Expert Q&A: Why New Year s Resolutions Fail and How You Can Beat the Odds
Have a relationship question and want Dr. Wish's advice? Email her a question, here. Your query may become an article!
Q: Every year I drop my New Year's resolutions by February. What can I do to keep them?
A: Unfortunately, for many of us, by Valentine's Day your New Year's resolutions feel long forgotten. Let's face it—it's too hard to keep them. But don't get down on yourself if your efforts to change and be better have dwindled to practically zero.
Your resolve is up against a formidable foe: your pleasure centers in the brain. We are wired for many things such as fight or flight and pleasure in eating or having sex. We like a sense of mastery—but usually not if achieving it is too hard. Many of us have personalities that rise to challenges, but even perseverance can have limits. Yet, successful resolution-makers often unknowingly take steps that, collectively, restructure the brain's wiring for pleasure and therefore success.
Let's first explore why resolutions are so hard to keep.
1. We like pleasure and mastery. Our brains are wired for survival. As a result, we tend to like sweet foods and foods that smell good because, in part, our ancestors learned that bitter and foul-smelling foods are toxic. Some anthropologists think that these smart and lucky survivors experienced brain wiring that favored the safer choices. No wonder cake tastes better than celery.
We also survived because, by necessity, we had to master tasks such as killing animals, planting crops, cooking food and tending to injuries. We learned by trial and error, but we triumphed because we had to come up with solutions.
But, even though mastery is part of survival, if something is too difficult, we often don't try or we give up too soon.
2. We like even more pleasure. We don't like depriving ourselves of pleasures such as eating good food, drinking fine wines or shopping for fun things. When we participate in pleasing activities, we feel good, satisfied, excited and good about ourselves. Biologically-driven activities such as eating or having sex are especially hard to resist.
Once your behaviors activate your brain hormones of pleasure such as oxytocin, vasopressin and endorphins, you obviously want to continue what you're doing. It's easy to see that the more you deprive yourself and the more difficult the task the more likely you are to give up and abandon your resolve.
3. Your pleasures become habits. Your brain makes neural connections with past and present experiences that gave you good feelings. If eating a bag of chocolates or betting on the ponies makes you feel happy, sated and powerful, then you are likely to select these activities whenever you are not so happy. Your genetics, personality, family adaptive styles and your life experiences all conspire to keep you doing what you often shouldn't be doing—or at least not doing so much.
4. Self-examination is too scary and unpleasant. We are afraid to face ourselves and admit that we need help in an area. Facing your shortcomings is not pleasant, so naturally, your inclination is to avoid it.
5. We have trouble going without too many pleasurable things at once. We try to do too many things at once. Willpower fades when we take on too much because we don't like going too long without something that feels good.
6. We allow ourselves to be driven by shame and social pressures in selecting our resolutions. We humans are meaning-makers. If something is not important to you, then you tend not to do it. So why vow to lose weight or stop drinking if right now these issues are not the ones that bother you the most?
7. We have hidden motives not to change. Since pleasurable activities are, well, pleasurable, you might begin to wonder why you can't go very long without them. Why, you secretly think, can't I feel good without eating two boxes of donuts? Often, habitual or compulsive behaviors are masking deeper issues.
For example, my client "Wendy" was a nurse. She knew the importance of keeping her weight down, but still she was very overweight. She realized, after much soul-searching, that she feared that if she were thin that men would be attracted to her. Ever since her swim coach sexually abused her repeatedly, she vowed never to be attractive to men.
Wow—no wonder it's easy to break resolutions. But don't give up. Here are some tips to increase your chance that you can make them—and keep them.
8 Tips for Sustaining New Year's Resolutions
1. Focus. Write down issues that bother you. The most common topics are taking charge of finances, weight gain, drinking too much and procrastinating.
2. Select. Choose the issues that are important to you. If you aren't sure, ask yourself: "Which ones endanger my health? Which ones make me feel very ashamed or insecure?" Another big mistake is to set too many goals at once. You set yourself up for failure if you try to do a complete overhaul of yourself.
3. Or, select one that you have tried before. Usually, resolutions are not plucked from the sky. Instead, they are often issues that you have already tried to work on but failed in your attempts. Now is the time to review what went wrong.
4. Identify your triggers. Often, there is something that sparks your unwanted behavior. For example, people who are trying to quit smoking are often told to give up spicy foods which can stimulate the desire to smoke. Think about your unwanted behavior and ask yourself: What prompted me to eat that half a cake or smoke another pack of cigarettes?
