Makinging Resolutions Stick

Every year I watch at the gym as it floods in January, then slows to a trickle by March. Why is it that we seem unable to make behavior change goals that last? Well, there are several reasons.

Failing to consider why you currently do (or do not) engage in certain behaviors.

As humans, we naturally do things that are rewarding and avoid doing things that are not. One of the biggest problems people have when they try to change their behavior is that they fail to look at all of the reasons why they are currently doing what they are doing. Ask yourself, what is the benefit to this behavior? Why am I not __________?

People often try to remove bad behaviors, but fail to replace them with similarly effective positive behaviors. People who try to quit smoking either cold-turkey or by sucking on hard candy often end up gaining 30 pounds and being miserable. The oral part of smoking is only part of the problem. Most people smoke to relax, so, unless you find another effective way to relax, you are going to have difficulty at success. Nicotine is a drug and, you may feel withdrawals that sugar or other activities are not going to fix. If you feel those cravings, talk with a physician to help you get over the physiological part. You can then more effectively deal with the stress-relief and habit parts of it.

Setting goals that are too big

We want immediate gratification. Most of the big selling products are geared at helping us achieve big goals faster. That being said, most people are not motivated by goals that you cannot reach for two or three weeks or, worse yet, months. “I want to reduce my cholesterol by 30 points” is not a realistic short-term goal. “I will do one thing each day to reduce my cholesterol” is much more reasonable. This is especially important at the beginning of a behavior change. Set real goals that are rewarded every day or at least every week. For example: “If I go to the gym for at least 1 hour, I can __________ tonight.” Focusing on weight loss can be too slow to be rewarding, instead focus on burning at least 500 calories at the gym each day. The end result is the same, but the rewards are much more frequent when you focus on the daily calories and you will stay more motivated.

Setting goals that are too hard

Most people are not going to go from being couch potatoes to exercising nearly every day. That is unrealistic. Set a small, achievable goal. Once you achieve that regularly, then up the ante. To get the reward, you have to do more. For example, “I will walk for 45 minutes a day 3 days a week” can be fine tuned to “I will walk 45 minutes a day at a 14 minute mile pace, 3 days a week.”

Setting too many goals

Focus! Rome was not built in a day. Change one or two things a little bit. Cut back by 5 cigarettes per day and start walking for 20 minutes 3 days a week.

Setting goals without sufficient rewards

Just feeling better is often not enough of a reason to keep people motivated to exercise, eat more healthfully or stop smoking. We want rewards that are as great as the effort we put out. If you are competitive, set goals with a buddy and compare notes. Let your friends know what you are doing. A public commitment to a goal makes it easier to keep, and people who know what you are doing will often give you those much needed kudos. If you are a private person, buy something or do something special as a reward.

Setting goals that are too vague

“I am going to exercise more” “I will eat better.” “I will have a more positive attitude.” None of these is specific enough to create any substantial or consistent behavior change. You want to be able to answer the question “How will I know when/if I have accomplished my goal?” Goals ideally need to have a frequency, intensity or duration (Preferably all three). Frequency is how often you will do the new behavior or will not do the old behavior. “I will eat at least 1 fruit each day” or “I will not drink more than 1 cup of caffeine per day.” Intensity is how strong you do the behavior “I will eat at least the minimum number of servings from each food group.” “I will not get more than 30% of my calories from fat.” Duration is how long you will do the behavior “I will walk for 45 minutes each day.” “I will not sit for more than 1 hour at a time.”

Setting the wrong goals

If you want to “feel better” look at why you feel bad in the first place. Are you sleep deprived, eating poorly, not exercising, depressed, physically ill or in chronic pain? Choose your goals accordingly. If you want to “improve your relationship” getting more physically fit might not be the answer, despite what many people think. Get with your partner to figure out what the problems are. Then set your goals, keeping in mind that the only person you can change is you.

In summary:

Anything you do to help yourself feel happier or healthier will lead to other positive changes.
Start with something small that you will do.

Do not eliminate any behavior until you have found a reasonable replacement

Ask yourself what the benefit is to your current behavior pattern. Make sure your resolution provides the same benefits in a healthier way.

Ask yourself what you hope to accomplish with this resolution. Make sure your resolution actually accomplishes that.

Ask yourself why you are not already doing it—what is holding you back. Address those issues first.

Ask yourself if you are willing to do what is necessary to change. Change is hard work. Really figure out if you are willing to work or are happier staying the same and just complaining and getting pity attention.

Make sure your rewards are rewarding and frequent

If you find it hard to make successful resolutions, find a professional who specializes in behavior modification. Usually one to three sessions is all it takes to help you be successful.