Resolve to make it happen in 2007
AN APPLE A DAY - AN APPLE A DAY By Tyrone M. Reyes, M.D. () - January 2, 2007 - 12:00am
It’s hard to take New Year’s resolutions too seriously. We know they are more often breached than observed, so we make them, ironically, half-heartedly – or not at all. They epitomize "easier said than done."

Yet, there is a meaty side to resolutions, which at other times of the year we simply call setting goals for ourselves. Many such goals are related to health. Getting more exercise, losing weight, quitting smoking – they perennially top the to-do lists. Much more than vanity is at stake. Study after study shows that almost anything that helps people make progress in those areas does wonders for their health.

Moreover, researchers who study the subject believe that doctors could tap into the psychology of goal attainment to help their patients be better about everything – from taking their medications to eating more fiber to getting more sleep.

Even if health isn’t involved directly, researchers have found that setting, pursuing, and achieving a goal pay off in improved mental health. Observers have long noted how frequently people work at improving themselves. Now, of course, catering to the desire is a huge moneymaker: Publishers selling self-help books, educational institutions offering adult education classes, the diet industry hawking the greatest way to shed pounds – one way or another, they’re all in the self-improvement business.
What Doesn’t Work
Yet, our best-laid-plans often go awry. Researchers have found that people must structure goals correctly in order to meet them. One common mistake is to have too many goals. Attention and willpower get split so many ways that little headway is made toward reaching any goal. And the longer your list, the greater the chance that the items on it will conflict. So, if you’ve made 10 New Year’s resolutions, start the year right by trimming them down to three.

Another formula for failure is to set your sights on behaviors that are too vague ("I am going to be a better spouse"). In the health realm, telling yourself that you are going to eat more healthful foods this year, or that you’re going to exercise more often, is probably not going to work.

A third pitfall is setting goals that are too lofty. That’s one reason we so often recommend brisk walking as a form of exercise. Not only are there good data showing that it has multiple health benefits, brisk walking is also something that many people can do. (This form of exercise will be discussed in a future column.)
What Works
• Matching values and goals. Several years ago, researchers recruited 59 students at McGill University in Montreal for a study of New Year’s resolutions. The volunteers were asked to make three resolutions and then were e-mailed two weeks and a month later. (That’s not very long for sticking with a resolution but psychology experiments frequently have short time limits in order to get results.) Most of the goals were related to health, academics, or social ("I will call my family more often") achievements.

Judging by the results of this study and a number of other psychology experiments, self-concordance was likely to be achieved. In other words, you’re more likely to keep a resolution or achieve a goal if the motivation is coming from you and not someone else. So, if you want to make a successful resolution, you need to sort through the mess and pick wisely, focusing on goals that fit your values and desires.

• Strategies, not just goals. Another recurring theme from goal-attainment research is that it’s not enough to have a goal. You must come up with a strategy for reaching it, something that’s rooted in practical steps. Psychologists have found that the best results seem to come when people tie the desired behaviors to common situations or events, or to habits they already have, so the new behavior becomes more or less automatic.

An early-morning exercise routine is a good example. For many people, the cue that it’s time to get walking, jogging or working out is waking up. They don’t even have to think about it. Some people make pill-taking automatic by putting their medications at the breakfast table.
Resolving To Succeed With Your 2007 Resolutions
New Year’s resolutions start with the best of intentions but they’re hard to stick to, and no matter how many times you’ve failed, there’s always another resolution that seems perfect for you to attempt to follow. However, some people do succeed in keeping their New Year’s resolutions. This year, make your number one resolution that you’ll keep the rest of your resolutions. Here are some other tried-and-true tips for staying on the path of change in 2007.

• Don’t overdo it. Setting eight new resolutions is like setting yourself up for failure. New Year’s resolutions are usually about life-changing habits (I’m going to shed 40 pounds, stop smoking, go to the gym three times a week, and so on), and you really shouldn’t try to take on more than a couple of these major resolutions all at once. Better still, stick to one big resolution, and you stand a far better chance of succeeding. Add a smaller one if it’s complementary (I’m going to lose weight by watching my food intake AND I’ll walk three times a week). Your odds of success rise with this kind of thinking.

• Give your resolutions serious thought. If you’re really serious, you need to mentally commit to your course of action and know the reasons why it’s important to your life to achieve the goals you have set. If you’re not committed and confident that you can change your behaviors or achieve the goals you’re about to set, you’re wasting your time, and by February, you’ll be in the dumps for letting yourself down by not keeping your resolutions. It’s better to skip resolution-making all together than to go into it half-heartedly.

• Be realistic. Don’t use words like "forever" and "never." They just don’t go together with "eat vanilla ice cream." Use realistic-sounding statements that allow for some backsliding, which you know is bound to happen (I will eat vanilla ice cream only once a month).

• Write it down. You’ve heard it a million times, and you’re hearing it again. Writing your resolutions down will memorialize your goals and make them seem more definitive. It’s the same theory as writing down your to-do list. Isn’t it a great feeling when you check off an item you’ve completed? It’s a reward in itself.

• Remind yourself periodically. It’s easy to get excited about your resolution in January, but how about March? Buy yourself some Post-It notes or use your cell phone to remind yourself of your goals. If you’re attached to your mouse more than most, the web stands by to assist. In today’s wired world, you can sign up at sites like to set up your goals. You can even tell them when to send you those reminders. So, if you’re going on a sure-to-be-stressful business trip and you have a laptop, you might want to be reminded to "smile more" each day when you log on.

• Formulate strategies for success. Don’t issue yourself a blanket statement. Think about how you’ll achieve your resolution and, even better, get started early so you’ll have some momentum going and less chance to wiggle out with an excuse. Or, if you’re trying to lose weight, clean out your refrigerator of all that leftover rich, fatty holiday food and stock up on the healthful foods you’re going to need to eat to take off those extra pounds. In other words, start preparing to make it happen as soon as you decide on your resolution.

• Track your progress. Buy yourself a little book and record your milestones. Check it often so you can pat yourself on the back for what you are achieving. You may even want to reward yourself when you’ve reached a milestone towards achieving your goal.

• Go easy on yourself. Really large resolutions don’t happen overnight and shouldn’t if you want them to last a lifetime. Don’t worry if you slip up; just remain committed to continuing.

• Tell somebody about it. There’s nothing like external pressure to keep you motivated – if only to save face. While telling friends is great because they’ll support you when you slip up, if you want to up the ante, tell someone else whose opinion you respect. You’ll be adding some pressure, but in some cases, it might be just the thing you need.

• Don’t throw in the towel. That is, if by July, your resolutions are but a hazy memory. There’s always next year.

A happy and healthy New Year to all!

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