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Making smart New Year’s resolutions

One January Frank smiled smugly in the office of psychologist Dr. Peter Wish. Frank said he’d made a new year’s resolution. “This year I’m going to make a million dollars,” he said. When Dr. Wish, director of the New England Institute of Family Relations, asked how he was going to accomplish it, Frank shrugged. “I just will.”

Sarah, on the other hand, said her New Year’s resolution was the same as the previous year, the year before that, and the year before that: to lose 40 pounds by Feb. 1.

And Matthew, with tears streaming down his face, sat in psychologist Dr. John C. Norcross’s office and whispered hoarsely, “My New Year’s resolution? To talk to my brother. Forty years ago when mom died, we had a fight. A rift. We haven’t talked since. On January 1 I’m going to pick up that telephone and call him.”

Which of these real examples is a resolution likely to come to fruition? And which resolutions are doomed to failure before they’re started? And how can these resolution-makers–and you and I–learn how to make smart New Year’s resolutions?

“Smart resolutions,” said Dr. Norcross, longtime researcher on New Year’s resolutions and self-change, and co-author of Changing for Good, “are realistic resolutions.”

New Year’s began with the ancient Romans. Most cultures have New Year’s traditions, Dr. Norcross said, whether it’s January first, the first day of spring, or religious dates. “Resolutions are made at New Year’s,” he said, “because it’s a new beginning, a time to wipe the slate clean. Humans also innately want to change things and make things better,” he added.

Dr. Wish said “People make resolutions to offer themselves the opportunity to do something good for themselves.”

The most popular resolutions, Dr. Norcross said, are to lose weight, (women more than men) and to stop smoking. He added that in recent years managing money better has been a third topic, “but that happens in difficult financial times.”

More than half of America’s adults make New Year’s resolutions each year; one week later, only four out of five are on track; three weeks later, three of five; six months two of five; and two years, only one of five is still sticking with the resolution.

Dr. Wish said “Resolutions focus on bad habits, traits that people have been inconsistent with, and have had difficulty changing.”

Thus, resolutions come with built-in problems, which makes them hard to stick to. Unless you’re smart about making New Year’s resolutions.

Being Smart. Make sure you want to make a resolution. “People feel pressured to change on New Year’s Day,” Dr. Norcross said. “It’s a hopeful time, a time of change, a time to start over. But if people really aren’t ready to make a change–if they’re doing it because they’re supposed to, or for somebody else–the resolution is doomed to failure.”

Choose only one or two resolutions. Dr. Wish suggested jotting a list of 10 things you want to change, and choosing the easiest. “That gives you a higher chance for success. Since success breeds success, you’ll then have more confidence attacking the next problem.”

Dr. Norcross agreed: no more than two at a time, and don’t make them big.

Be Reasonable. Make sure your resolution is reasonable and attainable: giving 5 percent more to the church, learning to downhill ski, treating your friends better, are reasonable. Resolutions like publishing a book in six months, finding sunken treasure, creating world peace, are not.

Each of these may have a worthy resolution component–writing five novel pages daily, for instance–but the overall concept is simply too huge and unreasonable.

Even with reasonable resolutions, people tend to sabotage themselves, Dr. Wish said, by being unreasonable about how long their resolutions will take. “They get on the scale after five days and are miffed that they didn’t lose 8 or 10 pounds, and give up. So it’s important to be reasonable about what you expect, and when. If you’ve never exercised, would it be reasonable to expect to look like Arnold Schwartzenegger after a couple of months? Set reasonable goals and reasonable time frames to reach those goals. Make them reasonable enough that you can have a fairly good chance of succeeding, otherwise you’re really being unkind to yourself.”

Are you making resolutions that you can stick with? Stock photo

Be Exact. “Instead of making a generic resolution,” Dr. Wish said, “like ‘I’m going to lose weight,’ be specific. Define what that means, more like ‘I’m going to lose 25 pounds.’ Or ‘I’m going to walk for 20 minutes four times a week until I’ve lost 25 pounds.”

Break the Resolution Down. Make it into bite-sized chunks, Dr. Wish said. “That simply means doing small steps that are accomplishable.”

If your resolution, for instance, is to get your cardiovascular system into shape so you don’t puff after climbing a set of stairs, break that goal into smaller goals: walk slowly up three flights of stairs twice a week; swim 20 laps twice a week; run at half-speed for five minutes every day.

Prepare for Changes. Don’t burn your house down and then wonder where you’re going to live. “If you’re going to cut down on smoking,” Dr. Norcross said, “you have to understand that your need for oral gratification has to be satisfied. Plan ahead – have suckers on hand, or hard candy. A substitute while you break yourself of the habit.”

Prepare Your Environment. If you want to eat less fat, remove high-fat food from your refrigerator; if you want to spend less on frivolities, avoid stores where you’ll be tempted; if you want to read more, avoid rooms where the TV is on.

Go Public. Enlist the aid of other people. Announce what you’re doing to do. Tell your family and/or friends that you’ll need their help. This helps your resolve; plus, a spouse can point out that a particular food will blow your resolution to lose weight, or watching a TV show will prevent you from getting a good workout in.

Reward Yourself. Plan a series of rewards for yourself. If you eat less than 20 percent fat all day, allow yourself to watch a TV show you’ve wanted to see; if you spend an hour walking three times a week, treat yourself to a new outfit.

Dr. Wish said, “And make sure you apply the reward each time you accomplish one of the steps in your resolution.”

Be Prepared for a Long Haul. Dr. Norcross said for a resolution to work, you must be prepared to do whatever it takes for a very long time, perhaps the rest of your life.

Age, sex, and religion don’t make any difference in the success of New Year’s resolutions. Instead, proper preparation, common sense, and a strong dose of determination make all the difference, as they did for Mabel, an 80-year-old, who made a resolution to play piano, which she had given up 63 years earlier.

She chose her resolution, made a plan, and followed through, step by step, like Matthew who called his brother and was reunited with him, and unlike Frank who wanted to make a million, and Sarah, who wanted to lose 40 pounds.

Dr. Norcross said “Every time our researchers called Mabel, she set the phone down, went to the piano, and played a piece. The same one every time. Back at the phone she said, ‘Now wasn’t that better than the last time you heard it?’”

What could be more powerful than seeing–and hearing–a New Year’s resolution in action?

Because Mabel was smart at making New Year’s resolutions, she was successful; just as you can be if you follow these steps for your next New Year’s resolutions.

Resolve to make a resolution right now. Imagine what a happy new year your success will make for you!

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