If you’re like nearly half of Americans, you made at least one New Year’s resolution on Jan. 1, most likely involving your health, money, or improving a relationship. But research shows that many of us abandon our resolutions by mid-February.
How can you avoid being part of that daunting statistic? John C. Norcross, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania and co-author of Changing for Good knows how. He and his colleagues spent $40 million in federal research grants, following thousands of people for up to two years to learn what works — and what doesn’t — when it comes to behavior change.
It’s never as simple as say, pledging to lose the baby weight while clinking your champagne flute as the ball descends on Times Square. In fact, such carefree goal-setting, however motivated at the moment, is a setup for failure. It sets up a self-defeating pattern of making half-hearted resolutions, failing, then feeling as if that’s evidence that you won’t be able to change your behavior in the future, says Norcross.
A better bet: Plot out your New Year’s resolutions and realize that sustained behavior change doesn’t happen overnight. Rather, it occurs in a series of three methodical and sequential stages. Follow them and you’ll greatly increase your chances of New Year’s resolution success.
Stage 1: Prep Time
Start by taking a few minutes to clearly define a realistic and measurable goal. Rather than trying to get to what you weighed in high school, set a modest goal of losing just 10 percent of your body weight in six months (that’s what research shows works for most of us). For example, you could create a 500-calorie-a-day deficit by burning 250 calories by logging steps on your pedometer and cutting 250 calories from your diet by say, switching to skim milk and nixing your midday frappucino. If you think this seems precise, you’re right. To be successful, your goal has to be specific, Norcross says.
Next, plan a healthier substitute for any behaviors you’re trying to eliminate, for example, tea with lemon instead of a calorie-laden frappucino. If your goal is to quit smoking, anticipate how you’re going to control your weight (an eight-pound weight gain is de rigueur), and how you’re going to relax instead of smoking since anxiety can be a side effect. (For more on how to quit smoking successfully, see “Tobacco Cessation – You Can Quit Smoking Now!”)
While you’re in the prep stage, troubleshoot. “Dig deep to weed out the behavior changes you’d like to make that don’t match your values or your lifestyle,” suggests Susan Head, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Durham, North Carolina. Before vowing to jog every morning before the kids get up, for example, ask yourself why you haven’t done that before, and anticipate how this change is going to affect your life. Will it disrupt your work schedule? Are you really not a morning person? If your resolutions aren’t a good fit for your schedule, lifestyle or your personality, tweak them until they are.
Stage 2: Take Action
Once you have a measurable, realistic, and doable goal and a healthy surrogate for any habit you’re trying to give up, you’re ready to just do it, right? Not exactly.
Check the timing. If you’re changing jobs, moving, or otherwise going through any other major life transition, put off implementing your New Year’s resolution until the dust settles. Habit change takes physical and emotional energy. “Your life should pretty much be a clean slate before you set those resolutions in motion,” Norcross adds. If you can’t give your resolutions the energy they deserve until your birthday, Valentine’s Day, or Memorial Day, so be it. “There’s nothing magical about January 1,” he says.
When your life is relatively calm, you’re ready to plunge in and actually make the resolutions you’ve been planning. Go for it — but be sure to reward yourself frequently so you’ll keep up the good behavior. “Successful people reward themselves for not only keeping the resolution, but also engaging in the behaviors that get them there,” Norcross says.
And while you’re at it, try to control your environment so old behaviors don’t tempt you. If weight loss is your goal, spend time with active people and avoid high-fat restaurants, like steak houses, at least temporarily.
During the action stage, which typically lasts two to six months, you’ll also need to implement that long-term healthy substitute you planned for such as taking swigs from your water bottle instead of opting for a caffeine/sugar fix. You’ll also want to avoid a saint-or-sinner mentality. That is, when you lapse into old behaviors (don’t kid yourself, you will), don’t fall prey into thinking, “Well, I overate/drank too much/had an argument with my mother-in-law, I might as well give up.”
Instead, simply get right back to your new routine. “A slip doesn’t need to become a fall,” Norcross says. “A lapse doesn’t need to become a relapse.” And pat yourself on the back each day you follow through.
Stage 3: Maintenance
At this end-of-the-line stage of behavior change, your New Year’s resolutions are reality. You’ve stopped nibbling on your child’s mac ‘n cheese; you’ve quit smoking; you’re buttoning your lip around your mother-in-law.
Time to kick your feet up, right? Not exactly. In most cases, like weight loss, for example, you may be able to slack off a bit (and eat slightly more since you’re no longer cutting calories.) Still, to avoid reverting back to your old ways, you’ll need to continue everything you were doing in the action stage: rewards, environmental control, opting for a healthy substitute, and snapping back after a slip.
That is, unless you’re among the select few who reach the final stage of behavior change: termination. At this utopian juncture, your former habits feel as foreign to you as your new habits once did. Congratulations: You’ve developed a new lifestyle.
Unfortunately, for many of us, Stage 3 is as far as we get, Norcross says. “Everyone can reach home, but whether you’re home free is yet to be determined. Plan to keep up the good work of habit change. For many of us, its a lifetime of maintenance.”