Texas Tech University

Ask the Experts: How To Make And Keep New Year's Resolutions

Heidi Toth

January 1, 2015

Ask the Experts: How To Make And Keep New Year's Resolutions

Professors of addiction recovery discuss avoiding the pitfalls many encounter in keeping their goals.

Lose weight. Save money. Stop smoking. What habit are you starting or stopping in 2015?

Millions of people will make New Year's resolutions today and, if history is any indication, abandon them by the third week of January. For those who are serious about making changes, however, actually losing weight, saving money or quitting smoking is possible.

George Comiskey, an instructor of addiction disorders and recovery studies, and Cynthia Dsauza, an assistant professor of community, family and addiction services, weighed in on ways to keep New Year's resolutions beyond Jan. 15.

What are the most common resolutions?

CD: The most common New Year's resolutions can be broken up into four major categories: health, personal finance, relationships and self-growth. Resolutions dealing with health and wellness include losing weight, getting fit, drinking less, quitting smoking and eating healthier. People also look at their finances and make resolutions to save more, spend less, get out of debt or get better jobs.

For many people, working on their personal relationships is another area of attention during this time. People want to make more time for their family and friends, work on broken relationships or foster new ones.

George Comiskey

Finally, people are motivated by stress-reducing activities and often want to make more time for personal growth. These could include learning a new skill, reading or listening to music more, engaging in service work or travelling to new places.

What are the most common reasons people abandon their New Year's resolutions?

CD: It comes down to their thinking. Something that negatively affects people is “all-or-none” thinking, where people look at their resolutions in two categories: keeping or breaking them. This level of rigidity is discouraging when someone has a slip-up, which is common when trying to change a long-standing behavior. It leads to the “the snowball effect,” where a minor lapse in behavior becomes a major relapse and leads to totally giving up on the resolution.

People need to see the setbacks for what they are – expected bumps in the road – and keep monitoring progress, no matter how small. People do the exact opposite, getting tunnel vision and forgetting to celebrate victories along the way.

If people set realistic goals, their motivation will come from highlighting the triumphs. Further, having a specific plan on how to get there provides a road map to guide the way. Finally, we often make resolutions because we feel “less than,” but if our motivation to change is to make our lives better (not because mom said something about your weight at Christmas dinner or because cousin Brian makes so much more money than you do), we would be less likely to break our resolutions.

GC: People often aren't able to accomplish their resolutions because of lack of support, their goals are too extreme or they get back into the old routine once the new year starts. Other possibilities include poor time management, financial obstacles to success or giving up too easily.

What steps can people take to change their habits?

Cynthia Dsauza

CD: It's important to focus on one resolution and set realistic, specific goals. For example: losing weight is not a specific goal. Losing 10 pounds in 90 days is more specific. Don't think of your resolution as a temporary change in your life. Think about it as a long term change and do something, no matter how small, every day to work toward it.

Having an accountability buddy is more helpful than you think; find someone who knows you well and will hold you accountable. When we learn how to celebrate the small changes, we motivate ourselves to keep going. A celebration can be anything from taking the time to appreciate how much progress we have made to buying ourselves a small gift as a reward for our efforts.

Becoming more mindful of our physical, mental and emotional states can help us achieve our goals dramatically. Doing this helps us realize when we are being triggered to break our resolutions, and catching our lapse before it happens is winning half the battle.

Finally, it's important to remember creating long-lasting change in our lives should be a positive experience. If we take ourselves too seriously, we will not have the motivation (or self-esteem) to recover from our setbacks and keep going.

GC: People need to frame their resolutions. If they see them as part of their overall life goals, they will be more realistic. Start with your most realistic resolutions that will give the most immediate success – success brings long-term change. Focus on making one change at a time.

Frame your change in a positive manner – “I'm going to…” rather than “I'm not going to….”

Write down your resolutions and the SMART strategies you will use to reach them.

  • S specific
  • M measurable
  • A attainable
  • R realistic
  • T timely

What should you do if you break your New Year's resolution?

GC: Don't beat yourself up or shame yourself. Talk with your support system about what took you off course and jump back into the flow.

CD: Setbacks are common. If you feel strongly about your New Year's resolution, don't dwell on the stumbling blocks. Maybe you need to look at your resolution and find out what is not working. Maybe you do not have a realistic goal, it might be that your plan for how to get to your goal isn't realistic. Find out the reason behind why you have lost your motivation and find solutions to work around that. One of the best ways to get back on track is to connect with someone who is working toward the same goal. Knowing you are not alone in your challenge and having someone who understands is a powerful motivator.

What are the biggest pitfalls in making and keeping resolutions?

GC: Making too many resolutions or making resolutions that are too expansive to see results or are unrealistic for the life and circumstances you are living. For instance, it's challenging to give up smoking if you live and/or work with smokers.

CD: One of the biggest reasons people stop keeping their New Year's resolutions is they are not really ready to make a change in their lives, especially when this means letting go of a bad habit. Another reason people don't keep their resolutions is the change they want in their lives is not internally motivated. This means that instead of making a change that reflects who they are on the inside, people make resolutions based on how they think things should be. Not only does this mean people lose their motivation to keep up the change but this can also be damaging to one's self worth.

Time is another area people do not take into account when thinking about long-lasting change. It takes a long time for us to make a behavior a habit; it will take a significant amount of time to train our brains to think differently.

What advice can you give people trying to make real, positive changes in their lives?

GC: Start the process by clarifying your overall goals, purpose and mission of your life. See how the changes you are looking to make fit into your goals, purpose and mission. If the changes fit, you are more likely to stay with the changes until they become new habits. Also, you want people around you who love and who support you in accomplishing the change.

CD: What people need to remember is just because they have a setback on their resolution, it doesn't mean that they should give up. Keeping a resolution is training your brain and body to do something different from what it is used to doing. This will take time, effort and energy that sometimes you feel you are unwilling or unable to give. Don't let that distract you. Your New Year's resolution should be a long-term change, it isn't a goal you will achieve and then be done with it. When we change the way we look at resolutions understand why we want to make those changes, we are more likely to find success.

For more information, check out this article from Psychology Today and this article from Happy Publishing.