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Verified by Psychology Today

D. B. Dillard-Wright Ph.D.

Happy New Year!

Start the new year early with smart resolutions.

It’s never too early to celebrate the birth of Our Blessed Savior, it seems: I saw the first Christmas decorations colonizing/invading our local Target store a few weeks before Halloween. Since Christmas is creeping ever earlier in the year, why not let New Year’s Eve creep as well? That way we can pretend that we are already done with Kringle-pocalypse. So just imagine, for right now, that we have already bought people all of the crap that they don’t need and we can’t afford. Let’s pretend that we have already consumed 6.4 pounds of sugar cookies, 23 bourbon-spiked eggnogs, and four petrified square logs of fruit cake. Let’s pretend, for the sake of sanity, that we have already sprinkled tinsel all around the house, the very same tinsel that we will vacuum out of the rugs and corners for the next year. Call it the Great Fast-Forward, in which we pretend that Christmas does not exist. If you want to throw Hanukkah and Kwanzaa into the mix, go ahead! Although, I have to say that other midwinter festivals are not so aggressively promoted as the birth of the Christ-child. War on Christmas? More like forced Christmas observance. Jesus H, I can’t even go into the drugstore without hearing the “Carol of the Bells.”

Deposit Photos
Source: Deposit Photos

Anyway, forget all of that. The point here is to skip Christmas (at least as a thought experiment), not dwell on it, much less make war on it. So it’s time to get back into shape and make those New Year’s resolutions. It’s time to focus on making 2018 better than 2017, making our own lives healthier and happier. It’s time to make our world better, on all levels. Normally we sort of heavily medicate New Year’s, slurring and stumbling into that new beginning. No doubt this is a reasonable response to the complete insanity of what we can now call the Holiday-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named. But maybe New Year’s Day deserves a little bit more thoughtful treatment, a little bit of foresight and planning. Maybe one of the reasons why New Year’s resolutions don’t stick is that they are afterthoughts, at best. If we spent a little less time at the mall and a little bit more time thinking about what we really want in life, things would go better. And it takes time to make new habits: why not begin now rather than waiting for January 1st? If it would be good to make a change in life at the beginning of the year, it would be even better to go ahead and get started.

A good New Year’s resolution should be challenging but not impossible. It should be something that builds on the strengths that we already have in our lives. The goal should not require going from zero to sixty in thirty seconds. The resolution should be inspiring and difficult, but not so difficult as to be intimidating. Going from sitting on the couch to running a 5k is completely realistic in the first quarter of the New Year. Going from couch to marathon in the first quarter would run the risk of injury. So a bit of moderation is in order, but we should all feel free to stretch ourselves and explore new and old interests in the year ahead. And, since we are getting a head start, it should be even easier.

Another important thing is to think of the New Year’s resolution as a permanent lifestyle change and not as something to do for a few weeks. It’s pretty easy to see why fad diets don’t work. I cannot realistically expect myself to eat celery and drink only grapefruit juice for the rest of my life. So we can see a sort of test here. If I cannot do this for the rest of my life, or at least for the whole year, maybe the goal needs to be re-evaluated. This goes double if keeping the resolution on a permanent basis would actually be harmful. So, with the grapefruit and celery diet, I would be not only extremely hungry, but also malnourished. So that seems like a losing proposition.

A third key feature of good New Year's resolutions is that they are specific and measurable. So if I just say to myself that I should "be more healthy," I can't really determine how to achieve that. But if I say, "I would like to run two 5ks and one 10k in the next year," that is much more concrete and achievable. In order to translate an idea into action, it needs to have some steps along the way that make that idea take shape. Ideally, I would start with some small, easy wins and gradually build towards greater triumphs.

I am using examples related to diet and exercise, because, according to Nielsen at least, the most common New Year’s resolutions are to “stay fit and healthy,” followed by “lose weight.” Coming in third place is the more nebulous “live life to the fullest,” which could mean different things to different people. It does seem that good health is a prerequisite to other pursuits in life, like travel and spending time with family and friends. That gym membership seems expensive, but that’s only because it does not take into account the savings related to lower medical bills and even a longer span of life. Likewise, I could sit on the couch and eat Cheetos, which seems cheap, but does not take into account the negative side effects in terms of health and well-being. I think it is nearly impossible to feel well emotionally without also feeling well physically. We all have a different starting point due to the genetic lottery, but we can also all improve our fitness to some degree through making good choices.

So as the days get shorter and the last leaves fall from the trees, let’s be thinking about the New Year and the promise that it brings. Just as the seasons go through cycles, we go through cycles in our own lives. The more we set our minds on positive change, the more good things come into being in reality. I’d rather not spend my life being stressed and miserable. And since life is short and uncertain in the grand scheme of things, I’d rather be as well as I can, at least so far as it depends on me. So I’m about to sit down and write my New Year’s resolutions, and I invite you to do the same. That’s a tradition that is worth keeping, so much more so than those weird square fruitcakes.