Are You SMART Enough to Keep Your Resolutions?

by Charles Platkin, PhD

It’s almost 10 years ago to the day that I made the ultimate New Year’s Resolution — to give up making New Year’s for good. Really, no one ever keeps resolutions anyway, so why waste my valuable time?

Well, I’m back. And I’m not alone — in fact every year, millions of Americans commit to a variety of New Year’s Resolutions, and by far the most common is the vow to lose weight and exercise more. Yet, by the end of February, only a handful of people have actually stuck to their new routines.

So why do we keep making these resolutions? And how can we finally make them stick, once and for all?

We make resolutions mainly because New Year’s is a trigger event — a time when we evaluate where we’ve been, where we are now, and where we are going. Examples of other trigger events include weddings, funerals, birthdays, high school reunions — times that make us stop and think about our lives.

We also fixate on New Year’s as a time for change because “New Year’s is a fresh start, it’s an ability to turn the page and say whatever has happened is in the past, and now you’re joining in with the world at large to say something fresh and new is happening,” says Dr. Alan Manevitz, Clinical Psychiatrist and Professor of Psychiatry at Cornell Medical Center. With such compelling , then, why do most resolutions fail?

One of the biggest problems we have is believing that willpower and discipline are all that we need to lose weight and make our New Year’s Resolutions a reality. You may be fond of dramatically stomping your foot on the kitchen floor the morning of January 1st to declare, “This is the last time! This is that year I will lose the weight! I’m going to empty the refrigerator, clean out my cupboards, and never, ever eat junk food again.” The truth is that more often than not, this approach is both severely unpleasant and a big waste of energy.

“People believe that they need nothing more than resolve to break the patterns they’ve been living by, whereby the most successful means to effecting change is to devise a specific strategy to make that resolution come true,” says Dr. Manevitz. In fact, in order to make fundamental, long-term changes in your life, there are very specific steps and guidelines which, when properly implemented, can empower you and increase your chances of success.

While most people know what it is they have to do, the key to success is actually doing it. “There is a huge gap between knowledge and practice. Practice requires development of skills, and people need to learn to develop the skill of choosing a lifestyle,” says Dr. Sharron Dalton, Director of the Graduate Program in Nutrition at New York University.

If you’re wondering where to start, I’ve discovered that the key to setting resolutions that work is to make sure your resolutions are S.M.A.R.T.:

SPECIFIC: Make your clear, not vague, and avoid those that are too broad. For example instead of saying, “I want to lose weight,” try narrowing it down to something like, “I would like to lose 20 pounds over the next 6 months.”

MOTIVATING: Make the process and the end result exciting for you. Instead of creating a boring eating or exercise program, try to add some interesting components that will keep you going. If you pick running as the exercise component for your fitness goal but you don’t like to run — well, that’s not very motivating. Find something that will excite you and keep you on the path to getting in shape. Instead of just walking around the block, try hikes and walks in unique areas. Instead of making bland tasting food that’s low in calories, sign up for a cooking course in low-calorie cuisine.

ACHIEVABLE: Be realistic. Stating that you want to “lose 20 pounds in a week” will not help you achieve your goal — it will only move you closer to failure. Do the research and try to find out what is considered a reasonable weight-loss goal. Most experts say that approximately 1-2 pounds per week is safe and manageable.

REWARDING: Ensure that the benefits of your goal are clear, and think about what it will be like to actually lose the weight. How will you feel? What will you look like? Create a mental “Life Preserver,” which is a future imagined event where you have already attained your goal. Many of us seem to confuse the reasons why we want to lose weight and effect change in our lives. For some it’s vanity, for others it’s health. You need to figure out the real reason that you want to change.

TACTICAL: Have a detailed action plan. If your goal is to lose weight, ask yourself (and write down), “How am I going to lose the weight? What am I going to eat? What are my ‘eating weak spots’? What physical activity will I use to burn calories?” Have a Plan B to eliminate excuses. For example, if you decide you’re going to exercise more and begin a walking program, be sure to have another exercise in mind if it happens to be raining.

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