Making Change Stick: Revisiting your New Year’s Resolutions

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Glasses and coffee cup on a table. Message on a board: 365 New Days. 365 New Chances.

We are now well into 2021. Remember those New Year’s resolutions you made back at the beginning of January – are they still with you? According to the New York Post, most Americans abandon their resolutions by February first.

The four most common resolutions probably won’t surprise you. Perhaps you’ve had these on your list more than once:

  • Exercise more
  • Lose weight
  • Eat healthier
  • Save money

These additional common resolutions likely won’t surprise you either:

  • Read more
  • Travel
  • Spend more time with family
  • Learn something new

But what might come as news is that succeeding it isn’t all about willpower. Making a resolution is easy — what we often overlook is that change is hard.

Change is Hard

Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (LSS) Behavioral Health clinician Susan Fuchs-Hoeschen explains that the change process is complex. “Change is often oversimplified,” she says. “As therapists and behavioral health specialists, we know the science of change actually involves six different steps.” Whenever you change your behavior or habits, you are going through these six steps, regardless of whether you are aware of them.

Six cycles of change:

  1. Precontemplation
  2. Contemplation
  3. Determination
  4. Action
  5. Relapse
  6. Maintenance

As you can see — developing a new habit takes intention and attention on an ongoing basis. Have you created a strategy to help you succeed?

Many of us jump on the resolution bandwagon every year, only to fall by the wayside when the going gets tough. What might be missing is an honest assessment of what barriers exist in your life that may hinder the change you want to make. Another common pitfall is overlooking the need to identify and plan for something that would trigger a return to past behavior. Making a New Year’s resolution stick involves a little preparation before declaring your goal — then continued attention to the small steps along the way.

Five Steps to Help You Stick to Your Goal

Here are five simple steps to keep your resolution going throughout the year:

  • Identify Barriers
  • Set Yourself Up for Success
  • Know What Might Set You Back
  • Celebrate Small Successes
  • Practice Self-Compassion and Avoid Negative Thinking

Identify Barriers

Knowing up front what challenges you might face and having ideas on how to adjust to accommodate your goals can make the difference in whether or not you make progress on your resolution. For example, if you want to exercise more but feel you don’t have time in your busy schedule to go to the gym, examine how you are using your time. Evaluate how you spend your time to see where you can add more movement into your day in even five- or ten-minute increments. That will help you overcome the barriers when they show up, instead of committing to a bigger goal that may already feel unattainable before you even start. Attention to the small details like these can make a difference.

In this case, to add more movement to your day, you might try:

  • Parking at the far end of the lot and walking further to the store entrance
  • Taking stairs instead of the elevator
  • Finding a 10-minute window in your day where you can get up and stretch, move around or even dance a little
  • Walking around the block once before starting or getting back to work after a break

Set Yourself Up for Success

Action starts with intention. Fuchs-Hoeschen, pointing to the work of BJ Fogg in the book Tiny Habits, says, “If we pair intention with a specific action, we help engage muscle memory and our sensory features, which is really much more effective.” Starting small, with changing a thought, an action, or even a feeling, can lead to progress. She recommends breaking down the change to the tiniest action that feels doable. In the example above, instead of going to the gym five days a week, you can choose to start with a small step in moving your body more by incorporating a very small change into the natural rhythm of your day.

Know What Might Set You Back

Be prepared to face the things that might set you back – even make a list of triggers – and have a plan to address them. Pay attention to the times you are tempted to resort to past behavior. Is it when you are overly tired? Or overwhelmed with too much work? Perhaps it is when you are bored or lonely. Knowing what triggers the potential of a relapse is the start of preventing them. Once you know what your triggers are, you can watch for them and choose a new way of responding.

Perhaps your goal is practicing self-care. Instead of waiting to the end of the week when you may not have the energy to decide on your best self-care option, have a list ready to pull out when you are tired: things like taking a candlelit bath, walking in nature, sitting by the fire on a winter evening, calling a friend or sitting down for 15 minutes to read a good book.

Celebrate Small Successes

We often think of a relapse as failure but remember, while relapse might veer you off your intended path, the path is still there to get back on. Try reframing it simply as a lapse: a break in paying attention to your goal, but not a permanent abandonment of your goal. Look at where you fell off and reassure yourself that you can take an action or a small step to get back on the path. Move towards that action.

Fuchs-Hoeschen says, “We are often about setting a goal and relapsing when we don’t take into account all the other changes that are needed in that interim.” Take the time to celebrate and acknowledge the changes, the steps you have taken towards your goal. Building a new habit is not an easy task. Relapse is bound to happen. Remember that movement towards your goal is progress; if you hadn’t set the goal, you may not have made any changes at all. Give yourself credit where it is due.

Begin again. Eventually, all your beginnings will add up to progress.

Practice Self-Compassion and Avoid Negative Thinking

It’s not too late to make your 2021 New Year’s resolutions work, but to do so, you may have some choices to make.

You can choose to reframe your self-talk — how you think about what you do and don’t do. So, you haven’t kept your resolution the way you thought you would. Remember what you have done.

And remember you can choose to start again. We all have the opportunity to make another choice. At the end of the year, it isn’t about whether you stuck to your plan; it’s about what you accomplished. Every small step counts. Remove the concept of failure from your thinking. Failure implies something is lost forever – but just because you didn’t work out five days last week, your ability to start again hasn’t been lost. It is still here with you every day.

Musicians are a great example – they don’t just pick up an instrument and play intricate pieces of gorgeous music. It takes practice. As with any habit, practice instills the action into your routine. However, be aware that the adage “practice makes perfect” is a misnomer and circles back to the question of failure. “If I can’t get it right, it’s not going to be worth anything,” is thinking that hides the truth of improvement in incremental steps.

Consider instead that “practice makes permanent”– every time you engage in an action, it becomes more familiar and leads to actions being easier to perform. It builds muscle memory.

Remember movement towards your resolution is your goal. Every incremental task is a successful movement towards accomplishing it.

Desmond Tutu, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and renowned human rights activist once said, “There is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.” Many things may seem challenging or almost impossible – but by breaking it down into “bite-sized” bits, we can get there in the end.

So, here we are, well into the new year. What will you do with your New Year’s resolution now? You can do this. It takes attention and intention – in small, consistent, doable steps. Even tiny steps move you towards your goal.

Finding Support with LSS

If you, or someone you know, is struggling with making wanted change in your life or feeling like you need more support to meet the demands of your day-to-day life, the LSS Behavioral Health team can help. You can check out our mental health web pages or call 1.888.881.8261.