With the new year often comes new resolutions to make changes in our lives. Frequently, these resolutions can be big, sweeping changes: losing significant amounts of weight, stopping smoking or drinking, changing careers, or training for a marathon. While the idea of making such dramatic changes is appealing to us, the reality is often very difficult. Research supports that only a small minority of people who make New Year’s resolutions succeed in the long term, and approximately half fall short of their goals within the first month.
Why does this happen? There are several reasons a resolution might fail to stick. A primary reason is motivation: what are your reasons for making this change? A clear motive is like a car’s ignition: it starts the engine that will power your change. Once your engine is started, are you in an environment that will give it fuel and help you maintain your change? For example, if you resolve to stop smoking but everyone in your house still smokes, it will harder to maintain that change. If you strive to eat out less but you don’t keep food stocked in your refrigerator, it is will be harder to maintain that change.
Another important factor is how attainable your goal feels to you. Do you have a specific plan for how you are going to achieve the changes you want to make? Are you setting yourself up for success? Setting shorter-term, attainable goals can be a great way to break up a resolution into more realistic chunks. If you’ve tried to work out every day and find yourself lapsing after the first week, consider making a commitment to work out three times a week and see if you man maintain that to start. If you have resolved to clean out your whole house but find yourself quitting before you even start due to the sheer prospect of the project, then start with one room.
A final question to consider is: To whom are you accountable? Having someone to report to on your progress and provide social support can be helpful in maintaining long term change—in fact, for many people social support is essential to maintaining resolutions past the first month. So ask yourself who you have that can provide that support and accountability.
For people who have struggled to maintain behavioral changes, counseling can be a good source of support and accountability. You will have a professional help you identify goals that are realistic for you and provide you with the support and recommendations you need to help your changes stick. So this year if you find yourself falling into old behavior patterns, consider making the resolution to seek additional help and see some long-term change in your life.
—Dr. Molly McAshan
Berkman, E.T. (2018). The neuroscience of goals and behavior change: Lessons learned for consulting psychology. Consulting Psychology Journal, 70, 28-44.
Norcross, J. & Vangarelli, D.J. (1988). The resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year's change attempts. Journal of Substance Abuse. 1. 127-134