By Danielle Barry, PhD
Psychologist, Division of Behavioral Health
Did you make a New Year’s resolution this year? Did you keep it? 45% of Americans make a New Year’s Resolution. 75% keep the resolutions longer than one week. 64% keep them longer than one month. By the end of June, 46% are still keeping their resolutions. Not bad! But if your resolution didn’t make it to the first day of spring, don’t despair. Making changes is challenging; maintaining those changes is even more challenging, but not impossible.
So what do you do if your New Year’s resolution fell by the wayside around the middle of February? Remember the old saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” For most people, maintaining behavior change is really just starting over every time you fail. Creative and productive people accept failure, even embrace it. Think about these famous quotes:
F. Scott Fitzgerald: “You mustn’t confuse a single failure with a final defeat.”
Thomas Edison: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”
Miles Davis: “Do not fear mistakes, there are none.”
Try to think of failure as an opportunity to learn something new and come up with more effective strategies. For a moment, think about what happened to steer you off course. Was there a trigger that led you to abandon your resolution? Maybe something stressful was going on in your life? Did you move, get a new job, end a relationship? Did the weather get in your way? Did you have negative thoughts about your resolution, such as, “This is too hard…I don’t think I can do it.”? If you can figure out what triggered a return to old behaviors, you may find it easier to devise strategies for promoting success in the future. Knowing what happened can help you create an environment that fosters success.
For instance, if your resolution was to lose weight, you might have started the year with a refrigerator full of healthy foods. But then you had a busy week, and didn’t get around to planning meals or shopping, so you picked up some fast food or ate in a restaurant for a few nights in a row. You may have thought, “I blew it. Maybe I’ll try again next year.”
However, there’s no reason to wait to try again. There’s a difference between a lapse and a relapse. If your plan was to stop smoking, and you had one cigarette during a night out with friends, that’s a lapse. Sometimes people feel so guilty about a lapse, or it makes them lose confidence, that they just give up. If you feel so bad about that one cigarette, that you decide to buy a pack and slip back into daily smoking, that’s a relapse. You can prevent a lapse from becoming a relapse by acknowledging the lapse and getting back on track right away.
For the person with the weight loss goal, getting back on track and learning from failure might mean stocking the house with low-calorie foods that don’t need much preparation, so you can eat healthy even on days when there’s no time to cook. For the smoker, it might mean asking your friends who smoke not to offer you cigarettes when you go out together or planning social activities that are incompatible with smoking. Don’t expect perfection. In the future, you will probably have other lapses for other reasons. Each lapse is an opportunity to learn. Over time, you can develop skills that make it easier to keep your resolution. Remember to reward yourself for sticking to your resolution. Rewards become even more important in the long term when the novelty of doing things in a new way starts to wear off.
In some cases, it’s possible your resolution wasn’t worth keeping. Was it consistent with your values, the things that are most important to you? If not, let it go. If it was important and consistent with your values, then think about how you can remind yourself of your values when you feel tempted to give up on your resolution.
About Danielle Barry, PhD
Dr. Danielle Barry has always been a very curious person, especially about human behavior. She says that becoming a psychologist allowed her to channel that curiosity into helping others. “As a psychologist, it’s my job to ask people lots of questions and learn what motivates them – what they care about, and the things that challenge them or cause them pain,” she explains. “Then I can use that information to help people develop...View profile View posts by this doctor