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January 2003
NEW YEAR‚S RESOLUTIONS (OR WHAT HAPPENS IN FEBRUARY?)
By Susan Harper Slate, Ph.D.

Happy New Year! is greeted with a party, a sip of champagne, a kiss at midnight and . . . New Year‚s Resolutions. The week before the beginning of the new year, news reporters ask the „person on the streetš for their resolutions. Typically, one hears people who want to „lose some weightš, „quit smokingš, „clean up some clutterš and „get out of debt.š While many people make resolutions, after a month or so, you don‚t often hear about them. By then, they have been broken and are soon forgotten.

Here are some suggestions for making--and keeping--New Year‚s Resolutions, so that a change actually occurs. Much of these are common sense, and yet many of our clients spend significant time talking about basic changes they would like to make.

  • Don‚t assume it is easy.
    While it may sound like a simple shift in your life, most lifestyle changes are actually more entrenched than many people would assume. For example, take someone who is always just a little bit late, say 10 minutes or so. If this behavior has been a long-standing one, it generally is not just a matter of getting up earlier, but an entire pattern of behavior. Changing the result of this pattern (arriving on time) requires changing the entire pattern of behavior. So, using this example, it may require going to bed earlier, rearranging the sequence of events the night before, as well as changing the pattern of getting up, etc. If lateness is a problem throughout the day, it will require knowing when and what situations trigger the pattern.

  • Research the topic.
    Reading about the behavior change or consulting a professional can be helpful. Years ago I was working with a young teacher who was overwhelmed with the work and in her first year was already feeling burnt out. I suggested that she observe some of the other teachers, those who had achieved a good balance in their lives, and ask to speak with a few. One seasoned teacher served as a mentor, sharing materials, suggestions, and strategies. She continued for a year speaking with her mentor on a weekly basis, learning when she was spending too much time on details, and getting help to set priorities. Researching the behavior you want to address in a formal or informal way can help change the behavior.

  • Avoid black/white thinking.
    Black/white thinking is viewing a behavior with an „all or nothingš perspective. For example, someone decides they are going to lose weight in the New Year. The first couple of days they exercise, eat well and then they‚re back to work, busy with other commitments. The first day they fail to exercise, or slip on the diet, the resolution is dropped. Later in the year they may try again, but continuing to view the behavior similarly yields the same result.

  • Write it down.
    Whatever the behavior you are focusing on, it helps to keep track of your progress. According to clinical studies of behavior change, the ability to change is reinforced when the person trying to change is conscious of the process.

  • Break the behavior into pieces and work on one change at a time.
    It is important to be very specific about what behaviors are needed, and then prioritize those changes. If you want to lose weight, for example, spend a week writing down what you eat everyday to see what needs to change. After a week, you can consult a nutritionist, or using other tools, design a more healthy diet. Make sure the changes are small!! You have a much better chance of a good result if you make the chances for success greater. After perhaps a month of some success (not perfection, but progress), you begin an exercise program. You may start with something as small as a walk around the block a few times a week. It is important to make one change at a time and wait until it begins to feel natural and part of your life before taking on another change. A general rule of thumb is that is takes three weeks for a behavior to become part of a person‚s routine.

  • Drop the perfectionism and prepare for lapses.
    A perfectionist attitude interferes with making progress. Someone doesn‚t have to change a behavior entirely and for all time in order for a change to actually take place. Too often, people procrastinate if the behavior change is viewed as too demanding, and expectations are too high. Likewise, it helps to expect that there are going to be lapses or plateaus. Simply getting back to the changes as quickly as possible is important. If you have spent 10 minutes a day (say 4 to 5 days a week) working on clearing out some clutter and then you miss a week, begin again. Life happens. The consistency you need is not found aiming at never slipping back to the undesired behavior. Instead, the consistency to effect true change is found only when you are willing to keep getting back in the saddle after the fall. Without that consistency, the change is not likely to be made a part of your life.

  • Accountability.
    People often times find making changes easier if they are accountable to someone else. If you plan to exercise, choose to do so with a friend, or join an exercise class. The structure can be very helpful.
Next year this time you may be celebrating a behavior change never before mastered. Remember--it takes time, patience, and some modicum of consistency. All my best and happy 2003!

Dr. Harper Slate is a psychotherapist in practice in Santa Monica. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network.

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