5. But don't eliminate the pleasurable activities. We don't like depriving ourselves of pleasures such as eating good food, drinking fine wines or shopping for fun things. The more you deprive yourself and the more difficult the task the more likely you are to give up. Your sense of giving up too much and for too long will make you indulge big time!
6. Instead, build in rewards of your favorite things so that your brain can make a connection between discipline, deprivation and pleasure and inner peace. Weight Watchers and most of the prepared meals of diet plans know about the need for building in pleasure and rewards. They address the issue by allowing you to eat a brownie or some carbohydrates. The secret is portion control and frequency.
Similarly, one trick that has worked well for my clients is to reward themselves with a mini-version of their previously bad behavior—after, of course, they have accomplished the desired behavior. For example, eat one small piece of chocolate.
Or, establish a list of pleasurable and meaningful rewards after you have accomplished your daily goal. For example, if your goal is working out more, reward yourself with watching your favorite television show or going on the Internet.
Some people need to reward themselves daily while others can delay their rewards. One of the couples I helped put a dollar in their travel jar every time they avoided smoking. Eventually, the pleasure of the reward was more important than the pleasure of the unwanted behavior.
7. Break up the large goal into small steps and doses so that you don't take on too much or increase your anxiety. Alcoholics Anonymous recommends "taking one day at a time." You might even have to take it one hour at a time. Eventually, you will be able to check your progress daily and then weekly. And don't get down on yourself if you experience a setback. Or, I should say when you have a setback. Remind yourself that progress is often in fits and starts. Forgive yourself and get back on track right away.
This approach of breaking up your positive steps into baby steps also allows you tolerate giving up your unconscious or hidden emotional agendas for keeping the old, bad behavior. When my overweight client who was abused by her swim coach finally took small steps, her anxiety about becoming attractive remained small and therefore more manageable. To succeed you will have to change your comfort zone and old ways of calming your anxiety.
8. Get a buddy or a whole roomful of them. Weight Watchers and alcoholic support groups succeed because they don't allow you to take such big steps alone. Others who are going through similar problems can provide tips and emotional support.
If your partner or other family member does not want to make changes with you, joining a support group is even more important. By taking the initiative—and sticking with it—you increase your chance that your significant will change.
Don't give up. Tell yourself that you deserve to be happy, healthy and in charge of your life.
Happy New Year!
Dr. LeslieBeth Wish, Ed.D, MSS, is a nationally recognized psychologist and licensed clinical social worker, specializing in women's issues in love, life, work, and family. Sign up on her website, http://www.lovevictory.com, to receive free advice, blog, cartoon, and information about her two upcoming research-based, self-help books for women: The Love Adventures of Almost Smart Cookie—a cartoon, self-help book and Smart Relationships. Follow Dr. Wish on Twitter.
Sign Up for Free Newsletters
Ask Your Doctor the RIGHT Questions!
the most from your doctor visit.
Emailed right to you!
The Ask Your Doctor email series
may contain sponsored content.
18+, US residents only please.
Get the MOST from QualityHealth
- Top Searches
- 1. Arthritis Management: Nature Heals
- 2. 5 Digestive To-Dos
- 3. Men: Should You Shave It or Leave It?
- 4. Today's Top Fitness Trends
- 5. Sugar and Osteoarthritis : The Link
- 6. Can't Afford Your Hospital Bills?
- 7. Stay Energized All Day Long
- 8. Phobias: Who Has Them and Why?
- 9. What If Your EpiPen Fails?
- 10. 5 Costly Medical Billing Mistakes
- 1. Ice Falls Can Cause Serious Injuries
- 2. Can Inactivity Act Like a Disease?
- 3. Kale Snack Recipe for Diabetics
- 4. How Running Affects Arthritis
- 5. Sugar and Your Immunity System
- 6. Do Weight Loss Supplements Work?
- 7. 5 Super Foods for Spring
- 8. The Hazards of Reusable Bags
- 9. How to Avoid Ingrown Hairs
- 10. Health Tip: Constantly Change Shoes
- 1. 4 Common Treatments for Epilepsy
- 2. What Does a Urogynecologist Do?
- 3. GERD Without Heartburn? It's Possible
- 4. Graston Technique: Can It Work on You?
- 5. Music Therapy Can Help Autism
- 6. 8 Ways to Fight MS-Related Fatigue
- 7. Can You Still Bleed After Menopause?
- 8. Be Your Own Health Care Advocate
- 9. Why Is Syphillis on the Rise?
- 10. Ideal Weight vs. Happy Weight