Don’t Tell Me You Already Gave Up on Your Resolutions!

It is the end of the first week of January, which means there’s a good chance you’ve already given up on that resolution you made on New Year’s Eve. After all, 80 percent of them fail to stick.

Many common New Year’s resolutions are generally pretty solid ideas. Getting more exercise is good. (Great, even!) Many people pledge to drink less alcohol, get involved in a cause or start a new hobby. And of course, a lot of folks want to lose weight, a goal with which I have a great deal of personal familiarity.

But the problem with making a resolution usually isn’t the resolution. It’s the process. “Most New Year’s resolutions require us to make huge behavioral changes, and most of those resolutions are made without thinking through a clear path to achieve them,” Dr. Supatra Tovar, a clinical psychologist and registered dietitian, told me. “Time and time again, I have seen that one omission as the most common culprit for our giving up on our resolutions.”

In short, we treat resolutions like wishes. Wouldn’t it be nice if we finally ran 20 miles a week or wrote a symphony?

But what can work to make a resolution take, and what has worked for me, is realizing that the change you want to make is not an idea. It’s like moving to a new city.

Moving is hard and annoying. You need to pack up everything you own and transport it to your new home. You need to change your address with the post office — and your entire self-conception.

When I left St. Louis for Washington, D.C., 12 years ago, I missed my friends, of course, but I also missed knowing how to get from point A to point B. Where was the grocery store? How did the Metro work? Why on earth were so many people here such big fans of “The West Wing”? But eventually, I became a citizen of my new town. What was new and scary became regular.

And to some degree, this is what I did to achieve a particular goal of mine. After years of ups and downs with the size of my body and much anxiety and guilt over the role food played in my life, I moved to I Write Down Everything I Eat Town and I Walk 10,000 Steps a Day Town — I have residences in both. I started writing down every single meal in an app designed for this kind of tracking. (Recording what you eat can be helpful for weight loss since it encourages more mindful eating.) As of this newsletter’s publishing date, I’ve documented everything I’ve eaten for three years, eight months, one week and four days. And for more than a year and a half, I’ve walked 10,000 steps a day, wherever I am, no matter the weather.

This has helped me be a size that is tolerable to me.

Now, I don’t think too much about writing down everything I eat or walking 10,000 steps a day. I just do it, like how I just go to a grocery store near my home instead of the store I went to when I lived in St. Louis. In other words, it’s become automatic.

And this is key to success. Once a behavior becomes routine, we are more likely to do it. “A lot of what we do every day is habitual — we repeat automatically whatever it is we usually do with little active decision making,” said Dr. Lynn Bufka, associate executive director for practice research and policy at The American Psychological Association. “Our memory of what to do — whether good or bad — ‘sticks’ because we have repeated various behaviors so regularly for so long.”

But how do we move from the old habits to the new? Dr. Bufka told me that to reach a goal, we should do a little strategizing. “Identify the times or situations in which it will be harder to do this new behavior or make this change and eliminate the barriers that get in your way.” So instead of saying, “I would like to drink less alcohol,” pretend that you simply don’t live in the city of I Drink Wine Every Day anymore. Your new home is I Don’t Drink Ever. Now that you live here, it doesn’t make sense to have several bottles of wine or liquor in your house (a big barrier to your goal), nor do you go out to bars on a regular basis because that’s simply not what we do here.

Another strategy is to modify your goal to make it more achievable for you, Dr. Tovar said. If you know yourself well enough to understand that you probably can’t go fully vegan right now, don’t. In short, go easy on yourself. Maybe start going to a gym that’s near your house or in your office building, or try working out in the comfort and safety of home, where no one can hear you squat jump. And use positive reinforcement: When you save money from not drinking cocktails, use that money to do something you love.

I may have plunked myself down in I Write Down Everything I Eat in a single day, but habits can also be built gradually. Dr. Tovar told me that making small behavior changes makes achievement more possible and missing a few days less of a big deal. “It is much easier to come back to a smaller baseline behavior than an insurmountable one,” he said.

That’s the thing. You can always start over. And then, one day, what was once a goal is just your life. A life that’s different from the way it was, and hopefully, better.

Please send your thoughts to [email protected].

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