Saturday, December 31, 2011

New Year's Resolutions?

Have you made any New Year's resolutions? Have your clients?

As I mentioned a few days ago, I am wary of the whole phenomenon of New Year's resolutions, because they so often take on extreme or black-and-white terms. Think about it: New Year's resolutions most often involve "resolving" to do or not do something from now on. We decide to quit smoking, or lose 15 pounds, or exercise 3 times a week, to put $__ into savings each month, or stop spending money on clothes. Such resolutions are concrete (as we've learned goals "should" be), so it is possible to categorically determine whether or not a person is keeping his or her resolution. You've either kept it or broken it. Black or White.

What's wrong with that? It creates problems both theoretically and practically. Practically speaking, we're all imperfect, and therefore likely to be imperfect in keeping a resolution. In other words, we all break our resolutions sooner or later. If the resolution offers no room for imperfection, the logical response is to give up on the resolution once it's been broken. After all, if we resolved not to smoke in the new year, and we smoked one or two cigarettes one night, then no matter what happens moving forward, we already smoked during the year. Since we broke the resolution regardless, why keep trying?

The end result in practical terms is that we don't manage to maintain a change, and we feel worse about ourselves as a result. Not a result I want for myself, or my clients!

Theoretically speaking, the problem with resolutions is that they ignore what we know about how people change - specifically that it is a gradual and cyclical process rather than a linear or categorical switch. Change is hard! The status quo usually exists for a reason - for example, smoking is relaxing. We have to account for the factors supporting the status quo when we prepare to make a change. For example, if we don't come up with some other ways of relaxing, we're going to have a hard time not smoking! In more technical terms, we have to resolve any ambivalence about the change.

Then, after beginning a change, we have to expect that the new behavior will be tenuous at first. There are going to be days when it is easier and harder, and most likely there will be times when we revert back to the old status quo. If we're measuring success in black-and-white terms, these slips will be seen as failures, and may cut off further efforts at change - in other words, after a slip, we feel like we've failed, and so give up, with a full return to old behavior as the result (i.e., a relapse). However, if we go into the change process knowing that there will be slips, and seeing those slips as an opportunity to learn more about both old and new behaviors, and make adjustments to fine tune our plan for maintaining change, we're more like to ultimately experience lasting change.

Now, I suppose it's possible to make a resolution and be flexible and self-forgiving about the foibles inherent to the change process. It's just hard to maintain that dialectic. For myself, I prefer to frame goals for the new year in alternate forms. For example, what about choosing a theme? For example, healthy lifestyle, or financial stability. You can identify changes that might be part of that (smoking, exercise, spending) but not back yourself into a corner by framing them as resolutions. If you prefer more concrete goals, set the goal for the end of the year (more like we do in treatment planning, where the change becomes the end result, rather than something we expect to see from the beginning). For example, I will be down to 0 cigarettes per week, or be exercising 3 times per week, by the end of the year?

What other strategies can capture and harness motivation to change in the new year, while also taking into account the difficulties inherent to the change process?

1 comment:

  1. I like the idea of making a change in small steps. You can work towards your ultimate goal while also creating room for error. Like you said, if you start out with the goal of exercising three days a week every week and then you only do two days one week, you've broken your resolution. If, however, you identify the three days a week as a goal to work towards over time and start out only trying to work out one day a week, you give yourself a lot more leeway. I think this is an excellent approach, especially for people who tend to be too hard on themselves.