New Year’s Day Has Passed—but There’s Still Time for Resolutions

Psychiatric TimesVol 40, Issue 3

Every time you take the long view and act in alignment with your values or aspirations, you strengthen the self-control part of your brain.

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Making New Year’s resolutions can be beneficial for individuals who follow through with them. But many—including my former self—either do not really use January 1 as a reset or only keep up their resolutions for a few weeks or months. If you are in the latter category, here are some ideas to consider.

We often know which changes we should make to live better, more fulfilling lives, but unhelpful thoughts sometimes get in the way. Does this sound familiar? “I am too busy or stressed right now. I will wait until January 1 to start exercising/watch what I eat/keep my desk in order/stay in better contact with friends.” The list could go on. But what is the harm in putting off important changes?

Suppose your goal (whether it is a New Year’s resolution or not) is to exercise 3 times a week. Every time you think, “I know I shouldn’t skip exercising this week, but it won’t really matter,” you are reinforcing the “giving in” part of your brain. This tendency to give in is strengthened every time you do what you want to do in the moment instead of what will help you reach your goals. On the other hand, every time you take the long view and act in alignment with your values or aspirations, you strengthen the self-control part of your brain.

If you look at the situation narrowly, of course it does not matter if you plan to exercise 3 times and do not do so at all for 1 week. But if not following through with your plan becomes a habit, week after week, it will be much harder to change. You may lose confidence in your ability to make sustained change. After a while, you also may start to feel a little out of control. That is a negative feeling for most of us.

If you want to continue setting New Year’s resolutions, go ahead. On the other hand, you could just decide that today is better than tomorrow and start working on your goal immediately, regardless of the time of year.

You likely will be more successful by doing the following:

  • Choosing a behavior you want to change
  • Determining what is reasonable and sustainable, given your responsibilities, energy, and time constraints
  • Anticipating practical problems and ways to solve them
  • Predicting unhelpful thoughts and ways of responding to them
  • Setting up a system to reward yourself for following through
  • Being compassionate with yourself when you deviate from your plan—and then getting back on track
  • Creating an accountability system (tracking your progress or regularly reporting it to a friend)

New Year’s Day may be a customary occasion for starting to improve your life—but it does not have to be. Even if you have not started or continued your resolutions for this year, think how much better you will feel if you start today.

Dr Beck is president of Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy in Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania, and a clinical professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

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