The beginning of the New Year may seem like the perfect time to bring change into our lives. But four out of five of us fail to keep our New Year resolutions because of unrealistic expectations, according to a research project of 700 adults.
‘If you’re trying to lose weight, it’s not enough to stick a picture of a model on your fridge or fantasise about being slimmer,’ says psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman, of the University of Hertfordshire, who carried out the research. ‘We also found that making a resolution on the spur of the moment reduced the chances of success. It won’t mean that much to you, so you won’t give it your all,’ he says.
The key to success is ‘to make a plan and find ways to help yourself stick to it’. Indeed, failed resolutions are ‘psychologically harmful because they can rob people of a sense of self-control.’
So whatever your New Year resolutions are this year, we’ve found five psychologists and therapists to suggest strategies to help you succeed in sticking to them…
Willpower: how to crack any habit
Ben Williams, Psychologist
I use a simple skill set with clients when setting goals. The secret is to state them in such a way that they fit the acronym SMART. Losing weight, for example:
• Specific – lose weight to be healthy
• Measurable – 20lbs
• Acceptable – so my clothes fit and I can feel comfortable in a swimsuit;
• Realistic – it’s achievable by exercising and eating healthily
• Timely – losing weight steadily over the next six months
At the planning stage, it’s essential to break down the overall goal into specific objectives or milestones. Each objective can then be broken down into daily tasks. This is where the rubber meets the road! Daily tasks are either progress (joining a sports club, for example) or maintenance (working out there at least three times a week). To set the process in motion, it helps to engage in positive imagery, visualising the activity and imagining the desired result.
As you reach each objective, your self-esteem increases and your resolve is reinforced so that the objective becomes ever easier to reach.
Weight loss tips to help you stay on track
Avoid bossy language
Dr Angharad Rudkin, Clinical psychologist
What stops many people from sticking to New Year resolutions is the belief that we have total control over our minds – and all that’s needed is to make a decision and use our willpower to achieve it. That approach inevitably encourages us to use bossy words and phrases such as: ought to; shouldn’t; must do better. Such an approach doesn’t work with helping friends or family: you wouldn’t tell a friend who wants to lose weight that they should be ashamed of themselves for being so fat.
Yet that’s the way we talk to ourselves, ignoring the growing evidence that developing an inner compassionate self is a powerful way to grow as a person and to achieve what you want out of life.
Becoming aware of these different voices in our heads is a good start. The negative voice that tells us we’re no good and should be doing better adds a sense of panic to a New Year resolution.
Far better to pay attention to the much quieter, positive voice whispering soothingly about our past achievements and the opportunities that are well within our grasp to make our lives happier in the future. It can help to write down this dialogue as a preparation for bringing about workable but loving change.
Dr Angharad Rudkin uses cognitive behaviour therapy
Are you your own worst critic? How to silence that negative voice in your head
Nancy Doyle, Occupational psychologist
Start off with a daydream of what it might be like to stick to your resolution. Then get large sheets of paper and coloured pens and be creative: draw pictures or write stories to create a vision of how you want to change from the perspective of where you are now.
Try not to be judgmental about the place you are in or the habit you’ve decided to give up – it’s been the best way so far to manage your life. But as it’s no longer working for you, you’ve got to update your system – and that’s where the creativity comes in.
Use the first sheet of paper to work out what were the needs that smoking (or whatever) fulfilled when you first took up the habit. That can be useful self-knowledge to prevent you going back there again.
But the big picture that will be transformative is the positive framework of your future life – the one where you are running half marathons or whatever. Keep asking yourself the question: ‘And what would I like to have happen now?’
Deal with negative thinking
Phil Parker, Coach
If you made a New Year resolution to become a London cab driver, could you make such a decision after a glass of wine on New Year’s Eve and the next morning pick up your first customer?
Of course not. Even if your cab was ready and waiting, you’d first have to acquire ‘The Knowledge’ of routes in London. It’s a skill that develops parts of the brain associated with navigation – and the same kind of technique can be used to help stick to a resolution.
It’s necessary to move away from the bad habits of negative thinking and instead commit to re-channelling energy into changing our state of mind, and even the connections between the brain cells. The best way to do this is to commit to becoming your own ‘mind coach’ 24/7 – monitor negative thinking and practise creating positive solutions to life’s challenges. It’s a process that’s effective and will change your state of mind and even the connections between the brain cells.
You won’t learn to be a London cabbie in a month. But if you spend January focusing on the positive outcomes of your New Year resolution, by February it will be part of your mind-set.
Phil Parker is executive coach and designer of P4 Peak Performance - p4training.com
Eight ways to get happy quick
Tap into both head and heart
Dr Claudia Herbert, Oxford Development Centre
Real change isn’t achieved with the ‘head’ alone. It might start as a thought, but to be carried out successfully, it’s important to be sure that this change is right for you now. This knowledge requires communication between head and heart; it’s this connection that creates the motivation to move forward in life.
Take losing weight. By linking to your intuition, you’ll know in a split second that it’s unrealistic to aim to look like Joanna Lumley by the end of January. A more helpful approach might be to develop better body-awareness, perhaps by eating only food that gives you a sense of wellbeing and listening when your body tells you to stop eating, because it doesn’t need any more food. Tapping into both head and heart to devise a supportive strategy to achieve your targets can be applied to all areas of your life that need a change for the better.
If this seems difficult, perhaps your resolution could be to develop better self-awareness skills.