Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanza have come and gone, leaving us many welcome gifts, and potentially one unwelcomed one; guilt. Eat too much over the Holidays? Drink too much? Sleep too much? Smoke away your frustrations at Holiday shopping? Curse away your frustration at Holiday driving? Gossip about family?
[Cue Old Timey Snake-Oil Music]
Well then, have I got a cure for you! It’s a classic, bona fide, guaranteed time-tested solution to that pressing feeling that you—yes, you—have got some changing to do! And, as a special bonus, it even cures that feeling of friends and family staring daggers into your innocent back about the changes you’re not ready to admit to, let alone make! Best part? It’s absolutely free! Come closer, friend and gaze at the New Year’s Resolution! But, be warned, this is a one-time, first come-first served opportunity so you best jump at the chance to make a Resolution certified to get you over the guilt, get the daggers out of your back and get you back to that same old behavior by Valentine’s Day!
Yep. That about sums up my thoughts on New Year’s Resolutions. The ball drops, the bubbly pops, we kiss, we hug and we make bold statements about the change we will make in the New Year. Then Facebook is littered with the gravestones of the previous night’s resolutions before the final Mummer has left the parade the next morning.
What irks me is that change, real change, is awesome, freeing and powerful, but the New Year’s Resolution is a socially endorsed set up for failure with a wink and a nod. Yes, I get that it’s a tradition and it’s meant in fun. I get that I may be over reacting. If you like your tradition the way it is, feel free to jump off this freight train now.
Still with me? Great. Now, let me tell you why New Year’s Resolutions are dumb.
The New Year’s Resolution Stage
According to 30 year veteran clinical psychologist and addiction specialist, Dr. Marc F. Kern, “…behavior change does not happen in one step. Rather, people tend to progress through different stages on their way to successful change” and at their own pace. These days, most therapists, myself included, gauge that rate of change using The Stages of Change Model developed by James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente as they studied how people quit smoking. Since publishing their work, Prochaska and DiClemente’s “SCM model has been applied to a broad range of behaviors,” Dr. Kern wrote, “including weight loss, injury prevention, overcoming alcohol, and drug problems among others.”
I use the SCM to gauge every behavior change on my patients’ treatment plans. I’m required to by every insurance company I deal with, which means that the majority of therapists, psychologists and counselors who work with public and private insurance are encouraged to use this model. There are six stages, I’ll describe them for you. Look closely to find the “It’s New Year’s Eve!” Stage.
Pre-Contemplation: “What problem? I don’t have a problem; you have a problem.” People in this stage are unaware or unwilling to see their behavior as a problem. Think of the older man or woman who wears too much cologne or perfume. Everyone around them knows it’s a problem, but they sure don’t.
Contemplation: “Maybe I do need to change…” We start to see a negative effect of the issue. Our jeans are suddenly too tight, but the dryer didn’t shrink any of the other clothes, or in the example of the perfume, we see people choking and their eyes watering when we come near.
Preparation: “Ok. I do need to change that, but how?” In this stage we gather data. From personal experience and as a therapist I can attest that some people get stuck in this stage because for a while gathering information on how to change feels good, it feels like change but it’s not.
Action: “It’s go time!” And then we try it out. Even small successes in this stage feel like mountains climbed. We need a great deal of support in this stage.
Maintenance: “I got this.” We’ve had repeated success. Dr. Kern noted that “People in this stage tend to remind themselves of how much progress they have made.” What he didn’t note is that we also tend to remind everyone we meet. I’m sure you know someone who does. This is okay, it shows that we’re proud of our success but also could use some polite congratulations or encouragement to keep it up.
Relapse: “Man, did I F’up.” Dr. Kern assures us that “along the way to permanent cessation or stable reduction of a bad habit…it is much more common to have at least one relapse than not.” Relapse happens, it’s fine, depending on how well and how soon you try again. The problem with this from a New Year’s Resolution standpoint is that the whole concept is based around immediate cessation with little preparation and we give up totally as soon as the first relapse, because failing at your New Year’s Resolution is also a social norm.
