By Joelle McKiernan
It is the time of the year that we decide to make changes we have not been able to make all year long. A new year, a new you.
Unfortunately, many of us find that it doesn’t work that way. It is tempting to see the new year as a fresh start; however, there are many things that get in the way of our best intentions. That is why new year resolutions usually fail before the end of the first week or month.
According to a 2015 Ipsos poll, about a third of Canadians make new years resolutions and, of that group, 73 per cent will break them within the first month.
There are several reasons why new year resolutions don’t work. Some include unrealistic goals; doing it alone; giving up too easily; not committing to the time needed; and not having a plan.
Also, resolutions driven by outside judgements don’t work. We start “shoulding” ourselves, I should be thinner, smarter, look younger, have a better job, etc… We are focusing on what we perceive to be lacking in our lives that we believe will make us happier.
Many new year resolutions have to do with making new habits or changing existing ones. Behavioral science has been researching how we change and make new habits for decades. To understand ourselves better, look at two main areas in behaviour science; habits and self-stories, that influence new year resolutions.
Habits are automatic, “conditioned” responses. You get up in the morning and stop at Tim’s for your coffee. You go home at the end of work and plop down in front of the TV. We repeat these “automatic” behaviours daily, without thinking – it’s part of our day.
To make the changes we need, we first must become more conscious of what we are doing. Once we recognize this, then we can make change gradually.
According to Stanford University Professor B.J. Fogg, to create a new habit you have to follow three steps. Use this three-stage model with the goal of increasing exercise. Step one: pick a small action towards your goal. Say that you decide to park a bit farther from work and walk and when you get home from work, walk around the block before you go inside.
Step two: attach the new action to a previous habit. The two examples above are attached to a previous habit i.e. driving to work and parking the car at home. And step three: make the new action easy to do for at least the first week so the walks can be five minutes to start. According to Professor B.J. Fogg if you take these three steps and you practice them 3 to 7 days in a row, your new habit will be established.
Now look at the science of self-stories. Everyone has stories about themselves that drive their behaviour. The story of you is operating in your mind all the time. It is based on an idea of who you are and what’s important to you. Often when making new year resolutions, we are focusing on what is wrong with us in our story. Where does this opinion come from? We were not born judging ourselves. Where did you learn it and is it what you really want?
This judgement can come from our experiences, our families (unspoken) rules and values, and what we learned from others (media, school influences, et cetera). Another way to recognize this running story is “self talk”. Self talk refers to what we say to ourselves and has a powerful, unconscious influence on our decisions and actions throughout our day.
The best way to get a long-term behaviour change is by changing our self-story. For example, what is the story you tell yourself about your self-image? Do you compare and judge yourself harshly by those people and images around you? Media has a huge influence on our view of self. And remember often media is selling something whether it is a product or a perception or a lifestyle. If you want to change your story, try examining what your judgement is based on.
Once you are aware of what is influencing you, you can change the way you look at yourself and your body. To increase your exercise, change your perception of exercise. For example, be grateful that you can move and use that gratitude and ability to get moving. Consider doing the five-minute walk as a small action toward becoming healthier instead of judging yourself that it is “only five minutes and won’t make a difference” and so on.
If we are focusing on what we perceive to be lacking in our lives, that will not make us happy.
Instead, try focusing on what we do have and allow that to grow. You don’t have to wait until the new year – you can do this all year long.
Joelle McKiernan is a professional counsellor and therapist in the Terrace and Kitimat area.