Right now I'm thinking about the whole concept of New Year's resolutions. When I was younger I used to do the whole long-list-of-resolutions routine, and abandoned that when I realized that it never worked. I don't have any statistics on this but I suspect that very few people end up making lasting changes as a result of New Year's resolutions! (If you are reading this and you HAVE made resolutions that have stuck in the long term, leave a comment and tell me about it!)
I think that making a couple of small and manageable New Year's resolutions is a workable plan. For example, as a New Year's resolution, a friend of mine committed to stop using plastic shopping bags this year. To help her achieve this, she put five reusable cloth grocery bags each in her car and her husband's car. So a goal is set, and there is a plan in place. She's figured out possible obstacles to success (i.e. using plastic bags because she's out and about and doesn't have her reusable bags with her) and addressed those.
But most of the resolutions that people make are big, major life changes: Lose weight, get in better shape, save money, quit smoking, get out of debt, get a better job . . . . The problem with this is that making radical life changes always sounds like a good idea on December 31, but unless we are really prepared to set goals that are realistic and achievable, make good plans, and commit, we're unlikely to stick to a change long enough that the change starts sticking to us!
Which is why we generally go full-out for a few weeks, and then we lose motivation and fall off the wagon. We want change to happen magically, quickly, easily, and all at once. And when it doesn't, we're done! We go back to our old habits and unfortunately often lose any ground we have gained, and then some--those pounds we lost on the crash diet come back and they bring friends with them! Even worse, we feel worse about ourselves than we did before.
Real change is possible, though. Here are a few ideas of ways to make a desired life change that have worked for me:
1. First, really think about whether you really want to make the change. This sounds obvious, but there are lots of things that society or other people tell us are desirable. You might think you "should" make more money or get a higher degree or tone up your upper arms, but are those really goals that are inspiring to YOU? If you are pursuing a law degree to make your mother happy, you are going to have a hard time getting through law school and creating a happy and successful life as an attorney.
2. Once you've determined that you do in fact want to make a change, be specific about why. Go beyond "head knowledge" or other people's reasons to really define the reasons that YOU want to change. Dig deep to find what really inspires you to want to make this change. "Smoking is bad for my health" is a good reason to quit smoking, but "I want to be healthy enough to enjoy playing with my grandchildren" is a more inspiring reason to quit.
Really think it through it in detail. If you want to make a goal of getting organized: What does organized mean to you? In what areas are you disorganized and how is it affecting you? What would you be able to do in your life if you were organized that you can't do now? How does being organized look in your relationships, in your work life, in your activities? How does it feel? You may want to write these things down.
Use all your senses and imagination to come up with a rich visual and emotional picture. Make it as specific, juicy, and deeply personal as possible. This will help you zero in on what you really want and why, and helps add energy to fuel the necessary behavior changes. Visualization is important, but adding emotion to the picture is key. Instead of only visualizing how your organized home will look--visualize how it will look and also how you will feel and behave when your home and life are organized home.
Along these lines, one technique I have used in making life changes is making a vision board, sometimes also called a treasure map. This is a visual representation of what you want to bring about in your life. I've done mine in the past as a collage of images and words on foam core posterboard and hung it above my bed where I see it every day. My husband created a movie background as a screensaver for his computer--so a slideshow of images and words that inspires and motivates him plays whenever his computer is idle.
3. Begin by narrowing your focus to one major goal, at least to start out with. For example, don't decide to quit smoking, lose weight, and get out of debt all at the same time! If you have a list of several big changes like that, pick the one that you think would most positively impact your life and other goals, if you were to achieve it.
4. Further refine your objective using the goal setting process. For something to be a goal, it needs to be specific and measurable, challenging but believable, and achievable. It needs a timeline and a defined endpoint, and it needs to be written down. So "I need to lose some weight" becomes, "I am going to lose 25 lbs by the end of this year." Now that you have a specific goal, you may need or want to break it down further into either sub-goals, i.e., "I am going to lose 4 lbs this month." Goals don't always have to be outcome based, either. You can make a goal to engage in a process, too, i.e., "I am going to walk 30 minutes, four times a week." Then do some planning--what steps will you need to take to achieve your goal?
5. Start small and do it gradually. Instead of trying to start with a huge all-encompassing change all at once, it can be helpful to pick one small habit or behavior to start out with. Once you have that one down, you can add another one. "Eat healthy" is big and vague and undefined. "Eat two servings of green vegetables every day" is a very achievable habit to establish.
6. Once you've decided what habit you want to establish, set yourself up for success by identifying any stumbling blocks or barriers and coming up with a strategy to address them. Years ago I used to make the same resolution every year to floss daily but I never really established that habit. A couple of years ago I finally realized that although I knew that I should floss and I wanted to in theory, I tended to avoid doing it because I found using dental floss awkward and painful. I now use a Reach flosser, and it's much easier and more comfortable and my teeth get flossed just as well.
7. Build routines by scaffolding a new habit onto an already existing habit. For example, I brush my teeth in the shower, so I started keeping my flosser in there too and so now I just shower, brush and floss at the same time. It may be unconventional, but it works for me!
8. Keep it positive! Adding a positive habit is often easier than removing a negative one--"drink more water" has a very different emotional vibration than "give up soda" and will lead in the same direction. Similarly, moving toward something desirable is more inspiring than moving away from something undesirable.
And finally, don't forget to be nice to yourself! Avoid perfectionism and all-or-nothing thinking. This is one of the biggest traps that I've set for myself over the years, and it takes constant effort for me to stay out of it! It's usually better to do something imperfectly than to not do it at all. We can be very hard on ourselves, and it's important to remember to treat ourselves gently and compassionately!