What’s up with you in 2020? Would you like to have more success in meeting your New Year’s resolutions? Sure! But if you’re like most of us, you start strong in January, begin to backslide while the year is still new and probably give up before spring.
Let’s break that almost-sure-to-fail cycle in 2020. If you’re willing to try some new approaches to changing your behavior, read on. We’ve gathered the best tips based on research from psychologists and behavior experts to boost your success.
Our goal is simple: By the end of 2020 (or sooner, we hope) you can say you are better off than you were at the same time last year. Making a New Year’s resolution should not be a brutal process that requires beating up yourself. Making and maintaining lasting changes in behavior is a slow, deliberate process, requiring patience, planning and a personal strategy.
But let’s be realistic. Half to 80% of all resolutions fail because of poor planning, or trying to make too many (or unrealistic) changes too quickly. Relying on willpower alone sets us up to fail. Willpower comes and goes but it’s usually gone when we need it most. However, changing how our brain controls our behavior can result in lasting behavior changes and successful resolutions.
Most behavioral experts agree that people who are successful with their resolution have these personality traits in common. A belief in their ability to change their behavior. Faith in yourself is incredibly powerful in this process. Success does not include self-blame or beating yourself up when you falter or your progress slows. Successful people concentrate on results and understand their personal motivations for change.
The good news is: Our brains have an unlimited capacity to change. We’re designed to change– it’s how we adapt and survive. When you practice a new skill your brain is changed in response to that activity. Your brain can even be changed by visualizing the new behavior you want to start. Athletes are skilled at this as they visualize making a home run, a perfect tennis serve or pole vault. Generating new thoughts about the habits you want to change also helps you release old, negative patterns of behavior.
To be successful, you’ll need a strategy that includes motivation, self-monitoring, self-control and people who share your goals. Here are six steps for developing your strategy:
Step 1. Establish your own motivations for change. Motivation ebbs and flows. It’s high when resolutions are new, only to vanish a week later. Never feel bad about yourself because you lack motivation. That is normal for everyone facing changes. We all tend to avoid change because it usually means leaving our “comfort zone.” Ask yourself how that “comfort zone“ is working out for you. According to clinical psychologist and author Dr. Howard Rankin, “motivation is about emotion and passion — why you want to do something … It’s the “why” that’s going to influence your actions.” Your “why” to lose 30 pounds might be because you want to live long enough to see your grandchildren grow up. Rankin suggests developing a mantra that captures the “why” of your motivation. Keep it simple, for example: “less weight, longer life.” Repeat it enough to keep it uppermost in your thoughts throughout the day. He also says to visualize what you don’t want along with what you do want. It’s okay to be negative because the fear of loss or negative consequences is motivation’s best kick starter.
Step 2. Focus your attention. We all tend to block out what we don’t want to face. Our brains are strongly influenced by automatic reactions, habits and engrained ways of thinking. This is the “auto pilot” stuff of daily living. It’s where your brain focuses your attention. If you want to change, you will need to pay attention to your thoughts and behavior. The more aware you are of your thoughts, the easier they are to control. Being sensitive to what your brain focuses on lets you develop new responses.
Step 3. Be receptive to change. Receptivity includes being mentally and physically ready to change your behavior. If you’re making a resolution because others are pressuring you to do so, you are not ready and will likely fail. When YOU choose the changes, YOU reap the successes — no one else. Lasting change is only possible when you are ready for it.
Step 4. Self-monitor your behavior. Dr. Rankin advises writing down your behavior or talk into a recorder. There are several cell phone apps that chart your progress if exercise or diet are part of your resolution. A simple chart posted on your refrigerator also works. Research shows that people who keep a food and beverage diary average twice as much weight loss as those who don’t. Try recording every successful and unsuccessful behavior for a week or two. After that, self-monitor one day a week. Monitoring makes you more aware of your behavior and the permanent record will help you analyze your personal ”triggers” — those things, situations or locations that can cause negative behavior.
