Establishing Effective New Year's Resolutions

By Jim Kendall, LCSW and Carole Kendall, Ph.D.

Resolutions: Each year, the start of a new year allows us to reflect upon our lives and ourselves.  It involves looking back and focusing forward on the coming year.  What do we need? What will we change? Where do we want to be?  The tradition of establishing personal goals or New Year's Resolutions dates back to the Babylonians over four thousand years ago.  They believed that what a person does on the first day of the year will reflect what they do throughout the year to come. Commonly, we focus on "New Year's Resolutions" like losing a few pounds, getting "in shape," improving our financial outlook, being a better person, etc. We resolve to make a change. Thinking of change as both a process and a goal may be very helpful.

The Process of Change: Looking at the process of change and how we measure or think about progress can have a big impact on a person's success or failure.  Learning to measure progress differently can greatly boost motivation. For example, people tend to look ahead at their goal and to fuss at themselves for not being all the way there yet. It is more helpful to measure progress by looking over your shoulder at how far you have come and recognizing that each tiny step along the way is really a BIG accomplishment because change is HARD and SLOW. Remind yourself often that good things are worth waiting for.

Formulating a Goal: The way that a goal is stated is often crucial to the success or failure of a goal. People tend to be too grandiose when writing New Year's resolutions or making goals and can intimidate themselves in the process. It is better to "think small lots of different times throughout the year" and build a series of success stories rather than to "think big once, have one big failure experience, and give up." Think of goals rather than resolutions.  The word resolutions sounds too much like a proclamation or something that you can make happen just by thinking about it, and a goal, conveys more of the idea of effort being required.

When choosing types of goals, it is useful to look at adding things to improve one's quality of life — to add new experiences and not be so "results" oriented. The book, Healthy Pleasures, by Robert Ornstein, offers many small ways that people can interject more fun and enjoyment into their lives. The author provides great examples of how we can get lots of mileage out of conducting very time limited personal experiments that as a side bonus helps make us more stress proof.

Measuring Progress: It is also important to measure progress by holding yourself responsible for what you have and haven't done, not just the results.  For example, if your goal was to lose weight by exercising more, measure your progress by whether or not you actually exercised not by just the number on the scales. There are many times when people are successful at making many changes in their behavior even though this may not directly translate into achieving the proposed goal. People need to appreciate the changes they have made and may need to look at redefining the goal or getting professional help if, in spite of lots of successful effort, they are not reaching their goal.

The Five Stages of the Prochaska and DiClemente's Stages of Change Process: Recognizing 5 stages in the change process may help people assess when they have the motivation required to actually make successful changes:

  1. Pre-contemplation—no real intention to make a change in behavior by the actual person—significant others in a person's life may offer "suggestions" that someone lose weight, quit drinking or smoking, etc.  Change is highly unlikely given these circumstances because change is hard work even when we choose our goals ourselves
  2. Contemplation – person is aware of a problem and thinks about what it would be like to change a behavior, but has not yet made any commitment to make  a change—people may remain in this phase for a long time—May be considered the "It would be nice" stage as in "It would be nice if I had more  friends, lost weight or made change X, but I'm not ready to do it yet." Person generally feels quite ambivalent and alternates between looking at the positive aspects of change and the difficulties or problems associated with the change being considered.
  3. Preparation—person has decided to change and to take action in the near future—within the next month—may have already initiated small change or begun preparatory steps like reading books or articles on proposed change.
  4. Action—person actually implements strategies to change behavior. This stage requires considerable commitment of time and energy and timing is important. It may be better to spend the first part of the New Year recovering from the extra demands of the holidays and getting caught up at work before deciding to move to the action phase. Not all New Year's resolutions have to start on January 1st and not all diets have to start on Monday. The "best" time to make a change is when you know you have the time and energy to invest.
  5. Maintenance—a too often overlooked phase that lasts for at least 6 months after a major change—involves planning on how to hold onto new behaviors over time—as there is a natural tendency to revert to old habits during times of stress. Learn to expect this and to see it as inevitable, not as a failure. Any change that has been successfully mastered, can be again. Don't expect   progress to be a straight line of success—it never is. Failure is an inevitable part of success and something that lets you learn how to do things better.

Happy Goal Setting! In addition to thinking in small steps, it is helpful to have a larger vision of what is possible down the road. Like Albert Einstein's quote, "Your imagination is your preview of life's coming attractions." A healthy imagination combined with clear goal setting and the time and commitment required for change can help people write themselves a different future if they don't expect it to happen magically or be quick or easy.