Every year at this time, I think a lot about New Year’s Resolutions. I probably think about them more than the average person, because these resolutions are pretty much always about changing behavior, and changing behavior is my job and my interest. Here are some things I’ve learned over my years of behavior counseling (and attempts at self-improvement).
Goals need to be defined
It helps if you know exactly what you want – or can make up some approximation that you’re satisfied with. Avoid setting yourself up with goals that involve relative words like “more” or “less” or “better”. Instead of “travel more”, you might want to say “take three out-of-town, overnight trips”; instead of “lose weight” you might want to specify “lose 23 pounds by the end of the year”; instead of “learn French”, try “complete courses in basic and intermediate French”. “Get into better shape” is nebulous; how about “be able to do a one-hour hike with my dog without losing breath” – it’s something you can measure. Instead of “I’ll spend less time on Facebook,” try “I will limit FB use to less than an hour a day between 7am and 7pm, and not read it from bed at all” (actually, this is one I tried this past year, with some success, although I discovered that reading FB first thing in the morning prevented me from falling back asleep after snoozing the alarm).
Having a milestone date – or several – is good, too. “I’ll finish that first French course by the end of May and the second by the end of July” is helpful. And by the way, many people feel they need to start new habits on January 1, because it seems like a natural “clean slate” start date, but you might find that the first of any month – or the first day of the week – might work for you, as well as other start dates, like your birthday, a new job starting, a holiday, or other significant calendar date.
Generally, if the goal is well-defined, you can measure your success against the definition. How do you know if you travelled enough, lost enough weight, learned enough French, got into better shape, or spent less time on FB if you can’t measure and compare it?
This is similar to dog training: If you want your dog to “walk better on leash”, maybe you should start with “can walk one block on a loose leash” or “checks in/looks at me once every five minutes”. If you want your dog to “come when called“, define this as “comes 8 times out 10”, for example (and be sure to reward every success!).
Goals need to be realistic.
Don’t bite off more than you can possibly chew. Realize that “losing 100 pounds” means consistently losing about 2 pounds a week – which is very difficult and possibly unhealthy. If there’s a lot of groundwork you need to do before you can really produce something (like learning to code before you try to get a job as a video-game developer), or if you need to be incredibly consistent every single day (like “go to the gym every single day!”) you are less likely to succeed.
Don’t make goals based on outcomes you can’t entirely control. “I’ll get straight As in school this year” may depend a bit on the whims of your teacher, although “I’ll make completing homework thoroughly and on-time a priority” is something you can control and which is more likely to lead to your ultimate desire. Similarly, the favorite perennial goal of most Americans, “lose weight” would be more realistic if you phrase it as “keep under my calorie goal six days a week”. “Get a book published” might run into obstacles while “finish my book’s final draft and submit it to at least three publishers” is something you can do. “Write a best-seller” is hopelessly out of your control unless you can afford to buy every copy.
As a side note – it’s very difficult to make realistic goals on behalf of other people. You can’t really say “I want the dog to bark less” or “My child should get better grades”. You can resolve to work on “look at that” exercises with the dog’s squirrel arch-nemesis or practice some doorbell desensitization exercises, or resolve to be in the same room as your child as she does her homework so you can help her stay focused.
Steps need to be thin-sliced enough to be accomplished without being too daunting.
Once you have a realistic, defined goal, you need to figure out how to get there. Learning French might include the steps of “check local colleges for open-enrollment French classes”, “research online language classes”, “register for a class”, “buy course material”, “attend classes”, “practice homework exercises” and maybe “find someone to converse with”. If any of those seem daunting, break them down further: “find one local college with French courses”, “look at the local college’s requirements for enrollment”, “write down the requirements and costs”, “look at second college’s requirements,” etc.
Be prepared to ramp up for daily habits – instead of committing to an hour-long gym workout or dog-training session from January 1, how about committing to doing 10 minutes each day and increasing by five minutes until you reach your goal?
In dog training, the place where this is most clear is in teaching “stay”. Many people jump from saying “stay” to immediately taking several steps away and taking many seconds. You’ll have more success if you break it into different areas of challenge – duration, distance, distraction and diversity – and then within each area taking tiny steps – stay for 2 seconds, then stay for 3 seconds, then stay while you take one step back, then two steps, etc.
