New Years Resolutions that Work

It’s holiday time of year again when thoughts turn to shopping, giving, partying and—yes—making New Years’ resolutions. Even if a person doesn’t want to make them, reminders about resolutions are on the Internet, talk shows, the news and magazines. Unfortunately, these reminders highlight last year’s broken promises and the reality of breaking the same or new ones this coming year.
Many people avoid making them and secretly are ashamed of their previous failure. Jeanie, a teacher, summed up the feelings perfectly: “It’s like starting the New Year already defeated.”
The following guide to making resolutions that work can’t guarantee success, but it can lay the groundwork for changing old habits.

1. Start small.
One of the major problems with resolutions is that the freshness of the New Year often propels people to think too big. It’s easy to get swept up into the appeal of a clean slate and make big promises to change old habits such as quitting cigarettes or waking up earlier.
Janet, a free-lance writer, got caught up in false hopes by vowing to wake up before six-thirty every morning. By the third day, she had broken her promise twice. A wiser plan would have been to go to bed earlier once a week, plan to wake up earlier the next morning and then add more days slowly a week at a time.
Don’t take on too many resolutions at once. Janet thought she could both wake up earlier and then run two miles.

2. Expect the inevitable discomfort and anxiety that accompany change.
One of the mixed blessings about being human is the ability to manage pain, insecurities, anxieties and other problems through behaviors that work well enough. For example, eating may not be the best way to soothe feelings, but it works well enough so that giving up old eating habits then becomes at least as difficult as continuing to eat unwisely.
In general, behaviors that are biologically-based are the most troublesome to modify. These behaviors include actions that involve anger and aggression and all the pleasure-inducing activities such as sex, gambling, drinking, eating and shopping. Not surprisingly, because people are prone to excesses in these areas, promises to change these tendencies make up the bulk of New Years resolutions.
It takes tremendous will power to alter disheartening habits. As a result, many people fool themselves into thinking that the beginning of a New Year is a potent enough motivator. Such hopes result in global and bittersweet resolutions that are doomed to fail. A typical list of these resolutions includes:
I promise not to hide my purchases from my husband.
I promise not to eat candy and junk food while driving alone.
I promise to fit into my high school clothes.
I promise not to get upset any more with my pet, family and colleagues.
I promise not to be sexually turned on by looking at other people.
I promise not to lie to my partner—at least not big lies.
I promise not to fudge my work at my job—at least not big fudges.
I promise not stop cheating on my partner.
I promise not to lie about dents in the car.
I promise not to carry a balance on my credit card.
I promise not to buy things I don’t really need—whatever that means.

Making resolutions that address these issues, however, is often the most important decision. Aim small for big results. For example, a resolution that addresses secret spending might be to designate one credit card or checking card for the home budget that includes a set limit on fun purchases.

3. Don’t make promises without preparing for them.
Usually, each New Year begins with the same or similar resolutions as the year before. Even if the resolutions are realistic or new, failure can still happen because people do not examine themselves and their past attempts with other promises adequately.
Honest shoring up alerts people to their past patterns of thoughts and actions. Tom, a middle school teacher, would flop on the couch as soon as he came home from work. He convinced himself he needed to rest before visiting his two sons on the other side of town. Too often, however, he fell asleep and awoke after dinner. A better plan was to bring casual clothes with him to wear after work and then drive directly to see his sons. He also soon learned to plan activities with them ahead of time.
More importantly, start or renew your New Years resolutions several times throughout the year. Key occasions include at the beginning of each season, on birthdays, half-birthdays or anniversaries. This approach is not a gimmick. It gives people repeated trials of re-training brain wiring to accept new behaviors.

4. Know what triggers temptation.
For example, sitting at the bar or going out with colleagues to the local pub will impair promises to limit drinking. Keep a diary or jot down the feeling/situation trigger on a piece of scrap paper to see in print what prompts set-backs.

5. Recruit others to assist or participate in keeping resolutions.
The Weight-Watchers Program works, in part, because of the buddy system and group dynamics. People can make similar pacts with colleagues to order healthier lunches. The same system works in families. For example, most families reward themselves with food. This approach is fine, except that it usually involves poor choices such as fried food and cake and ice cream. Soon, the reasons for celebrating expand so that everyone eats these foods often. However, remember, leaving out favorite foods totally only creates cravings that force people to overeat. One solution is to make everyone in the family an official food deputy where each person has responsibility for saying to another, “Don’t eat that—or so much of that.”
Also, inform family physicians about any resolutions regarding health and ask her or him to assist in sustaining change.

6. Build in rewards for success.
It takes time for the benefits of success to take hold. Usually, feeling better doesn’t kick in until at least three weeks of new behavior. Many people who promised to exercise more, for example, had less trouble following a regime after a month.
The problem is how to motivate one’s self in the meantime. Selecting meaningful rewards can often sustain the changes. Janet, the free-lance writer who wanted to awaken earlier, found that building in smart rewards such as watching a favorite television show helped motivate her. Eventually, the good feeling from success prompted her to go to bed earlier and rise in time to run half a mile. Over time, that half mile became one, then two miles.
The key is to avoid rewards such as eating or shopping, which can create more problems. Develop a new reward such as calling an old friend, soaking in the tub or gardening.
David started a vacation fund to help him quit smoking. When he wanted a cigarette, he put the price of a pack into a glass bowl. The plan worked because he not only chose a meaningful reward but also because he kept the jar in plain sight at work.

7. Add helping others to your resolutions.
Improvements in self-worth often lead to increased ability to make changes and withstand the anxiety from letting of old habits. Volunteering and helping others is a great way to raise self-esteem. Select an organization that holds personal meaning and offer to volunteer. Or, resolve to be more understanding of a difficult family member.

8. Review this list and read other articles about tips for New Years resolutions.
People learn through repetition. Several times a year, on key occasions, use the helpful information to reinforce efforts to sustain and make changes.
There are no best resolutions. They vary with the person. However, smart ones include promises such as:
I promise to join a weight program and gym and work out wisely with a group
of friends.
I promise to get a medical physical.
I promise to pay attention to warning symptoms that I am not well.
I promise to join AA or other similar groups for my substance abuse problems.
I promise to recruit family members and friends to help me with all my
I promise to seek professional, psychological help for my difficulties.
I promise to be a volunteer for a charitable organization.
I promise to get financial counseling from my bank or place of work.
I promise to take short vacations or breaks to relieve stress.
I promise to find one thing in life that makes me smile and laugh.

Good luck and happy New Year.

LeslieBeth Wish, Ed.D., is a noted psychologist and social worker, specializing in women, family and relationships. She welcomes contacts and requests for articles and talks. Her next book project, The No-Nonsense Woman’s Guide to Love, is for women smart about work and career but not about love. If you are interested in participating in her research for this book or learning more about her, see her website at or contact her at

Author's Bio: 

Dr. LeslieBeth Wish is a nationally honored therapist, specializing in all aspects of family life, including parenting, sex, marriage, relationships, smart dating, careers, trauma and divorce. Her groundbreaking work in treating sexual issues at The New England Institute of Family Relations and her provocative book "Incest, Work and Women," earned her recognition as a pioneer in the field of women's sexual, family and career issues. She is a regular contributor to the award-winning and is nationally known for her work with military families. Her next book project on No-nonsense women aims to help today's strong, independent women who are smart at work but not in love. For more information or to become a participant in the research for this book, go to

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