Rather than doom yourself to defeat with promises that even a saint couldn't keep, set yourself up for success with real-life resolutions for your real life. What is it this year? Lose 30 pounds? Become a triathlete? Swear off cheesecake for life? And, of course, it's all going to happen at the stroke of midnight on Dec. 31, right?
There's something about the new year that prompts people to fantasize about healthier living. There's nothing wrong with vowing to eat only low-fat foods or to quit smoking, but adopting a long-term, wholesome lifestyle takes a lot of hard work and willpower. The problem is, most people don't get very far with their resolutions and are back to their old habits by spring. Turns out that what seemed so easy to do on New Year's Eve can be an elusive dream.
Dr. Irvin Wolkoff, a psychiatrist in Toronto, knows a thing or two about helping people make personal changes that stick. He calls this phenomenon "magical thinking." People believe that making a change will be easier simply because they willed it to happen as the clock struck midnight on New Year's Eve.
Wolkoff has a point. If you couldn't spontaneously become a strict vegetarian on April 28, what makes you think you can do it on Jan. 1? That said, there's still hope of making your fantasy a reality. Here's how to ditch the guilt -- and the weighty resolutions -- and make this year's goals a reality.
Make the resolution concrete and manageable
Swearing to get in shape isn't just a huge ambition: it's a vague one. Broad, sweeping statements like that are an invitation to failure. Instead of resolving to accomplish a vague goal, such as getting in shape, promise to take the necessary and specific steps to get there. That way, you'll find that staying on track is much easier. So if getting in shape for you means taking a brisk walk midday, then resolve to walk for 20 minutes during lunch. If you're a pack rat from way back, do not resolve to become a Martha Stewart clone overnight. Instead, pick one room and decide to keep it tidy. If you succeed, you can expand your organizational mission to other rooms.
Tracy Saliani, a 24-year-old mother of two, has tried to quit smoking at least half a dozen times, always unsuccessfully. So what was the problem? She always attacked it as an all-or-nothing mission, even when it was obvious that she couldn't quit in one shot. "I'm not a cold-turkey person," she says.
Now Tracy and her husband, Glenn, also a smoker, have come up with a set of concrete and manageable goals designed to eventually get them off nicotine completely. "We're going to start smoking outside. We're going to make the house smoke-free," she says. From there, quitting will be much easier.
Page 1 of 4 -- Discover how setting small goals for yourself throughout the year can help you achieve bigger resolutions on page 2
Change is difficult; so it follows that major change is, well, majorly difficult. Trying to do it all at once will probably leave you frustrated at the lack of instant results. Instead, break it up into smaller, more achievable goals. Once you've reached your first goal, you'll find yourself motivated by your results, and that will propel you onward toward further success.
Sheila Shergold is a recent convert to this approach. She spent years making the same resolution: to take off all her extra weight. Her succession of fad diets became almost legendary, and, while she did lose some weight, she ultimately gained it all back. Sheila laughs at the memory of her cabbage-soup days: "It's food that's not realistic to buy for the rest of your life. I would lose 20 pounds -- but then I gained them and several of their cousins back." She always felt like a failure because she never met her weight-loss goals.
Wolkoff has heard stories like Sheila's time and again. "When people make resolutions and can't keep them, they give up," he says. "But they shouldn't: major change can't be effected in one fell swoop. The components should be manageable."
Sheila has switched to Weight Watchers, where newcomers are encouraged to focus on a 10 per cent weight loss before making any long-term weight-loss plans. She has taken control of her eating habits in a realistic way. She's pleased with her results. "I know it's going to take time, but I didn't put it all on in a month, did I?" she says.
Set a deadline
You may think you can accomplish your goal any time you want, but if you're like most people, you're better off with a deadline. In fact, the absence of a deadline may be the only thing standing between you and success. Unless you set a date, you'll probably come up with a "better time" to turn over a new leaf. Go ahead – schedule in your lifestyle changes. After all, a schedule works at the office, doesn't it? So use the business example and get it done.
Page 2 of 4 -- Find advice on how to break your New Year's resolution into different stages on page 3
Kathryn Saliani, Tracy's mother-in-law, knows what it's like to try to quit smoking without a firm deadline. "You decide you're going to quit -- not necessarily that day, but some time that year," she says. "You think about quitting when they advertise February as heart month. You dread Weedless Wednesday that month because you know you should attempt it. Sometimes you do try and it lasts for two or three days. Then you reward yourself with a cigarette."
Kathryn did manage to quit smoking 19 years ago. She picked a target date that wasn't a holiday, birthday, anniversary or other special event. She stresses that your target date should only be important because it's a target date. Otherwise, a well-intentioned friend or relative might provide unnecessary temptation. Who wants to swear off desserts, only to be presented with a cake on your birthday?
Break your resolution into stages
Get out your calendar and mark dates to take those baby steps toward your final resolution. Circle them in red, post the calendar where you'll see it and follow the steps to the day. For example, if your aim is to eat a healthy diet, cut the cream and sugar from your coffee starting Jan. 15. Sometime in February, stop using butter. Celebrate spring by adding a selection of legumes to your pantry. Follow the trend throughout the year and by December you'll have improved your eating habits twelvefold. Suddenly it's not such a big job now, is it?
Evelyn Annis found this strategy eminently rewarding. When she decided to shape up, she wasn't exactly in minute-mile form -- far from it. She was a first-class couch potato but she was determined to change more than just the channel. Early last year she got out her daybook and started marking dates. Her first goal was to walk every day during lunch starting in mid-January -- nothing spectacular, just around the block twice. A month later she started hitting the pavement every day for an hour. "As my physical activity increased in stages over the next several months, so did my stamina," she says. "By the end of August, I had managed to include an hour and a half of exercise in my daily routine without really noticing."
Page 3 of 4 -- Learn expert strategies for achieving your resolutions on page 4
Put yourself in it
In other words, know thyself. If you're a dedicated chocoholic, you should probably rethink banning the cocoa bean altogether. And if contact sports leave you cold, taking up hockey shouldn't be your way of getting active.
If your resolution goes against the grain, failure is imminent – no matter how keen you are. Motivation in spades won't make up for the fact that whatever you're trying to do just doesn't feel right.
You know your strengths, so use them to overcome a weakness. For example, personalize your workout at the gym to include activities you prefer: if you love the stationary bicycle but not the weights, devise your program accordingly. If you have more energy and stamina in the summer, then break away from the rest of the herd making New Year's resolutions and implement your own changes in July.
Wolkoff purposefully didn't wait until the end of the year when he resolved to lose weight more than a year ago. In addition to maintaining a psychiatric practice in Toronto, he had started making regular television appearances in the United States, and the pressures and travel involved in his extra work had led him to overeat.
While he was willing to work hard to achieve his weight-loss goals and take it slow, he wasn't willing to wait for Dec. 31 to roll around. Instead, he grabbed the bull by the horns and changed his eating habits. "Why should New Year's resolutions be easier to keep than Oct. 23 resolutions?" he says. "I just said, ‘Time's up. I need to bite the bullet.'"
He lost 20 pounds before the end of the year and was able to avoid the "magical thinking" pitfall that so many of his colleagues and patients fall into. "Magical solutions don't exist," he says flatly. "Following concrete and manageable resolutions may not be as sexy, but it works."
Page 4 or 4