The end of January marks that time of year when many patients enter my office feeling like their well-intentioned promises of the New Year, like New Year’s resolutions, are in jeopardy. Many a diet, gym membership, and method to “make this year different” have at this point been put to the test.
What many people often do not realize is that challenges are inherent in any process toward enduring and meaningful change. The first part in overcoming this common setback is abandoning the expectation of a predictable and easy trajectory. Accepting challenges and failures is often a critical part of the process towards any meaningful difference.
To keep you keeping on, I’ve compiled a list of tricks to review when you are feeling like abandoning that New Year’s resolution or commitment to making or breaking habits.
1. Know what you are in for:
You may have heard the old adage that habits take a minimum of about 21 to 30 days to change. This has been studied again and again with habits as simple as choosing to have a glass of water with lunch to more challenging lifestyle changes like exercising every day.
The truth is actually more complex than this. Various studies of behavior show it can take anywhere from 21 days to 8 months to build a new behavior into your routine. Therefore, it’s important to be realistic about the process and timeline of any change in your life and to give yourself the patience and compassion to try, try again, and keep adjusting initial plans.
2. Consider more accountability (from others or yourself):
If you are someone who avoids New Year’s resolutions because of past failures or poor follow-through, consider adding more accountability to your commitment.
Research shows working out with friends or signing up for a class helps people enact fitness changes. There is also evidence that personal accountability can be helpful, too. If you can’t bring along a friend to help you stick to your plan, try the University of Vermont Health Network Resolution Generator to give yourself more accountability and brainstorm new ideas for wellness: resolutiongenerator.com.
3. Try a more empathetic approach:
Make sure that you have empathy and compassion for your past and future selves who are hoping for and wanting a change.
Change is hard and takes great effort. Our bodies and minds often tend toward what doctors call “homeostasis,” or our most comfortable set point. This means that there are ways our bodies work to keep things at the status quo. So, applaud yourself for small successes, plan for rewards and don’t get too down on yourself if your resolution didn’t go as smoothly as you thought it should have. That’s just part of it.
All in all, if you commit to change over time, accept the small setbacks and remember that any change in habit often takes more than a month (and can even take eight times longer), you will have not just made the change you want to see in yourself, but you will have developed an attitude that promotes health and wellness far after you feel successful in your own initial goals.
Sara Pawlowski, MD, is a child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at the University of Vermont Medical Center.