Photo: © 2010 Comstock/Thinkstock
New Year's resolutions mark a wish for something to be different and new in life. Much is made about them in the media each year, with the idea that we should all try to improve ourselves at least once a year. And many of us do. Then, having survived the ordeal of facing the situation we want to change, we soon congratulate ourselves for at least trying, and go back to overeating, being a couch potato, smoking or whatever behavior it was we had wanted to rehabilitate. What happened? Perhaps it is the concept of resolution itself that needs rehabilitation before it can serve as a basis for permanent change.
When the American colonies resolved to break free of the British Crown, they declared, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." But the colonists didn't just declare their intentions by resolution and go back to their everyday lives. They acted on them. They threw tea into Boston Harbor. They declared a tax revolt. Ultimately, moving from resolution to revolution, they declared war.
So what, then, does it take to make genuine change in our personal lives? How do we translate the good intentions of our resolutions into genuine behavioral change? One approach that helps is to view change as a process, or a journey, with certain goal posts along the way. As we achieve each goal, we can then move on to the next. The first goal is to identify the problem you want to change. The second is to make a commitment to change that involves having a clear vision of what your life will be like on the other side of the change and of making a planned effort to bring about that change. Why the emphasis on "planned"? It is the plan of action that we execute that will shore up our resolutions and see them through to success.
At goal three is the moment of truth: taking action by executing the plan. Is that enough? Not yet. Goal four is to actively deepen the changes you are making, which is what guarantees permanent change. That too involves a plan of action, this time to deal with potential backsliding even after the weight is lost, the muscles are toned or the cigarettes are a fading memory.
So how do these four goals to a successful resolution look in action? In my work I help many people to quit smoking, so let's use that as an example. For the first goal, assessing the problem, most smokers already know the health risks of smoking. They also know that it breeds a physical dependence. What they usually don't realize is that, like many problematic behaviors, smoking involves an emotional dependence as well. This takes the form of an emotional belief system along such lines as "I need to smoke to cope with my life," "to keep my weight down" or "to manage stress." Many smokers don't recognize they have long since lost control of their smoking behavior, that it is no longer like having a drink just on Saturday night. So smokers need to understand how all three parts of their problem—behavioral, physical and emotional—affect them in order to develop a successful plan to change. When they do realize this, it helps them move toward the ultimate goal of quitting smoking for good.