Overcoming old habits takes practice, preparation
M.J. Ryan, author of "This Year I Will ... : How to Finally Change a Habit, Keep a Resolution, or Make a Dream Come True," writes that the top 10 resolution pitfalls are:
1. Being vague about what you want
2. Not making a serious commitment
3. Procrastinating and excuse making
4. Being unwilling to go through an awkward phase
5. Not setting up a tracking and reminder system
6. Expecting perfection and then falling into guilt, shame and regret
7. Trying to go it alone
8. Telling yourself self-limiting rut stories
9. Not having backup plans
10. Turning slip-ups into give-ups
JANESVILLE This year I will ...
Construct a rocket ship using only a plastic fork and a box of whole grain cereal.
All those goals are equally plausible under the traditional New Year's resolutions system.
Here's a better idea: This year, I will learn what's needed to create and sustain life-giving change.
New Year's resolutions usually work like this:
Make resolution. Stick with it for a couple of days, even a couple of weeks. Encounter obstacles such as hard day at work, a lack of clean sweats or an abundance of cake.
Then, either give up and feel bad or? forget you made a resolution and slide unconsciously back into your accustomed—and very comfortable—rut.
M.J. Ryan, life coach and author of "The Happiness Makeover," has spent much of her career studying the science and psychology of change.
Ryan's book, "This Year I Will" is a result of that work. It's a handbook that shows how to prepare for change, get going and sustain your efforts.
Path of least resistance
Our brains love patterns, the waterslides of the mind, the easy—and often enjoyable—path from one action to another.
"These are deeply grooved pathways," Ryan said in a phone interview. "The longer they exist, the more automatic they are."
That's why we can find ourselves in the middle of unwanted behavior before we realize what we're doing.
Overcoming those patterns takes intention, preparation and practice.
Many brain scientists say it takes between six and nine months to create new pathways, Ryan writes in her book.
Intent and precision are critical.
"I think this is what happens around New Year's," Ryan said. "People get excited and say, 'I really want to do this' and create an airy-fairy list."
Sure, we all would like to be thin and fit people with better work-life balance and an updated resume. But that's not a goal. That's a nebulous set of desires.
"The more real you make a goal, the more it will be sustainable," Ryan said.
An emotional connection to a goal is vital.
Julie Janiak knows what that's like. As director of UW-Rock County's TRIO program for low-income and first generation college students, she has witnessed the phenomenon first-hand.
Her students are plunged into a new life, and unless they make significant changes, they won't succeed.
Saying, "I want a college degree," isn't always enough.
"It's a lot easier if they have a long-term goal, if they can say what's the point of getting this piece of paper," Janiak said. "Maybe it's 'I'm going to have a job I love going to every day' or 'I'm going to have a job that allows me to support my family.'"
Ryan remembers when she first resolved to start an exercise program. It wasn't the desire to fit into a size 6 that motivated her, it was brain health: Research has shown exercise helps sustain and even improve memory and cognitive abilities.
The process of change requires patience and courage to travel outside of your comfort zone. We want to be at the top of our career, at the top of our fitness level or at our lowest weight within three months—tops.
We launch ourselves into the resolution, only to give up because it's too daunting.
"What I tell my kids is 'Take a little bit at a time,'" said Gina Foucault, Whitewater High School girls swim coach.
Foucault invites girls of all skill levels to join the team. Some are just learning the official strokes, while others have been swimming competitively for many years.
It's not easy for the newcomers.
They got there by taking one tiny step after another. Putting on a swim suit. Getting in the pool. Learning a basic stroke. Swimming one length. Swimming a lap.
The tiny step method works with our brain chemistry instead of against it, Ryan writes. A big change sets off the flight-or-fight response that manifests itself in that low-grade panic we feel about never having another cigarette or piece of cake.
Small means small, Ryan noted: "What's the first step you want to take? Go ahead, underwhelm yourself. The success you create will give you the courage and enthusiasm to preserve and perhaps even up the ante."
Track your successes
It's a classic pitfall: One cookie leads to another, and then the whole box is gone. You give up the whole weight loss/exercise/eat right thing.
That's discounting all of the small successes you've already had.
Foucault encourages her kids to write down their progress.
"They can seen what they've achieved, what they've already done," Foucault said. "Those successes help keep you motivated."
Sam Schwanz-Gnatzig is the fitness coordinator at the Whitewater Aquatic and Fitness Center and runs the Strong Leaner Every Day program.
Clients set their own goals, and Schwanz-Gnatzig designs programs for them.
It's a tracking system but is largely self-motivated.
"When people fail or are struggling, I usually try to turn that around and ask them what they've done in a non-workout related area that has been really successful," Schwanz-Gnatzig said.
The tracking system shows them where they've been successful.
Writing it down also helps keep people centered and aware, Ryan said.
People who want to lose weight often will write down everything they eat. That system works for other resolutions, as well.
Want to have more patience with your kids? Write down situations that make you lose your temper.
Want to eliminate a lifetime of tardiness? Track what makes you late and what makes you on time.
Often, people engage in bad habits in a "dissociated state"—mindless eating is the best example.
"Tracking gives you an awareness of what you're actually doing," Ryan said.
It also gives people an awareness of the change they're making.
When slip-ups happen—and they're bound to happen repeatedly—a journal of successful small steps will help you start again without guilt.
Every day can be New Year's Day.