January 1st already feels like it’s a million years ago, and yet it’s only been two weeks. Remember that feeling when you woke up in a new year, excited and motivated to start your new routine because this year, you were going to keep those resolutions. This was the year you were going to work out every day, or be more creative and finally learn to play guitar, or stop smoking. This was the year you were really going to do it, and this resolution was going to stick. Two weeks later, life has returned back to the normal, daily routine, and those resolutions feel like yesterday’s news.
But what if you want them to stick? What should you do if you want to keep them and make them a reality? How do we make yesterday’s news into today’s headlines? Keeping a resolution can be hard; if behavior change was easy, we’d all be our optimal selves all the time! And that’s what a resolution is, a decision to change a behavior that has been formed over time to something different (that is often healthier, or more value-consistent).
When you’re making behavior changes, the following three tips can help increase the odds that you will succeed in your efforts to make lasting changes.
Set a goal with a Flexible Definition of “Success”
Years ago, I had health insurance that would pay for my gym membership if I went to the gym 200 times in a year. A non-gym goer, I had resolved that I was going to change my ways and hit that target. This meant I had to average 4 gym days per week, which was quite a jump from the zero I had averaged over the many years prior. But, I had made the decision and was off. The first week was a success, and it was the only “successful” week of the year. By February, it was clear that 200 wasn’t going to happen and my regular gym days dwindled down to none. Sure, I had gone to the gym that year more than ever before in my life, but I had already “failed” by not going to the gym enough in the beginning of the year that I just gave up.
What if I had a more flexible definition of success? What if my resolution had been something like, “I will go to the gym this year, and will work my way up to weekly.” Then, every time I went to the gym, I was succeeding, and missing days, or not going on a fixed schedule wasn’t failing, rather it feel within the parameters of my behavior change. Would I be increasing my health? Check. Would I be going to the gym more? Check.
Having a flexible goal, which allows for many ways to be successful, gives you the space to work with your goals to find the best way for you to achieve them and adopt them for the future. If you get too caught up on strict schedules and routines, you increase the likelihood that you will miss something, and feel like a failure. Speaking of failure …
Beware of the Abstinence Violation Effect!
We’ve written about the Abstinence Violation Effect before, but here’s a quick primer. When you set a strict goal for yourself (“I’m never smoking another cigarette again in my life”), and then you break it, your brain tends to respond poorly. Rather than saying, “OK, that happened and now it’s time for me to really step up and get back to my goals!” we tend to say something more like “well, that didn’t last long. I didn’t really expect it would. Oh well!”
When we make that second statement, we make it much more likely that we will return to old behaviors and scrap our positive changes. The Abstinence Violation Effect states that how we react to a slip in our goals directly effects how we will behave in the future. If you’re aware of this phenomenon, then you can plan for it and override it.
How do you override it? You plan ahead for ways to buoy your motivation. This can include having other people involved in your decision so that they can help get you back on track, or having rewards that you can get for hitting certain milestones. Check here for more ideas about how to deal when your motivation needs a boost.
Values, Values, Values
One of the core “issues” with behavior change is that it’s hard to do, and human beings are naturally averse to things that are difficult. Unless, that is, if the difficult thing to do is really worthwhile to you. If your goals are aligned with your values, then it makes it more likely that you’ll tolerate those difficult moments and keep up the behavior changes you’re trying to make.
And no, you don’t have to totally scrap your current resolutions because they aren’t valuable enough! You just have to find the values that are at work underneath the surface! For example, maybe your resolution is to run in a marathon this year. What is driving that goal? Is it a desire to be healthier? Or to demonstrate achievement? Maybe your run can be connected to your value of giving back (raising money for your run to donate to charity). If you can connect your resolution to something that matters to you, then you raise the odds that it will both tolerate the difficult times when you don’t want to continue, and come back when you’ve had a slip.
Making behavior changes is difficult, and change doesn’t happen in one mystical night. Even if you haven’t started out this year strong on the behavior change front, these tips may help you keep your resolutions this year and make those changes that you’re wanting to make in your life.