So, did you see the “It’s New Year’s Eve!” Stage? Can you locate it on the chart? Of course not. Lasting change comes in a slow progression.
Everybody Else is Doing It
“What’s your New Year’s Resolution? What’s your’s? What’s your’s?” Commitment to a New Year’s Resolution on New Year’s Eve has more peer-pressure backing it than drinking. However, Dr. Hiroshi Matsumoto, researcher at The Open Research-center Project of Mukogawa Women’s University in Japan asserted that such external motivation will net you very little in terms of long term change.
He, and his partner, reported finding that changing a negative behavior through “extrinsic reinforcements, such as penalty, compensation, behavioral and social reinforcement” or a New Year’s Eve party, may work in the short-term but “it is difficult to maintain the long-term behavioral changes…therefore in order to maintain altered health behavior, one’s motivation should be internalized…”
How do you gain an internalized motivation? According to Deci and Ryan’s “Self-Determination Theory” true internal motivation takes time to develop, but is more easily achieved if a person moves from “a nonself-determined model” like a socially reinforced New Year’s Eve Resolution, to a “self determined model” such as a change brought about through the stages of change above.
How many of you will resolve to exercise this year? Dr. Matsumoto’s study was on changing exercise behavior. “There seems to be many people who attempt to start exercises because of external pressure,” he affirmed, “Yet…the external pressure can change exercise behavior in the short term but it appears to be difficult to change long term exercise behavior,” based solely on external motivation.
Size Doesn’t Matter. Wait, Yes it Does
Finally, it’s the size of the commitment that undermines it success. The clock strikes 11:59 on New Year’s Eve and it’s “This is it! My last cigarette!” “My last drink!” “My last cheese-encrusted, dough-wrapped, sugar coated lard ball!”
Why now? Because we want to “Start off the New Year right!” Registered Dietician Sheah Rarback from the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine would disagree. “It’s a familiar message from nutrition professionals: The road to a healthier lifestyle is paved with a series of small changes. It seems a no-brainer that this would be a good strategy, but…” not, apparently on New Year’s Eve.
Making such quick, drastic change will bring almost certain failure, however a 2011study published in the British Journal of Nutrition and cited by Rarback confirmed that slow change can have drastic results. “Each lifestyle change improves health, and when you put a few together you are looking at powerful, pill-free intervention,” she wrote, based on the findings that “with each additional lifestyle change, the risk of [negative health consequences] decreased 31 percent on average.”
Quitting drinking, smoking, over-eating, womanizing, gambling, and any other harmful “ing” immediately will surely bring the same 31% benefit. But, it’s useless if you only have that benefit for two to three weeks at the utmost. Lasting change starts small.
Fine, Now I Hate New Year’s Eve
New Year’s Eve is a blast of a holiday. New Year’s Resolutions are a quaint tradition. If you want to make them, please do so. But do so with your eye’s open. Here are two methods for a successful New Year’s Resolution that brings lasting change.
1) You’ve already decided, at some point before New Year’s Eve that you need to change [issue X]. You’ve found your internal motivation.
2) You’ve already gathered data.
3) You’ve made some small changes and had some relapses but are getting back on track.
4) You make your New Year’s Resolution as a public declaration to gain some external motivation, too.
The “Ball’s Dropping Right Now” Method
1) Everybody’s been hassling you about [issue X], and you do think that they’re right, so you’re gonna try this Resolution thing.
2) The idea of changing [issue X] feels possible and you want to try to change.
3) You resolve to have [issue X] changed by next New Year’s Eve which includes starting to gather information on how to change immediately via friends at the party, the internet…ect.
4) Whenever anyone in the next week points out that you just did [issue X] again you repeat the phrase, “That’s okay, I’m early in the Preparation Stage” but you do keep trying to change the behavior throughout the stages. Don’t worry, as the negative consequences continue, your internal motivation will grow.
If you do chose to use one of these methods for your resolution, please comment in the box below or use the array of contact avenues to let us know. We’d love to offer some external motivation. If you did, successfully change a behavior via a New Year’s Resolution and wish to challenge me, bring it on. I’d love to know more.
To everyone, I hope you have great success and a Happy New Year.