"We tell our dieters you wouldn’t be able to sit down at a piano for the first time and play a beautiful piece of music. You need a teacher, you need lessons and then you need to practice every day. It's the same thing when you set goals for yourself."— Dr. Judith Beck, president of the Beck Institute
More than one-third of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. Less than 40 percent stick with them past six months, according to Dr. Ronald Nathan, a psychologist based in Albany, New York.
"When most people slip up, they beat themselves up and say, 'I'm a total loser. It never works for me,' " said Nathan, author of "Stress Management," a self-help book. "What they need to say is, 'I'll get right back on track and I'll succeed.' "
Nathan said people who ultimately fulfill their resolutions slip up an average of 14 times during the year. Instead of accepting defeat, they learn from their mistakes, adjust their thinking, and move forward. It's a lesson anyone can apply to a resolution.
Planning to Succeed
A person is more likely to stick to a resolution that has some meaning to him. Dr. Gariane Gunter, a psychiatrist based in Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina, tells people to make two lists. One list should have the things important to you, and the other should have the things you spend the most time doing. Gunter said that when most people compare the lists, they find they do not spend the most time on the things most important to them.
"Sometimes, people make resolutions haphazardly or based on trends or something whimsical, which can be fine, but some people are looking to make bigger changes and this is a good way to do it," Gunter said. "It shows you where the gaps are."
The second step is to create a detailed plan to fulfill the resolution, said psychologist Dr. Judith Beck, president of the Beck Institute, a Philadelphia-based clinic specializing in cognitive behavior.
“We tell our dieters you wouldn’t be able to sit down at a piano for the first time and play a beautiful piece of music,” Beck said. “There are skills you need to learn. You need a teacher, you need lessons and then you need to practice every day. It’s the same thing when you set goals for yourself.”
Most people also make goals they can't realistically reach. Instead of setting a weight loss goal of 50 pounds, Beck said, it might be more useful to resolve to eat healthier food or exercise several times a week.
“I ask people to only make changes they can keep up with their whole lives, and some people don’t like it,” Beck said. “They get really mad because they want to be the weight of their thinnest friend or some celebrity. But they don’t understand that just may not be right for them, and they won’t be able to maintain it over the long run.”
One Step at a Time
Gunter said the strategies people use to accomplish their resolutions should be broken down into simple steps, each with its own mini-resolution.
“It’s like if you were trying to figure out how to drive across country. You wouldn’t just get in your car and say, ‘I’m going to drive to California,’” Gunter said. “You need to figure out what road you need to get on to get to this next road and the next road and then eventually, you’ll be in California.
"Simple and attainable resolutions are important. Think of each road as a step toward the larger goal. If we try to jump to the larger goal from the start we get bogged down before we ever make it.”
Once people have a plan in place, they must make "appointments" for themselves, said Dr. Maryann Troiani, a psychologist with Mercer Systems in Barrington, Illinois, and author of "Spontaneous Optimism." For example, someone trying to exercise should pick out specific days to work out and mark them on the calendar.
“You are making a psychological and mental commitment to yourself,” Troiani said. “If something comes up and you miss a workout, take out the calendar and reschedule right away. That gives you control and makes you feel better and not so defeated if you miss an appointment.”
Above all else, patience is required. Troiani says it can take up to six weeks of hard work before any new routine starts to feel natural.
“People tend to give up about a month into it," she said. "They say, ‘It’s been four weeks and I should be more enthused or consistent.' Willpower is not a strategy. It’s about focusing and knowing it takes awhile to develop new behaviors.”
It helps to have a support system of friends or loved ones who can act as cheerleaders and problem solvers and hold you accountable for your promise to yourself. But Troiani believes it’s not a good idea to tell everyone you know about your resolution. She recalled a client who told her mother she planned to start running as a resolution.
"That was a big mistake," Troiani said. "Her mother said, 'You can’t run. You’re too fragile. You have back problems. So she didn’t run. You have to be selective about who you tell.”
Troiani also believes people should wait a few weeks into January to make a resolution.
“If people begin before they’re ready, they’ll start off on a bad foot and you don’t want that first step to be a failure,” Troiani said. “There’s this magical thinking people have that they will immediately feel better on Jan. 1, and when they don’t, it sets up a cycle for more failure.”
- Photo Credit plustwentyseven/Digital Vision/Getty Images