Learn how to make your resolutions last longer than a passing thought
By Leanna Skarnulis
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature
Reviewed By Charlotte Grayson, MD
What does Valentine's Day have to do with New Year's resolutions? By then, most resolutions to exercise, lose weight, get out of debt, and others have fallen by the wayside, say experts in achievement motivation theory and goal setting. But don't let a history of failed resolutions stop you from aspiring to grow and achieve. Make this the year for resolution makeovers.
Start by phrasing your resolutions in ways that make them specific, measurable, and positive. WebMD asked Gary Ryan Blair, author of Goal Setting 101: How To Set and Achieve a Goal, and Sally A. White, PhD, authority on achievement motivation theory, for help with makeovers of common resolutions. For example:
- Last Year: Get in shape.
- This Year: Go to gym three times a week, and workout 60 to 90 minutes.
- Last Year: Spend more time with kids.
- This Year: Reserve two hours every Sunday for a family-only activity.
- Last Year: Lose weight.
- This Year: Weigh 130 pounds and wear my size 10 jeans by June 1.
- Last Year: Get organized.
- This Year: Every morning between 8:30 and 9, list tasks according to A, B, or C priorities.
- Last Year: Be healthier.
- This Year: Eat five fruits and vegetables a day, walk 30 minutes a day three to five times a week, and limit McDonald's to once a week.
- Last Year: Get out of debt.
- This Year: Cut up Discover card, and pay $100 over the minimum payment each month.
- Last Year: Have more fun.
- This Year: Schedule fun activities, such as bike riding, going to garage sales, hearing live music, etc., twice a week.
Be Specific, Measurable, and Positive
Blair, who lives in Syracuse, N.Y., tells WebMD why saying, "Weigh 130 pounds and wear my size 10 jeans by June 1" is a better resolution than "lose weight." "Our minds work best when we give it a specific target." The brain works like a pilot light, and once you specify what you want with complete certainty this helps set your mind to work on it."
The first statement is also measurable, which means you'll know where you stand and whether your efforts are having the desired result. Using the scale once a week will tell you if you need to modify your behavior in order to achieve your goal weight.
In addition, the first statement is time bound, with a deadline for achieving your goal weight and size. "Take a page out of sports," says Blair. "The time on the clock is important. If there's two minutes left in the game and you're behind significantly, you play aggressively, not conservatively."
And it's positive. "Never set a goal of losing or quitting," says Blair. "That empowers weakness. Position yourself forward on what you want to be or where you want to go, not what you'll give up."
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- Be clear about what you want and your motivation. Blair, who calls himself "The Goals Guy," proposes a "1-3-5 system" to set you on the road to success; one "what," three "whys," and five "hows." The "what" is your resolution. Then come up with three reasons why you want it. "This will be very personal, such as increased self-esteem, peace of mind, wanting to live long enough to enjoy grandchildren, etc.," he says. The "hows" are the action steps you'll take to achieve your goal.
- Make resolutions that are challenging, yet realistic. If you want to grow intellectually by reading more, resolving to read one book a year isn't something you'll get excited about and won't do much for your intellectual prowess. And resolving to read one book a day will probably spell failure. Knowing what will be challenging, yet realistic, might take some trial and error. Experts are quick to say that resolutions should not be written in stone, but are always subject to change.
- Write down your resolutions, and post them where you'll see them every day. Writing your resolutions helps you clarify what you want. Posting them reinforces your commitment. "Goals out of sight become goals out of mind," says Blair.
- Break down long-term resolutions into smaller action steps. For example, if your resolution is to be free of the smoking habit by March 1, determine that you'll limit yourself to one pack of cigarettes, the first week, one-half pack the second week, etc.
- Seek drama. "If you are trying to quit smoking, listen to a person with throat cancer talk about smoking," says John Acquaviva PhD, assistant professor of health and human performance at Roanoke College in Salem, Va. "Also, listening to people who have lost a lot of weight often motivates people to stick with it. They think, 'If they can do it, so can I.'"
- Celebrate milestones along the way. Experts say setting up a reward system is an excellent strategy to help you stick to a long-term goal. "For every week of diligently working out, buy yourself new workout clothes or treat yourself to a movie," says Acquaviva.
Seems there really are two kinds of people, at least when it comes to what motivates them to stick to a plan or goal. "Research in adherence motivation tells us that strategies have to fit individuals' orientation and very different perceptions of what equals success," says White, who is professor and dean at Lehigh University College of Education in Bethlehem, Penn. "The field speaks of task and ego orientation, and nearly 45 studies show women to be more task oriented and men to be more ego oriented."
Task and ego orientation are each characterized by three key motivators. The task-oriented person is motivated when:
- Success and achievement are a function of high levels of effort
- They see the task as challenging
- The task is collaborative
The ego-oriented person is motivated when:
- They have the opportunity to demonstrate high levels of ability without high levels of effort
- There's an opportunity to demonstrate superior success
- There's an opportunity to win
"If a task-oriented person resolves to stop smoking, they'll join a support group and put effort into strategizing, such as learning which night clubs are nonsmoking," says White. "But they won't just practice avoidance, because that wouldn't be challenging. They'll say, 'When everyone else has a cigarette, I'll go 20 minutes without one, and if I still want a cigarette, I'll have just one.'
"The ego oriented person will use the patch or another aid and place a bet with two or three buddies they think they can easily beat, and they'll choose those buddies very carefully. They'll have a high value placed on the bet."
Making the Most of Your Resolution Makeover
Now that you understand the power of a resolution makeover, you can see why most New Year resolutions never last until Valentine's Day. Resolutions require hard work and commitment. "Making a resolution needs to be as highly considered as anything else you do to bring about change," says White. "You have to want to change the behavior."
Blair identifies four characteristics of people who stick to their resolutions:
- They believe in their ability to change.
- They do not indulge in self-blame or excuse making.
- They avoid wishful thinking and concentrate on results.
- They understand their motivators and reasons why the resolution is important.
Originally published Dec. 29, 2003.
Medically updated Nov. 19, 2004.
SOURCES: John Acquaviva, PhD, assistant professor, health and human performance, Roanoke College, Salem, Va. Gary Ryan Blair, Syracuse, N. Y., author, Goal Setting 101: How To Set and Achieve a Goal. Sally A. White, PhD, professor and dean, Lehigh University College of Education, Bethlehem, Penn.
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