At the beginning of each new year, tradition dictates that we set resolutions to reform our bad habits. But even the most motivated and well-intentioned among us usually finds that our resolve fizzles out after a few months, if not weeks.
Many New Year’s resolutions are health-oriented–we vow to eat better, go to sleep earlier, quit smoking, or exercise more. ( I, for one, have been resolving to stop biting my nails each and every year since I was six years old!) Since these are all worthwhile goals, we thought it was worth consulting an expert on behavioral change, so we spoke to cognitive behavioral therapist Michael A. Tompkins of the San Francisco Bay Area Center for Cognitive Therapy. Tompkins shared his insights about why we break our resolutions as well as a three-step plan for making them stick.
1. Accept the Peaks and Valleys
According to Tompkins, changing any habitual behavior is extremely difficult and requires months of concerted effort. In addition, change does not occur on a continuous, uninterrupted path. “If you charted change, it wouldn’t appear on a straight line,” he says. “There are peaks and valleys. Understanding this will help you get back on track when you revert to old habits.”
For example, you may resolve to be the best parent you can be, but then one day you do something to your kids that you regret. “You don’t decide you’re not going to be a parent anymore,” he says. “When you make that kind of mistake, you try to fix it and get back on track. You resolve, once again, to be the best parent you can and you start over again.”
2. Timing is Everything
Many times people will set a resolution to change the behavior when timing isn’t right. “The classic example is to decide to go on a diet during the holidays,” he says. “It’s perfectly OK to start your resolution when the likelihood of success is highest and you aren’t tempted by one delicious feast after another.”
3. Connect With a Core Value
Perhaps Tompkins’ most important suggestion is to make a resolution that is truly meaningful to you. “People who are better able to make and maintain behavioral change do so when the change is truly aligned with a more fundamental core value ,” says Tompkins. “I don’t think people think about that.”
To determine whether your resolution is aligned with your core values, Tompkins recommends asking yourself, “Is this resolution really what I want to stand for? Does it have meaning to me? How is changing this behavior going to lead me to something that’s really important in my life?” If your answer is that you want to lose four pounds to fit into a pair of jeans, Tompkins argues that it might not be compelling enough to sustain your motivation over the long haul. But if you identify that you want to be a more engaged parent and losing weight will help you be more active with your kids, you’ve identified a change that has meaning to you and you’ll be more likely to stick to it.
“When someone tells me they want to change,” says Tompkins, ” I usually ask them, ‘Why? How will that get you closer to things that are important in your life?'” Now, we’re asking you: What is your New Year’s resolution and why is it important to you? Share with us!