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Healthy Living

Perils of Resolutions

by Anne L. Ballard, Ph.D.

Why do we do the resolution bit anyway?

Most cultures mark the passing of the old year and arrival of the new with some sort of renewal ritual or celebration.  It seems a natural thing to look at the past year and assess what could stand improvement, and what was successful in our lives.  For most of us at Healthy Living, finding what needs improvement comes a whole lot easier than the successful part!

Having come up with a list, mental or otherwise, of things that need some work, the next step is to try to take charge of life by resolving to "fix" the problems.  New Year's Eve seems an excellent time to do this - we can vow that NEXT year (tomorrow, but who thinks of that?) we will do what we should do and leave undone that which we should not do (paraphrasing the old Anglican confessional prayer - "I have done those things I ought not to have done and have left undone those things I ought to have done and there is no health in me.") The basic idea is to turn all of our bad habits around so that all we have left are good ones.  Next year, perfection!

Common New Year's Resolutions

Here's a list of some common New Year's Resolutions:

  • Lose weight (with or without specifying how much)
  • Quit smoking
  • Keep the house organized (or office, or garage, or whatever)
  • Get a head start on the holidays
  • Exercise
  • Write more letters to family and/or friends
  • Be more understanding with (fill in the blank with who ever fits - mates, offspring, pets, boss, employees)
  • Read more
  • Watch educational programs on television
  • Get out more (or stay home more, whichever fits)

Okay, how many of us have made any of the above resolutions more than once?  More than twice?   How many of us would have hit the world record with one or more of them if we hadn't decided that it was pointless to make resolutions?  Can you see me raising my hand?

So why do we (and so many others) keep doing this?   According to Scott McDonnell of the Ayn Rand Foundation, making resolutions makes us feel more in control of life.  The knowledge that we're doing something about our "faults" improves our image of ourselves.  

Given the track record of most people with New Year's resolutions (or ones made on other anniversaries), what's the down side of making resolutions?  If making them gives a feeling of taking charge, of being in control, then what happens when we don't keep the resolutions?

Failure to change the habits can lead to feelings of powerlessness and hopelessness.  Common self-talk over failed resolutions can be summed up as "I can't even do this much, how can I possibly do all of that?  To hell with it, I can't keep to (whatever the resolution was)."  Failures are easy to identify, easy to remember, and erode self-image.  "Failure again!    I'm not worth even trying!"

Focusing on fixing faults in the first days or weeks of the year, and ultimately giving up on the resolutions, can also mean that habits that do need to changing are still firmly in place and get one more year's worth of entrenching.  Next year, the resolution will be that much more difficult to displace.  

Evolution vs Revolution

Evolution generally creates more lasting change with less disruption than revolution.  New Year's resolutions tend to be on the revolutionary scale - we're going to remake ourselves over the course of the next year.  Perhaps an evolutionary model - goal setting - would be more profitable.  

Where resolutions tend to be commanding, goal setting provides guidance.  Where resolutions tend to be impulsive, goal setting goes through a distinct planning phase.  Goal setting leads to clear definitions of what will be changed, along with how and when rather than the more assertive statements of "I WILL" used in resolutions.   Goal setting calls for establishing a schedule for getting to the goal, while resolutions specify the end-state with no milestones.  If I resolve to stop smoking this year, I can kid myself that I still have time to do so until I get to next year's New Year's Eve party.  

So? Now what?

If you've already made resolutions for the coming year, take a look at them and decide which ones you can address.  If a resolution does seem reasonable, use that as a goal, and make a plan to meet the goal.  

Let's say you resolve to quit smoking cigarettes.  "Not smoking any cigarettes" is the goal.  The plan to get there could include the following 4 stages.   Obviously, somewhere along the line, you will have to quit lighting and smoking cigarettes, but think about the preparation needed to get to that point.  Stage 1 might be to learning as much as possible about nicotine addiction and the various tools available that might help you "kick butt."  During stage 2, you could analyze your own smoking patterns to figure out when and why you smoke.   This stage could also include cutting back before quitting absolute.  Stage 3 would be getting through withdrawal and the first 3 weeks (difficult for most, VERY hard for many).  The final step would be moving from someone quitting smoking to being a non-smoker.  

How long will each stage take?   What exactly will you do during each stage and how will you know when the phase has been successfully completed?  Is quitting smoking truly a one year goal, or should you use one year for preparation, then carry the last stage(s) to a second year?  How will you cope with feelings of discouragement during the early phases?  How will you cope with "slips" in the latter?  If you can build in coping mechanisms that will let you go right back to working towards the goal, you will have continual success.  

And that's one of the major differences between goals and resolutions.    Resolutions have no margin for error - you succeed or you utterly fail.  And the latter happens more often than the former.  With goals, you haven't failed until you've given up, and you won't give up because you will have coping mechanisms built into your strategies for succeeding.  

Further resources:

Copyright © 2001 Anne L. Ballard
Copyright © 1998-2002 SLM & Healthy Living
All Rights Reserved

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