Baby steps to a better you

Oh, that yearly routine. You know the one: in a mixed mood of hope and self-deprecation about unfulfilled resolutions from 2007, we craft resolutions for the New Year. Or slightly revised versions of the old ones. Or… (sigh)… the old ones, all over again.

And the resolutions? They’re big. REALLY big. After all, our culture says to dream big, right?"Reach for the stars!” or"Shoot for the moon!” So we do. And it feels good, doesn’t it?

Lofty, over-arching goals lift our spirits, make us feel bold and daring, fill us with renewed hope and the belief that this time, this year, we will absolutely, truly, once-and-for-all, reach our personal goals.

And yet, the 10 top resolutions keep repeating themselves year after year: spend more time with family and friends; begin a fitness routine; lose weight; quit smoking; enjoy life more; quit drinking; get out of debt; learn something new; help others more; get organized.

Why? At first, the big hopes and the outsized plans create energy and excitement. But often, the excitement doesn’t last long. Somewhere down the line—a month, a week, a day, an hour—we hit a bump in the road. Something disrupts the plan, toys with our motivation, pokes a hole in hope.

We’ve failed. Again. And we believe the failure to be personal.

It’s not.

Even though our desired changes appeal to us, they are unfamiliar. The familiarity—and therefore the comfort—of what we’ve known pulls us back. We take a few steps forward, then feel pulled back to where we were. We may be proud of any progress we make, but we are sorely tempted by the familiar and the comfortable. The power of the past can annoy and frustrate us. But the annoyance doesn’t help to move progress along.

So the failure isn’t in ourselves, it’s in how we make our resolutions. Change that and success will be more likely.

How can we make our New Year’s resolutions more reachable?

We need to restructure the huge, faraway goals and foreign-feeling expectations of ourselves. Here’s my advice:

Take tiny steps—very tiny

Break down each resolution into the tiniest units that will move you toward your goal, units you can absolutely commit to. For example, if your resolution is to"quit smoking,” start your list with a smaller goal, maybe something like,"Have one less cigarette every day.” Too big? Make it every week. Or how about changing your habits, just a little? Change one place or one time you usually have a cigarette.

Examine the new list carefully. Is each step"do-able”? Can you imagine absolutely achieving and committing to each step? No? Then break down the steps even more and if each of those is still too big, make them even tinier.

Don’t let yourself get caught up in how silly this might feel. Teeny-tiny achievements are really major. The point is to be successful. Go ahead and try it. Notice how it feels to think differently. Find something—one tiny thing—that you absolutely can commit to, that’s easy enough to do without a lot of"motivation.”

Many people make a yearly resolve to exercise more, or more consistently. It might be to go to the gym three (or five or seven) days a week, spend more time on machines or start regular weight training. These resolutions are excellent, but they’re too big. And they’re vague, as well. You skip a day, you skip a few days, you skip a week; maybe you realize you hate the particular exercise; other people’s needs keep disrupting your schedule; or you don’t feel motivated.

Experiment with the"bring-it-closer-to-home theory” of resolution-making and set tinier goals. In a large corporation where employees had use of a fabulous gym during work hours, a woman in one of my workshops said she couldn’t believe she never took advantage of the facility. She told herself daily that she should head upstairs during lunch hour, or before or after work, and"do it!” No matter how much she badgered herself she couldn’t find the motivation. I asked her to do a few things: try to stop badgering herself and replace her negative language with the kind of understanding comment she might hear from a friend, lower her expectations and create a smaller"step” to achieve and—to help her find the smaller step—identify one tiny thing she enjoyed about going to the gym. Her answer?"The shower.” I told her to go up to the gym and take a shower however many times during the week she wanted to. When I returned for a follow-up session two weeks later, she’d not only taken showers but worked out several times.

Because so much of our culture promotes new"shoulds” every day, we actually feel tremendous relief when we eliminate those shoulds and become more honest about what we are truly capable of right now, a first small step that is a personal match. That will bring your reach for the stars closer to home. Closer to you.

Link your change to a belief

Tal Ben-Shahar, in his book Happier, says we know how to do this: we brush our teeth because we value hygiene. What other habits have you integrated into your life? Do you do laundry? Keep well-stocked with toilet paper? Open your arms to hug your kids when you first see them? Read bedtime stories every day? Find a way to connect your resolution with a deeply held value and you’ll be much more likely to succeed.

Create a ritual

Developing new habits can be extraordinarily difficult. By trying to create a new behavior, we’re also pulling ourselves gently away from a familiar, comfortable past and into an unknown future. Develop any kind of ritual that works to move you gradually towards your goal—penciling something into your calendar, thinking about your resolution at a particular time of day or during a particular activity, doing your tiny step first thing in the morning.

Remember this step must be whatever works for you. Whatever you know you can absolutely do, absolutely commit to. For example, pencil in your exercise time so that you see it in your planner. Do it for as long as you like. That way, you’ll build the idea of a time to move into your regular schedule, even if you’re not actually moving yet.

Some might worry that these tiny steps will never help them reach the moon or stars, that they waste energy and time. I don’t think so. It’s the repetitive attempts at resolutions that are too big, and too far away, that are time-wasters. And as with any process of change, ups and downs, obstacles and pitfalls will be part of the process.

If you feel stuck in those obstacles, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Those bumps can be full of interesting information about what you may be thinking and feeling and may provide wonderful incentives to try again. The tiny steps you take now may help you feel much more successful with your New Year’s resolutions, in a very different way.

Carol Coven Grannick is a licensed clinical social worker and writer in Wilmette. She writes a quarterly column for the Illinois Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators PRAIRIE WIND, titled"Revise Yourself.”

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