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Realistic New Year’s Resolutions

Three-step approach to realistic resolutions



If you are like a lot of us you are probably thinking of making a strong affirmation to completely change your problematic habits and commit to a resolution to reinvent yourself for the New Year. Let’s face it, who are you kidding? You’ve resolved to lose 25 pounds before, you’ve promised your spouse that you will not have any arguments in the New Year and—presto—you have been wrong every time. The reason is that committing to unrealistic goals only sets you up for failure. But you do want to change, so how do you approach the New Year with any chance of making even a small change?

Of course, one way would be to lower your standards. I have often thought that you can lower your standards so much that if you fall down it’s a step up. You know that your perfectionism and your exaggerated goals for previous years have only led to more disappointment, but you don’t want to give up. You might encourage yourself by changing your “goal” from losing 25 pounds to losing three quarters of a pound, but what satisfaction is there in such trivial pursuits?

Let’s make it simple. Don’t commit to outcomes—like losing 25 pounds, or making 25% more, or achieving Nirvana. Outcomes take too long. You need something you can do every day.


Here is a simple three-step approach to realistic resolutions:

1. Commit to one behavior every day

2. Keep track of what you do and what you don’t do

3. Give yourself credit for every step forward—no matter how small it may seem

Let’s take the first step: Commit to one behavior every day

Let’s imagine that you put together a list of ten positive behaviors—from any category of behavior. This could include the following: walking, jogging, eating healthful meals, eliminating desserts, rewarding your partner, getting your work done that day, or anything else that seems positive. The nice thing about focusing on a single behavior is that it is do-able. You can do one behavior. You don’t have to wait a year for an outcome

Let’s go on to the next step: Keep track of what you do and what you don’t do

Self-monitoring is one of the most powerful techniques that you can use. It makes you more mindful of what you are doing (you will pay attention more if you write it down); you will find it rewarding to simply see you did something—and this is something you will experience every day; and you won’t forget what you did, since you are keeping track of it. Another advantage that you can get from keeping track of your behavior is that you can notice what the triggers are for positive and negative behavior. For example, are you over-eating when you are lonely or drinking more when you are ruminating about how bad things are? The more you know about the triggers, the better prepared you can be for dealing with them.

The final step is easy—but some people forget to do this—or don’t think they deserve it: Give yourself credit for every step forward—no matter how small it may seem

Get used to being your own best cheerleader. Give yourself credit for every single positive behavior. This range from saying to yourself, “Good for me for walking for twenty minutes” to keeping points for positive behavior so that you can see how these points add up. Now some people say, “I don’t really deserve credit for doing what I should be doing.” I understand that you are not changing the world by walking twenty minutes or by refraining from that high-calorie dessert. But if you want to build the right habits you need to keep track of them and reward them.

One patient said, “This sounds like the way you would train a dog.”


If you are as rewarding to yourself as you are toward your dog, then you will do a lot better.

More from Robert L. Leahy Ph.D.
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