Putting More Resolve into New Year's Resolutions
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.
At goal three, we face the moment of truth and literally take action. We move beyond mental preparation to specific tasks that will bring about the behavioral change we have resolved to make. For smokers, that would include setting a date for the first tobacco-free day, planning to stay away from other people who smoke, making sure in advance that you understand how to use nicotine replacement therapy or other medication you may have chosen to use with your doctor to help make this easier and to prepare how you will cope with the onset of nicotine withdrawal symptoms, if you have them.
So far so good. But wait, there's more: relapse prevention. That is goal four. For a smoker, quitting is a monumental achievement. As with other addictive behaviors, though, staying quit calls for a sustained plan of action to make sure the new behavior sticks. So the goal of the relapse prevention phase is to learn to ask for appropriate support in an assertive way, such as asking friends and family not to smoke around you. Nonsmoking tools such as carrying and drinking from a water bottle, daily deep/slow breathing or daily walking also help, as does learning to be comfortable in your own skin without smoking and continuing to challenge old beliefs that might prompt a relapse, such as "I'll only have one cigarette."
The difference between making and keeping resolutions can be found in the series of specific steps and specific actions that we set ourselves to bring about true behavior change. Declaring independence from an unwanted behavior calls for "eternal vigilance," just as preserving our liberty does.
Dr. Seidman is a clinical psychologist and an assistant clinical professor at Columbia University Medical Center. He is a leading authority on how best to help different kinds of smokers quit. For the past 20 years, he has done research on smoking cessation and operated a variety of clinics in community settings, corporations and at NewYork–Presbyterian Hospital and Columbia University, in which countless patients have learned to quit smoking. For more details, go to DanielFSeidman.com.
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