, compulsive eating, compulsive video gaming, and just about any other potentially problematic behavior you can think of. The good news is that any of these pathways can lead you to a healthier, happier life, and today is a great day to start.

Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.

If you're struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorder Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.