How to Really Make Change in the New Year

Four ways to make your resolutions a reality

by Charles Schaeffer, PhD

Once again, it's that optimistic time when many of us make resolutions for the new year. As we hang a new calendar, we commit to new weight loss regimens, promises to quit bad habits, pledges to make a career change, or plans to implement a grand system for organizing life. There is something lovely about the fresh start of a new year and the clean slate to write down our hopes for a better year, a better us, a better life.

The problem? Many of these grand schemes are dropped faster than that ball in New York City. But there are those among us who are able to keep their momentum going and make lasting changes over the new year – whether to their waistlines or their wallets. And these strategies are the keys to transforming your resolution into the reality you want. 

Understand Your Motivation
Changing long-standing behaviors and habits is hard. Really hard. But we rarely recognize that. Instead many of us approach making changes – in what we eat, how much alcohol we drink, and our work behaviors – with the overly optimistic idea that just deciding to change is all it takes.

People who effectively make changes often start by sitting down and really thinking about how much they want to change versus stay the same. A great way of doing this is by honestly listing all the things you will lose by changing your behavior, whether it's the comfort of eating junk food or the instant stress relief of a nightcap after work. Then, next to that list, write down the gains – things like feeling better emotionally, sleeping better, having improved self-esteem, and feeling good when you can wear your favorite jeans again.

It's likely that your list in favor of making a change will outstrip the list of keeping things the same. Recognizing the benefits you will reap (and having them written down to refer to when your resolve weakens) is critical to making big changes in your life.

Interview the New You
It may sound hokey (or a little therapist-y), but in my practice, I have found that one of the most effective interventions for making a change is imagining that you have already achieved your goal and then interviewing that version of yourself about how you got here.

When you assume that a part of yourself can succeed and make the changes you desire, you also assume you have the power, intelligence, and determination somewhere inside of you to succeed. The trick is probing deeply to find out how.

Let's say you lost 10 pounds, created an office that's efficient and organized, or secured your dream job instead of settling for a paycheck. Well, how did you get there? Ask a trusted, nonjudgmental friend to interview you as your future self and ask these questions: What did you do to keep motivated? What steps did you take to get to your goal? How did you overcome temptations to fall back on old habits? What helped you the most in keeping the changes you made? What does it feel like to have accomplished your goals?

Starting with this interview is a powerful way people succeed in making changes by identifying their strategies, strengths, and motivations. Take it a step further by recording or writing down your answers so you have them as a game plan going forward (and if you don’t feel comfortable asking a friend to play the role of interviewer, just write down your responses to the questions above).

Set S.M.A.R.T. Goals
This is not a judgment about the quality of your goals, but an acronym to help you make them attainable. S.M.A.R.T. stands for specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-sensitive. Often our goals are vague ("I will lose weight"), difficult to measure ("I will be a better parent"), or potentially unrealistic ("I will lose 50 pounds this year"). S.M.A.R.T. goals focus on smaller, actionable goals that are easy to track, measure, and reflect on. ("I will only eat one small piece of candy three times this week." Or "I will spend one extra hour more reading and playing with my child in the next week.")

Research shows that people who make and maintain changes – from physical fitness all the way up to quitting heroin – are able to do so by keeping their momentum and self-confidence going and growing. And there's no better way to do that than by setting yourself up to succeed with reasonable, observable S.M.A.R.T. goals.

Create small goals that serve your larger goal. Complete your two to three goals for the week? Great! Use that feeling of success to create another two to three goals for the following week. Slowly you will be building routines and making changes that propel you away from old habits and closer to your bigger goals.

Create an Incentive Program
Although meeting a goal can be rewarding in itself, it often helps to sweeten the pot by setting yourself up for specific, satisfying rewards that are contingent on meeting a S.M.A.R.T. goal. It feels good to know you finished a big part of a work project that has been hanging around for the past six months, but it feels even better when you know you’ve also earned a deep tissue massage, tickets to a new movie or show, or even just a few hours of uninterrupted, quality bonding time with your Netflix queue.

Come up with some specific things or activities you enjoy doing and then attach them to meeting one of your S.M.A.R.T goals. Just be careful of rewards that work against your goals. A weekend of comfort food undermines progress in weight loss. A night out at the bar can jeopardize your ability to stay smoke free and drink less.  

All these strategies will make a tremendous difference in your ability to follow through on the worthwhile hopes and dreams you outlined this January. But it doesn't mean things won't be hard, that you won't struggle, or that you won't lose ground once in a while. If you stumble on your path to the new you (and a lot of us will), don't throw in the towel or get bogged down in self-criticism.

Research shows that when you are able to show compassion to yourself in those moments, you are much likely to succeed eventually. Beating yourself up will only lead to more destructive behavior, while showing yourself forgiveness and compassion will help you stay on track.

Some changes are so big, and the obstacles to making them can be so large, that you may need the support of a mental health provider who specializes in motivational enhancement and change. But with the right support and a lot of planning, you can make the changes you seek in your life.

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Charles Schaeffer, PhD

Charles Schaeffer, PhD, is a psychologist at Seleni where he utilizes different methods of treatment including cognitive-behavioral, sleep enhancement, mindfulness-based, and psychodynamic therapy. He has spent the last nine years working with adults, adolescents, and children who are experiencing stress, insomnia, anxiety, and depression at several locations including New York University, Mount Sinai Medical School, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and the New York City Public School System. He is an internationally recognized scholar, career coach, and research contributor for Deloitte, and he applies his research on work-life balance, caregiving, and career development to help parents negotiate the demands of work and family. When not in the office, Dr. Schaeffer enjoys creating media designed to help people understand and apply psychology to everyday life including his column for the Daily Meal, Mind Over Meal.

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