How do we make meaningful lifestyle changes that stick and are more than a blink in January’s eye? We know it’s not easy. Studies show that by the end of March, many of us have abandoned our resolve and settled back into our old patterns. In one University of Bristol study in 2007 by Richard Wiseman, only around 12% of people who make New Year’s resolutions felt that they were successful in achieving their goals
I am a mental health advocate and writer, as well as a KCL’s Associate and host on the Inspire the Mind series of interviews with leading figures in the mental health world. In this beginning-of-the-year blog, I want to talk about how we stick to our resolutions and make meaningful change.
Some psychologists distinguish between ‘subordinate’ and ‘superordinate’ goals: the first refers to specific and concrete goals, while the second type of goals are more abstract or vague. Decide that your aim is to lose ten pounds (a subordinate goal), instead of saying to yourself ‘I resolve to get in shape’ (a superordinate goal).
Focusing on something specific in this way has helped my own efforts to stick to resolutions. For years, like the rest of the world I have wanted to shed some weight. I am managing to do so only by adopting a narrow and clear aim: I will not eat anything containing sugar — in other words, a subordinate goal. This will also help me avoid sugar highs and lows and keep my mood steady, ideas outlined in my book The Happy Kitchen: Good Mood Food about the links between nutrition and mental well-being.
A second key to successfully changing your lifestyle habits is to focus on one change. By adopting one clear resolution, and focussing my efforts on just that, I am more likely to succeed than if I had spread myself too thin (pun intended!) on multiple goals. Focussing on one goal at a time, and succeeding it in, starts a virtuous circle. I’ve kept to one resolution, so I can keep to another.
Dr Jamie Arkell is a consultant psychiatrist who I interviewed for this article. I wanted to bring a professional perspective to the making and keeping of resolutions, and to learn from Dr Arkell’s experience with his hundreds of patients.
He agrees that the ‘Just one thing’ approach makes sense. It is an approach also popularised by the writer and author of the Fast 800 book Dr Michael Moseley, makes sense. “I had a patient today, overwhelmed with work,” Dr Arkell says. “He also needs to see a GP, and see a specialist, and fill out HMRC forms, and he hasn’t seen a friend for months. So I said he had to see a friend from his old regular group just once before our next review, and to forget the swimming and healthy eating and prioritise ‘just one thing’”.
In addition to being specific and focussing on one aim, some experts also say goals should be measurable, achievable, relevant to you and time-oriented, an approach that neatly creates the acronym ‘SMART’. The SMART approach also appeals to Dr Arkell. “I like the use of SMART goals which management consultants and coaches use,” he says. But he acknowledges how very challenging patients can find it. “A challenge of 10 mins per day for ten days sounds not much but is amazing how few manage it”.
The SMART approach has helped me, but I have added a sixth element to make my SMART goal setting stick: approaching my goals in a compassionate and kindly way — making a contract that has a human element.
In adopting this approach, I have learnt from Carla Croft, Clinical Psychologist at Barts Health. I discussed my thoughts on resolutions with her for this blog, again seeking to learn from her experience of working with hundreds of patients. She applies this ‘compassion-focussed’ approach to SMART goals, transforming what otherwise might feel rather ruthless and clinical, into a much more human and forgiving process.
She advises that before adopting a new goal, we need to properly care about the habit we wish to change. “Think about what you really value in your life,” she counsels. “Perhaps more time at the gym in the afternoon takes you away from the kids too much. We need to stop and notice whether it is causing us suffering and whether it is truly something we want to change. It is also so important that we are honest with ourselves about where we really are up to today. It is no good deciding to run the marathon when you have not started walking — a goal that is lacking in compassion!”
Dr Arkell agrees. “The intention behind the resolution is important,” he says. He also recommends visualisation as a technique. “You might visualise why you want to lose weight and exactly how much would feel an achievement by what date.”
Dr Croft also argues that we may have more success if we seek support from others. “Adopting a healthier habit doesn’t have to be done by you alone”, she says.
Reminding yourself of our common humanity helps with what could be seen as a final stage for anyone trying to change their ways — reviewing your progress. This is the moment you arrive at the allotted time goal and look with gentle honesty at what has happened. The review is more likely to be successful if it starts with “We are all in the same boat, humans have these sorts of challenges, you are not in this alone,” says Dr Croft.
Here’s what I wrote in my own book on this subject: Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness, as a postscript to myself and to any readers who are struggling with resolutions or steps to happiness.
“It may be that you’ve fallen off the wagon in your own quest for happiness. You’ve lost your yen for Zen. Maybe you’ve become frustrated with meditation … or quite simply want to scream at someone…
When I find myself in that situation, I try not to berate myself. Sometimes I try and imagine talking to myself as if I were a child. I would talk to a child in a loving and forgiving way. Being kind and self-compassionate is just as important as becoming more aware and setting new intentions. Keep the wagon rolling. You are good enough just as you are.”
Wishing you all the happiest of New Year and love and luck in keeping your resolutions.