Making Change

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Happy New Year!

New Year’s resolutions are the bane of self-improvers everywhere (although gym owners do love all the January sign-up’s). Certainly, it can be helpful to pick a “start date” or “quit date” for a change you want to make. But the “New Year’s Resolution” has many potential drawbacks. For one, this concept carries so much cultural weight—the heavy expectations can be a set-up for failure. Also, January 1 is an arbitrary date; people often decide on a “resolution” without putting much thought into it. And it may also not be the right time to make the specified change if you aren’t ready yet. Making sustainable change takes time, thought, and advanced planning.

Here are some common pitfalls in working towards a goal, along with some guidelines that can help you be successful. 

The goals are too big or unrealistic

Identify an initial goal that feels more realistic to you. You can then build on that later. Take the initial goal and then break it down into much smaller steps. With success at each step, you will gain confidence and positive momentum, and hopefully avoid feeling overwhelmed or frustrated. For example, if your exercise/fitness goal is to walk or run the Crozet Trails Crew 5K next year, plan a reasonable gradual increase in time and distance. And give yourself permission to adjust it as needed. 

Lack of planning

Spend some time thinking about the change you wish to make. How important is it to you? How confident do you feel in your ability to make the change? What would help you feel more confident? When is a good time to start? Do you have the support you need? If not, who can you enlist to help? Do you have the tools you need? What potential barriers do you foresee (be honest with yourself)?

Once you have this list, you can start some concrete planning. In the example above, maybe you know yourself well enough to realize that you might be tempted to skip your walk if it’s cold out: gather up warm walking clothes, gloves and a hat beforehand. Or you know that you would be less likely to bail on a walk if you are meeting a friend: start lining up walking dates.

The planning doesn’t match your personality and strengths

While you may have the best intentions, it’s important not to just plan theoretically or idealistically, but instead to match the plan to your individual preferences and lifestyle. If you are not a morning person, don’t plan 5:30 a.m. walks (chances are you won’t keep that up for long). If you hate kale, don’t plan meals around it, no matter how healthy it sounds.

The plan is too rigid

In general, some flexibility and self-compassion are key to success. Inevitably, you will skip a day, give into temptation, or otherwise fall off track. It’s important to approach change without a “success or failure” mindset. If you tell yourself that you have failed, then it’s easy to think “why bother keep trying?” and to give up. Instead, when making your plan, think about how you might respond to a setback: will you go back to the previous step and go from there? Reach out to a supportive friend you have lined up ahead of time to encourage you? If, for example, your goal is to eat more healthfully, allow yourself some leeway to enjoy your favorite “unhealthy” foods on special occasions. 

And if your original plan isn’t working so well, but you are still committed to your goal, identify and try new strategies. Making an important change often takes more than one attempt.

Timeframe is too fast

Don’t expect a major shift to happen suddenly. Changing our habits can take weeks to months and does not usually happen literally overnight (for example, from December 31 to January 1!).

Lack of support

Mobilize people to support you in your goals. Even the simple act of telling people what you are planning to do can help with motivation and a sense of being held accountable. Joining with people who have similar goals can also be a strong source of encouragement. This can take many forms, including support groups, exercising with friends (or signing up for a group exercise class), committing together with friends to decrease alcohol use and planning alcohol-free evenings, signing up for a language class, or joining a musical group. Lining up a support network for when your motivation lags or you hit a roadblock can be crucial.

All pain and no fun

This is a significant cause of dropped resolutions. Sustainable long-term change is rarely possible without reward and enjoyment. If your plan is to start walking regularly, make it fun: listen to your favorite music or a podcast, walk with your best friend, walk to a fun destination, or in a beautiful environment. And when making your plan, identify rewards for meeting each step. 

Giving something up (for example, alcohol) can be more difficult than adding something in (learning a language). Therefore, it’s key to identify satisfying things to replace what you are giving up. Using alcohol as the example, this might include alternative beverages, as well as other social and recreational outlets that interest you.

In summary, don’t set yourself up to fail. For some people, based on their situations or personality, going “cold turkey” is effective. This may be especially relevant for substance abuse and other addictions (like gambling or quitting smoking). For many others, however, the all-or-nothing, overnight sudden change approach doesn’t work so well, similar to the way crash diets don’t work in the long run. Gradual lifestyle changes are much more sustainable.

As with mostly everything else in the mental health realm, this process is a very individual one. Know yourself, your foibles and quirks, your preferences and dislikes, and plan accordingly. Be flexible and kind to yourself. Give yourself credit for each step along the way. And elicit support from others! 

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