Set up the environment for success
This is especially important for repetitive habits. It will easier to walk the dog every day if you keep the leash, harness, poop-clean-up bags, jacket, walking shoes, and non-refrigerated treats in one place. It will be easier to drink eight cups of water each day if you have good-tasting filtered water in an attractive and convenient glass or bottle at your desk, in your car, etc. You’re more likely to go for a run if you have good-quality shoes staged by the door (or maybe on the couch so you are prompted to put them on instead of sitting down to watch TV). Get rid of fattening food in your house (my personal favorite failing: clearing the house of fattening foods by eating them all – although it was worth it for the flourless chocolate cake left over from my uncle’s birthday party!). Put a nanny timer on your web browser (like “StayFocused”).
Link your habits
Repetitive habits are more likely to be practiced if they are linked to a particular time. You can set an alarm to remind yourself to call your mom on Sunday morning, update your website on Monday afternoon, spend 10 minutes filing old papers on Wednesday evening. You can have daily repeating reminder alarms so you are prompted to work on your dog’s doorbell habits or recall every day at 7:10pm, for example. The iPhone reminder app is helpful for this (I’m sure other smart phones have similar built-in apps).
You can also link your new would-be habit to an already-established habit. When I was told I had to take a particular medication twice a day, morning and night, I linked it to putting in and taking out my contact lenses, because I do that without fail. I linked my daily correspondence file to eating lunch. The dog’s teeth are brushed just before mine (just before taking out my contacts). The bed is made just after I get out of it.
Maybe even better is to use the Premack Principle – or “grandma’s rule” – and link your new habit to something pleasurable. Watch your favorite TV show after washing the dishes (or fold your laundry during it). Drink your glass of water before your nightly dose of chocolate. In case you haven’t figured it out, Premack’s Principle says that a new behavior is more likely to be repeated if it precedes a behavior that you already enjoy, and “grandma’s rule” is “you have to eat your vegetables if you want dessert”.
Dog training can be especially effective just before a Big Deal event in your dog’s daily life, such as a meal or a walk. Do some quick training just before one of these so you can cap the last successful repetition with saying “Want to go for a walk?!” which is probably one of the best jackpot rewards you can reasonably give your dog (live squirrels being incredibly difficult to keep in your pocket).
Tell someone your goal
It helps if you tell someone what your plan is for your resolution. You can tell one individual or a few friends, you can tell a group; you can make it public (like announcing it on Facebook or on your website) or private (maybe just one person sworn to secrecy). I usually (in pre-Covid times!) spend New Year’s with a group of friends; we usually end up telling each other our resolutions in the hot tub some time after midnight!
It helps even more if you can make it easy for that someone to hold you accountable (especially if you’re an “Obliger“), although some research shows that just telling others of your goal is helpful. Joining a group of others with similar goals is helpful (just ask any AA member!) so you can support each other. I’ve had a lot of success with MyFitnessPal for weight loss, especially when the people I actually see in person at least once a week are also active in it.
It’s helpful if your friends or fellows give you props and kudos for practicing your habits or reaching specific goals that lead to your ultimate goal. But it’s also important for you to reward yourself. Just checking off a daily checksheet (such as the iPhone Reminders to-do list, or Lift.do’s daily list) can be satisfying. You can establish a monetary value for your habit, and help yourself “save up” for a good reward (you’re spending your own money, but at least you’ll feel you’ve “earned” it). Just don’t use a reward that will undermine your ultimate goal – eating ice cream to celebrate a day of healthy habits is not that wise!
New Year’s resolutions are about changing habits, and habits are often about willpower. And willpower is linked to impulse control. And over and over again I’ve heard about the connection between impulse control and learning to meditate (which is essentially about learning to resist the impulse scratch that itch, twitch that foot, and to follow the chattering monkey brain’s random thoughts). So here is one of my New Year’s resolutions, which I’m telling you here: I’m going to try to practice meditation, at least five days a week. I’m going to start with five minutes a day, and I’m going to do it after I finish lunch each day (specifically, I’m going to link it to the action of clearing my lunch dishes). And after I’ve done it, if I want to, I can have my afternoon dark chocolate wedge!
Copyright 2015. All material copyright Stacy Braslau-Schneck. Reprints for non-commercial use, and with the author’s permission only.