2017 is here and millions of Americans are reflecting on the personal changes that they want (or need) to make this year. Popular resolutions include vowing to lose weight, eat healthier, reduce stress, exercise more or quit smoking. There is just one problem: while all of this sounds good in January, many of us lose our resolve and our resolutions are long forgotten and abandoned by April. The simple truth is that New Year’s resolutions are easier to make than they are to keep because changing behaviors, particularly those that are long-standing habits, is easier said than done. Wanting to change is not enough. Success with a resolution demands more than wishful thinking; it requires patience, planning, and organization. The good news it is that it can be done!
Many organizations recommend using the S.M.A.R.T. criteria to reach your goals and make lasting change. The acronym has several variations that are all similar. For our purposes we will use: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-based.
- Specific: The first step in moving toward change is to be very specific about what you want to achieve. Avoid vague, noncommittal resolutions to "lose weight" or "eat healthier" or "get out of debt." These goals are all too ambiguous and, therefore, are rarely successful. For example, rather than deciding you want to lose weight, decide how much weight you want to lose and in what time frame. Be specific.
- Measurable: When you are specific about the change you want to make, you can break it down into smaller specific goals that can be accomplished — and tracked — on a daily or weekly basis. This allows you to measure your progress. If you’re trying to lose a specific amount of weight, a reasonable and healthy goal is to aim to lose one-to-two pounds per week. You could do that by planning out and tracking how many calories you will eat each day and how many minutes of physical activity you will do each day. Then you will be able to concretely monitor your progress and measure your successes and shortcomings and make adjustments accordingly.
- Achievable: To make a lasting change the goals you set need to be reasonable and achievable. Setting a goal that requires little effort usually offers little motivation, but setting a goal that will be extremely difficult or even impossible to reach may be even more discouraging. The change you want to make should be challenging enough to motivate you, but not so challenging that you become frustrated because you may not possess the skills or resources to attain the goal. For example, quitting smoking cold turkey is not usually successful. Substituting nicotine gum for cigarettes on a regular schedule is much more likely to succeed. Regularly meeting realistic, achievable, short–term goals helps to build successful habits, makes continuing to work toward the change easier, and is psychologically rewarding.
- Relevant: While many of us can most likely name a number of things we would like to change and improve in our lives, it is important to remember that trying to make too many changes at once will almost certainly lead to failure. Instead, think about the change that would have the most meaning and impact in your life and start with that. If it is a change you’ve tried to make before but were unsuccessful, it is important to think about and pinpoint the root cause(s) of what has held you back in the past so you can shift away from the negative thoughts and behaviors that led to failure and instead choose your thoughts and behaviors wisely and deliberately so you can successfully change.
- Time-based:Setting a timeline to achieve a major change may be unrealistic if the change will require a long-term commitment, however, it is certainly possible to pick a date and time to start the process. It is also possible to pick timeframes for your shorter-term goals that are the stepping stones to reaching the larger goal. Whatever the change, you must also make time in your schedule to work on it. If the change is to exercise regularly, you need to schedule specific days and times to workout. If it is to improve your diet, you must schedule time to plan healthy meals for the week ahead and to shop for the necessary items. If it is to quit smoking, you must schedule breaks in your daily routine to help combat the stress that comes with nicotine withdrawal.
It is also important that you anticipate setbacks from time to time and plan for them. If, for example, you have a big vacation planned or know that your family is planning a big, fabulous meal for a holiday, maybe that is a week that you need to adjust your schedule. There is no sense setting yourself up for failure; if you know that a particular week is going to be hard, acknowledge that and adjust your plan accordingly. Of course, you should not give yourself every other week off, but a reasonable amount of slack is appropriate.
Whatever your New Year’s resolutions are this year, remember that there are different ways to go about achieving your goals. It may take you several attempts using several different methods to reach your goals. For many people, this trial and error is often discouraging, causing them to give up. It is, therefore, important to continue moving toward your goal, to try new techniques and find ways to stay motivated. Set small, attainable goals and reward yourself appropriately when achieving each one. Experts say that setting up a reward system is an excellent strategy to help you stick to a long–term goal. Perhaps the most important thing to do is to only make New Year’s resolutions that are truly important to you and that you will be motivated to achieve. Making a lasting change in behavior is rarely a simple process and will likely entail a substantial commitment of time, effort and emotion. But where there’s a will there’s a way and you can successfully achieve lasting change!