Twelve Tips for Keeping Your Resolution
1. Make It Nonnegotiable
Promise yourself that you are absolutely going to do whatever it is. When you do it, where you do it, how you do it can, and most likely will, change according to circumstances. But that you will do it is not open for consideration. Call it a vow, a promise, a pledge, a commitment. Whatever you call your determination, making it nonnegotiable is a tool for overcoming backsliding after your initial enthusiasm fades. You don’t negotiate with yourself about brushing your teeth. You just do it. I bet you usually honor your commitments to other people, too. Treat yourself equally well. Make your resolution a nonnegotiable commitment in your life.
2. Make It Actionable
Is your goal concrete enough? Many of us fail because we haven’t turned a resolution into something to actually do. Yesterday, a client said he was going to focus more on himself and his family and less on his job. “How are you going to put that into action?” I asked. There was silence on the other end of the phone. Here are some resolutions I’ve recently heard: to have more energy, to learn to relax, to learn to make decisions. There’s nothing wrong with these desires. But they must be translated into actions. Actions tell you how you’re going to do something: I’m going to go to bed earlier and exercise 30 minutes daily to have more energy; I’m going to spend half an hour a day relaxing with my feet up on the couch; I’m going to make a decision about the vacation by Friday. To succeed, you must know what actions you’re going to take.
3. Come Up With Solutions for Your Usual Excuses
What is your usual litany of excuses and rationalizations? One way to think about this is to ask yourself what has gotten in your way in the past when you’ve tried to do this resolution or any other. Forgetting? No time? Losing interest? Not knowing how to begin? And what are the rationalizations you used when you gave up in the past? It doesn’t matter? It’s not that bad? It’s too hard? Instead of just hoping it will be different this time, write down your typical excuses and rationalizations, and create strategies in advance for dealing with them. That way you won’t get stopped in your tracks and lose forward momentum when they arise. And arise they will: Because of the way our brains are hardwired, we have a strong tendency to repeat behavior over and over.
4. Use Procrastination to Your Advantage
Business coach Mike R. Jay claims that 60 percent of the population is “pressure prompted.” It’s a preference, usually labeled as procrastination, to take in information for as long as possible before being forced into action by some external deadline. The other 40 percent of us are “early-starters” who prefer to get the ball rolling and avoid pressure. If you fall into the pressure-prompted majority, find a deadline that will help you get into motion: a reunion, a vacation, a wedding, a performance. One would-be diet-and-exerciser finally got off the starting line when he got the lead in a local production of The Full Monty, which required him to parade around in a G-string in three month’s time. A woman finished her Ph.D. thesis that had been languishing for years when she got a job that required its completion. To work most effectively, the deadline must be real and come from the outside. Pressure-prompters tend to blow off self-created ones.
5. Schedule It In
Before January 2004, I never exercised a day in my life. Since then, I have kept my resolution to exercise 30 minutes a day about 80 percent of the time. How did I do it? I put it into my day planner and treated it as an appointment with a client. Otherwise it’s too easy to schedule all my time away with things I enjoy more (which is everything). Want to write every day? Block it out on your calendar. Want to start looking for a date on match.com? Schedule it. Make a specific, time-bound appointment with yourself, and you’ll be much more likely to do it.
6. Do It Daily
Someone asked the Dalai Lama to describe in one word the secret to living a healthy life. His answer? “Routines.” Bad habits imprison us; good ones bring us closer to our heart’s desire. The more you make what you want part of your everyday life, the more it will become so routine that soon you won’t even have to think about it. If you want to have more work/life balance, for instance, find a way to do a little something each day: leave the office half an hour earlier, take a walk with the family after dinner, read a novel before bed.
7. Monitor Your Behavior
Research shows that when you monitor your behavior in writing, you’re more likely to do better. That’s because monitoring is a key to self-regulation, the capacity to do what it is you say you want to do. Monitoring can take the form of a food diary, counting the number of times you keep your temper in a day, logging the successes you’ve had with not worrying, etc. You also monitor yourself when you put your full attention on something—not eating and watching TV at the same time, for instance.
8. Focus on the Horizon
Take a tip from high-performance athletes: Look at how far you’ve come, not how much you have left to do. Scientists call this the horizon effect. It creates encouragement—“I’ve done twice as much as a week ago!” and builds determination—“I’ve made it this far; I might as well keep going.” Focus on the 10 pounds you did lose; the closet you managed to clean; the $1,000 debt you’ve wiped out; the evening you carved out for yourself. Don’t forget to ask yourself how you’ve accomplished the task so far, so you can mine your success for ideas on how to keep going.
9. Take It One Choice at a Time
When we think about changing something in ourselves, it can feel overwhelming. But in truth, our entire lives are constructed of the minute-by-minute choices we’re making, many of which we’re not even aware of. As Gary Zukav reminds us, “An unconscious choice is a reaction. … A conscious choice is a response.” Bring your choices to consciousness. If you’re having trouble sticking to your resolution for a day, try this practice: When you’re doing the bad old thing, stop and say, “I’m choosing to: eat this Twinkie, not work out, stay at the office to finish this project, blow up, look at my e-mail rather than clean my desk, etc.” Do you like yourself when you make this choice? You can choose differently, moment to moment. The next day, make the positive choice visible to you: “I’m choosing to throw this catalog away rather than go on a spending spree; I’m choosing to take a few calming breaths before speaking; I’m choosing to get my taxes done today rather than wait till April 14.” The more you focus on the positive choice you can make this very day, without worrying about “forever,” the more you will live yourself into the new habit.
10. Find Someone Who’s Doing What You Want to Do and Imitate Them
I have a friend who wants to lose weight. When we’re together she says, “I’m going to watch what you eat and follow suit.” When I set out to become more kind, grateful, and generous, I made a study of people I knew who had those qualities and tried to do as they did. It can be useful to read books or listen to tapes. But when it comes to changing human behavior, there’s nothing that beats good old-fashioned role models. Babies learn by imitation; why shouldn’t adults? Watch and learn—and don’t be afraid to ask questions: How do you get all of your work done and still have time for your family? Teach me your dating secrets. What makes you able to take risks? Most people love to teach if given the opportunity.
11. Teach It to Someone Else
A great way to really cement a new habit is to become a mentor. I was reminded of this the other day when a client of mine, who’d come to me to learn patience, said, “You’d be so proud of me, M.J. I was helping an employee of mine be more successful, and I found your words coming out of my mouth about understanding when it’s time to push and when it’s time to hold back. I realized how much I’ve learned about patience, and my teaching reinforced the merits for me.”
12. Treat Yourself Kindly
“Anything you know, you forget. It’s all about getting confused and getting unconfused.” That’s a piece of wisdom from Buddhist teacher Sylvia Boorstein to remind us that we’re only human. We’re doing the best we can. We will mess up or forget. When we do, our task is to hold ourselves in love. You and I are human beings dealing with the challenges of growth. When we treat ourselves with kindness, we don’t collapse into shame or guilt, but can try again with greater wisdom for having faltered.