As the ball in Times Square counts down the seconds to the New Year, many of us will resolve to do things differently…lose weight, stop drinking caffeine, exercise more, spend less money, spend more time with family, or start a savings account. We will set lofty goals around living differently in the coming year.
Yet, even as we make resolutions, a nagging awareness we may not be successful will lurk in the dark recesses of our mind. So, what happens? Why do we start out with good intentions only to find ourselves resorting back to old, unhealthy patterns of behavior?
Strengthen your willpower muscle
Despite the popular belief that failure to change comes from a lack of willpower, most people do not lack willpower…or the ability to use it. Studies show effectively exercising willpower depends upon variables within the environment.
One variable affecting willpower is the amount of difficult or unpleasant activity currently present in your life beyond the change you want to make. When individuals are asked to do difficult math problems for a period of time and then resist eating chocolate chip cookies, they resisted for significantly less time than those participants who did not do the math problems first.
Willpower is like a muscle that gets tired if it is over used. Making successful change requires have enough pleasurable activity in your life to allow your willpower “muscle” recovery time from the stress of the change you are attempting to make.
- One way to do this is to add positives into your life. For example, take the money normally spent on cigarettes each week and use it to buy something enjoyable.
- Another way to do this is by making sure you break the change down into small increments that do not place as much stress on your willpower muscle. For example, instead of eliminating dessert from your life to lose weight, cut each dessert you normally eat in half and eat only half of a dessert.
Spend time with people succeeding at your goal
Surrounding yourself with other people successfully making the same change you are making is also a key to achieving lasting success. By putting yourself in an environment where you routinely witness others like yourself successfully accomplishing the very thing you want to change, you strengthen your core belief you can accomplish the goal. Strengthening this belief, while simultaneously surrounding yourself with others going after the same goal, further increases your ability to succeed.
If you train with four other out-of-shape friends to run a 5K race, you will be encouraged as you watch your friends running further and faster. These four friends will also be waiting for you to train at 5:00 each morning making it much more difficult to justify remaining in bed on those days when you are tired.
Having a positive support network is key to making and maintaining lasting changes in life.
More pain or more pleasure—uncover what motivates you more
A third key to making successful change is identifying the function negative behaviors serve in your life. People have reasons for doing the things they do. Trying to change a behavior prior to understanding why you currently engage in the behavior is a set-up for failure.
Most of what you do is motivated by either working to avoid pain or working to increase pleasure. You probably won’t be able to change until the pain of present circumstances is greater than the pain involved in making a change.
If you can understand how the pain/pleasure principle is currently playing out in your life, you can develop a change strategy. You might increase the pain involved in continuing the behavior you want to change, or you might increase the amount of pleasure experienced by engaging in the new behavior.
For example, if you currently spend every night at the office instead of spending time with your children, you probably won’t successfully change this pattern without exploring why you stay late at the office. Once you identify that you feel very successful at work and somewhat incompetent at keeping your six-month-old happy and comforting him when he cries, you can make a plan to feel more competent when you go home (both decreasing the pain and increasing the pleasure you experience by going home). This, in turn, increases your ability to keep that New Year’s resolution to spend more time with your children.
Taking time to make New Year’s resolutions can be a constructive and positive activity. Devising strategies to have good support, effectively manage your willpower, and identify why you currently engage in the behavior you want to change sets you up to successfully keep your New Year’s resolutions in the coming year.
Jean Holthaus, LISW is a Licensed Independent Social Worker and clinic manager at the Pine Rest Pella Clinic. She earned a BA in Elementary Education from the University of Northern Iowa and a Masters of Social Work from the University of Iowa in 1995.