Cases and Stories

The narratives in medicine

A New Year's Resolution: One Year Later

What real, lasting change looks like.

New Year's Resolutions, like bridesmaids' dresses, fruitcake, and mothers-in-law, get a bad rap. Okay, they often don't work out (though, come to think of it, I adored my mother-in-law and she made a dynamite fruitcake) but sometimes they do. A year ago I posted a blog about a patient I called "Bill," a man in his forties who had lost fifty pounds over three years by making a New Year's resolution each January first. Over those three years he started walking regularly, then added jogging, then improved his diet. I wrote about Bill as an example of someone who used New Year's resolutions effectively. I saw Bill again recently and thought I would post an update on his progress.
First, I am happy to report that he is still exercising and eating well and he has maintained his fifty-pound weight loss. Second, and fascinating to me, was this: when I asked Bill what he resolved to start doing this New Year's he gave me a quizzical look, as if he didn't quite know what I was talking about for a moment. I reminded him of his series of resolutions and he smiled and admitted that he had sort of forgotten about them. In fact, he hadn't even thought of making a new resolution this year.
Well, I thought: this is what a successful and sustainable change in behavior looks like! Sure, there are still days Bill doesn't feel like exercising and he is still tempted by junk food on occasion. But he no longer needs a gimmick to motivate him to engage in healthy habits. He just does. Or, rather, he is: More than acting differently, in the last few years, Bill has acquired a new identity; that of someone who exercises and eats well.
So, again, I will use Bill as an example. Next week, after the eggnog and, um, fruitcake, by all means make realistic and actionable resolutions as Bill did--with the goal of one day no longer needing them.

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Suzanne Koven practices at Massachusetts General Hospital and teaches at Harvard Medical School.

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