Another years rolls out and a new one rolls in: the tides of our chronology. A raft of New Year's Resolutions wash in on that changing tide, most of which will quickly be broken.
"People usually fail at their resolutions because they are unrealistic or not specific enough," says Nani Azman, coordinator for psychology at UH Maui. "People usually think it's easy to change, which it isn't."
If most of us will fail miserably at our resolutions, why bother? Are we wasting our time? Azman says no.
"If there's something about yourself that you'd like to change, there is a reason for that and it is worth doing," she explains, "but you need some techniques to be successful."
Azman teaches Psychology of Adjustment, which she describes as a class that helps students to change unwanted behavior. She didn't write the book on successful change, but she literally co-wrote the teacher's manual for one. Azman's doctoral advisor was David Watson, who, along with Roland Tharp, wrote "Self Directed Behavior," the textbook for the course and a marvelously well-researched guide to happier endings.
This year, Azman took her years of research and teaching in the topic and winnowed them to a few essential points. We sat down and turned them into a brief guide to successful resolving.
Seven tips to make and keep your New Year's Resolution (or at least how to increase the likelihood that you will).
1. Make a realistic and attainable goal.
A main reason people don't keep their New Year's Resolutions is that they inadvertently set themselves up for failure. They choose a goal that is not realistically going to be achieved. Avoid irrational beliefs, which often include words like always, never, and perfect, when making that resolution.
2. Have specific sub-goals.
Most resolutions are long-term goals. You cannot expect to achieve that goal tomorrow. If it were easy to change, you would have changed already. Keep that long-term goal in mind, but create specific smaller goals, ones that you can achieve in the span of a week or two. Once you have achieved that sub-goal, celebrate your achievement, and move on to a slightly bigger or tougher goal. These smaller steps will ultimately lead you to attaining your New Year's Resolution.
3. Don't just stop an unwanted behavior. Increase a desired behavior.
Stopping "cold turkey" is a bad idea in most cases. Willpower (or self-control) is not an all-or-nothing that you have or don't. It is a skill that needs developing. Like building muscles, a bit at a time is the only way. If you go all-out, you burn out your self-control and you probably can't stop yourself from doing the opposite of your resolve. Stopping the behavior can be the long-term goal, but you should follow tip two and do it in smaller increments.
A better plan is to replace that unwanted behavior with a desired behavior. If you're trying to stop drinking caffeine, you will be much more successful if you replace that cup of coffee with a healthy smoothie.
Very few people in this world are great at things the very first time they try to do it. Remember back in tip two. If it were easy to change, you would have changed already. Any serious project will require you to put some effort into achieving your goal, especially when things don't go your way.
5. Expect obstacles.
This tip ties directly to the need to practice. Expect to make mistakes. If this is a behavior you've tried to change before, odds are you have already experienced some of these obstacles. Plan for them. Create if-thens in advance to help you deal with tempting situations. Having that plan in your pocket will help you stick to your goal. If you slip, that's okay, too. Remember, you need to practice to achieve your resolution. Mistakes are wonderful if you use them to figure out how be more successful the next time.
6. Collect feedback (keep records).
Depending on your resolution, your source might differ, but anyone trying to change should keep records. For example:
• If you are changing an emotional response, recording the situations and describing how you responded will be immensely helpful in finding ways to react differently.
• If you are trying to add or reduce a behavior, keeping a tally count of how often the behavior occurs (and maybe in what situations) may be the key.
In just about any situation, an old fashioned journal where you enter what happens and what's going in your head at the time will be a great help. Don't rely on your memory and try to keep physical records (on paper or electronically) because we naturally tend to paint rosier pictures of ourselves.
Note: A lot of times, change occurs slowly, and without diligent records, we might miss the improvements we do make, and these help us stay inspired to continue on our journey.
7. Adjust your plan as you go.
As you look back on your records, you may notice patterns or triggers that you didn't know existed before your record keeping began. Feel free to tweak your plan as you go to keep you effectively working towards your goal.
Above all, don't give up if you find it difficult to change your behavior! It's quite possible that there is more to your situation than you realize.
"I once knew someone who wanted to swear less," Azman relates. "It turned out her issue was not about swearing. Her real issue was with needing to manage her anger. Once she focused on anger management, the swearing disappeared on its own."
So go forth and change! It's not easy, but it can be fun and rewarding. Life without challenge is pretty boring. Happy New Year!