New Year Resolutions – good idea or waste of time?

We all like the idea of turning over a new leaf, to make a fresh start or to have another chance. Some people are sceptical about this and see it as a waste of time; they say: – “you know you won’t keep it up so why do you bother?”

Are they right? Do New Year’s resolutions exemplify a laudable wish for self-improvement, or are they a sad case of not being able to accept ourselves as we are? In other words, are they positive or negative?

Well, making resolutions is positive in that it indicates a belief that things can be better, and what could possibly be wrong with that? On the other hand, it could be seen as negative in the sense that if we ‘fail’ we may feel worse. Examples of New Year’s resolutions may include wanting to kick an addiction; exercise more; or (if you are like me), keeping on top of all your commitments and never falling behind. They say that ‘the way to hell is paved with good intentions’, but I am not so sure. Following that logic we should believe that the way to heaven is paved with bad intentions, which makes no sense at all!

There are occasions in life, perhaps a particular time of year such as Christmas, an anniversary, or a significant birthday, when you may find yourself reflecting on your life. Perhaps you take stock of where you are, and realise that there is room for improvement, that there are things you have always meant to do but haven’t and that you could be happier. If such a reflection results in a new resolution, there is a sense of optimism and an attitude of ‘yes I can’.

Basically, any change that we want to make in our life is about letting go of habits that are no longer good for us. The creation of new habits goes hand in hand with consciously letting go of old ones, a process that will result in actual changes in your brain. Your neural pathways are like paths in long grass. Initially the creation of a new path will be hard work, but the more often you walk the new path, the easier it will get. Meanwhile the old path will get overgrown and walking along it will be less tempting, but…it take persistence.

There is something else that will help too. Take a look at the three resolutions below. What do you notice about them? How likely to you think it is that Irene, Simon or Fred will succeed?

Irene         – I am going to try and lose weight

Simon       – I will do my best to drink less

Fred         – I intend to give up smoking

The tentative and non-specific way in which Irene, Simon and Fred express their intentions make success seem unlikely. It seems better to say, for example:

I will lose at least 1 lb. each week;

I will limit my drinking to two glasses of wine on a Friday and Saturday only;

I have thrown my cigarettes in the bin and will never smoke again.

However, all three intentions are still expressed in terms of giving something up something pleasurable, which may not seem an attractive prospect! Therefore, you may feel that if you do achieve this heroic thing, you deserve a reward. Unfortunately, all too often that reward involves a relapse, a piece of that cake, another glass (or two) of that wine, just one fag, and so on.

So the trick is to frame whatever it is you want to do in such a way that it sounds like the greatest thing ever. For example, when Irene wanted to lose weight, her partner said how much he was looking forward to her being happier and healthier. This worked for her, as it told her that he just wanted what was best for her. As he accepted and loved her anyway her size was actually irrelevant to him, although he did understand that it was an issue for her.

So express, whatever it is that you wish to achieve, positively and as something you’ll enjoy. For example, ‘from now on I will feel great and full of energy. I will do this by only consuming what I need, and what is healthy for me.’

If your intention involves giving up something, like smoking or drinking for example, it is a good idea to replace it with something else. This is because giving up something leaves a void, so fill that void with something that you really enjoy and that makes you feel good. And what that is will vary, what is right for one person is not right for another.

Irene found it helpful not to dwell (amongst other things) on the loss of a cake or two with her coffee every morning, but on the gain, on what she was doing differently. In other words, she found a way to enjoy the process by joining a women-only running and exercise club that met twice a week. They all became great friends and Irene looked really forward to going. Through talking with Sue, another club member, she decided to go back to college and study creative writing. This was something she had always wanted to do, but had not got round to because of family commitments. She is now enjoying life and weight is not an issue for her as there is no longer a lack in her life that needs to be filled with food.

To summarise:

Create a positive frame for the thing you want to achieve;

Look at the ‘pay off’ you are getting from the bad habit; do you eat cakes only because they taste nice, or because they satisfy some other need?

Reflect on the lack the bad habit is meeting and think of some other way to meet this need. Sometimes it can be difficult to figure out what the lack is, in which case it may be helpful to see a counsellor or therapist to get clarity.

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