Step 5. Strengthen self-control. Self control is a skill that can be developed and strengthened. Avoiding temptation is the easiest path to self control, but avoidance is not always possible. Again, Rankin recommends visualizing how you will control temptation in everyday situations. Practicing this mental control every day is a powerful weapon in resisting difficult situations. Improve self-control by getting rid of things that cause negative behavior. For example, stop buying junk food and replace with bowls of cut-up fruits and veggies in the frig. Don’t buy tobacco if you’re trying to quit. Do buy lozenges or gum to have with you at all times. Cut up your credit cards if you can’t stop spending. Instead, focus on developing a budget you can live with or consider making extra money from a hobby. Resisting temptation can also include physically removing yourself — make a phone call, go to the bathroom, refocus your attention. Self control becomes easier as you identify your personal triggers. Also, remember that it’s normal to lose self control or make bad decisions when you’re stressed, frustrated, hungry, angry or just had your feelings hurt.
Step 6. Choose friends wisely. Other people have a major influence over our behavior. No matter what you want to change or how strong your motivation, your behavior will become like the people with whom you spend time. If your circle of family and friends don’t share your health or behavior goals they can unknowingly defeat even your strongest efforts. If you want to quit alcohol, for example, you may have to avoid your bar-hopping friends for awhile. Rankin says support groups are effective because, “They give you helpful information, hold you accountable and make sure you stay connected to your motivation.” In a weight-loss study, 66% of those who teamed up with friends for support had kept the weight off six month later, compared to only 24% who dieted alone.
There are many other tips that can improve your success in 2020. Here are the most successful ones:
Focus on one resolution at a time. If you’re having trouble picking just one, write down all the changes you’d like to make in your life. Take some time and review them carefully; decide which one stands out. It may be key to all the other changes or something that must be completed before you can move forward. Changing behavior begins by focusing on a specific intent.
Be specific about what you want to change. For example, making a resolution to “improve my health” is too vague. You could revise it to “walk every day.” Better, but still not specific. Instead, “I resolve to walk every day for 45 minutes, most days of the week.” Start with 10 minutes once or twice a day, adding more time to your walk every few days. Our brains thrive on very specific directions, especially when changing behaviors you‘ve had for a long time. Put it in writing, include details about what you want, how you’ll achieve it, what the benefits are, and when you should expect to see improvement.
Align your resolution with your values and personal priorities. Will achieving it enhance your values or detract from them? Will it help you grow, learn new things, gain respect for yourself? Is it achievable and within your control to change? Can the changes you’ve chosen become part of your life and can you sustain them?
Be realistic about the obstacles you may face. Write them down and include everything, even if it seems unimportant. Also list the things you can’t change. Return to the items you think you can’t change and try to think of ways to make them less of an obstacle. That may include accepting that obstacle as part of your life. Be sure you are not making a conscious or unconscious choice to let that obstacle control your behavior.
Communicate your resolution to others to increase accountability to yourself. Family, friends and coworkers can provide an important layer of support.
Plan for setbacks, even failures. Never, never give up on your dream and plans for a better you. Try to anticipate what setbacks you might have and plan a positive response to get back on track. Change takes enormous patience. Learn several stress and anxiety-management tips and practice them daily. Taking a walk, meditating or prayer, listening to music or working on hobbies are all good options to enhance patience when setbacks occur.
Make a commitment to the change you seek. This is a commitment you make to yourself. If you’re having trouble with this step, you may need to reevaluate your mental and physical readiness for change. Review the suggestions above and review your notes about obstacles. Have you tried to do too much? Are your changes vague with lots of avoidance loopholes? Is this something your spouse is nagging you to do and not really your choice? Try to understand what is stopping you.
Assume responsibility for your resolution. This is now part of your daily routine and deserves attention as much as anything you do. It’s something you’re doing for you — no one else. “Owning” this resolution means taking responsibility for risks, failures, successes and unforeseen changes. There are no valid excuses, just do it.
Finally, we invite you to revisit this website during the new year. AFMC has planned a wide variety of healthy information to help you along your self-improvement journey. Even if the changes you seek aren’t as dramatic as you’d first planned, don’t give up. Focus on being farther along the road at this time next year than you are now. Best of luck!
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