New Year's Resolutions, by Meredith Azis, MFT Associate
Many of us make New Year’s Resolutions but by March, most of us have thrown in the towel and return to old habits. In fact, according to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, 41% of Americans make New Year’s Resolutions, yet only about 9% keep them. The usual to-do's include the desire to lose weight/eat healthier, quit smoking, work out more, spend more time with close family and friends, or make better financial decisions. It can be overwhelming and bring feelings of defeat when we have great expectations for the months and year ahead, yet quickly find ourselves reverting to old habits.
I find it interesting to focus on the 9% of people who actually attain their resolutions. It makes me wonder, what are they doing differently than the rest of us? Researchers have long believed, that utilizing the S.M.A.R.T. technique is most effective for goal setting. S.M.A.R.T. is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely. The specific piece is about the who, what, when, where, and why? Measurable goals ask the questions how much or how many? This gets us excited as we inch closer to making our goals a reality because we can track our progress. When we look at the achievable step, we are assessing how attainable and realistic our goals are. Remember, we want to keep our goals concise so they are not too overwhelming. Relevant goals ask the question: is this the right time? How relevant is this goal to my life and how much does it matter to me? The timely step is to ensure that our goals have a deadline, which hopes to prevent everyday responsibilities from taking over our long-term goals.
Let’s look at the difference: a non-S.M.A.R.T. goal would be something like, “I will lose weight this year”. However, the S.M.A.R.T. version of this goal would answer the questions, why do I want to lose weight? How much weight do I want to lose? Is the amount of weight I want to lose realistic to my lifestyle? How important is this goal? Does it mean more to me than habits that hinder my accomplishments? What can I do to work toward this goal today? What can I do in 6 weeks? When do I want to achieve this goal? — Do you see the difference? I hope this helps to highlight the value and effectiveness of using the S.M.A.R.T. technique when it comes to accomplishing our goals.
When we make New Year’s Resolutions, often times, we are striving to modify a habit or behavior; that could mean altering a behavior, creating a new one, or getting rid of a bad habit altogether. According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit, in order to generate a new habit, we must follow a “3-step neurological process”, known as the ‘Habit Loop’. Habits work by recognizing a cue that sends a signal to our brain to engage in that behavior. Then comes the routine. The routine is the behavior that responds to the cue. And finally, a reward. The reward helps teach our brains that we crave (or need) the behavior. According to Duhigg, “It’s a basic formula you can use to create—or break— habits of your own.” This is a good thing! It means that we can retrain our brains to engage in/crave the behaviors we desire. Now, of course it isn’t that simple however, having awareness around how our brains respond to cues, routines, and rewards is a step in the right direction. Let’s use a potential New Year’s Resolution as an example, and explore how we might use Duhigg’s Habit Loop.
First, we must recognize to which cues and rewards the undesired habit is connected. Let’s say our New Year’s Resolution is to reduce time spent on Social Media. After we’ve asked ourselves the S.M.A.R.T. questions, we want to identify the cue. After a few days of being in touch with what triggers our social media use, we notice that we turn to social media when bored at work—this is the cue! (Note: sometimes we may need to implement new cues, as opposed to just identify them, to trigger our desired behaviors. This depends on if we are looking to take away, modify or implement a new behavior.) Next, let’s say we recognize that checking social media allows us to “check out” from work for a few minutes and helps time go by faster—this is the reward! Okay, so we’ve done the work and recognized what triggers the behavior and what we get out of it. Now, how do we change it? When we feel the cue: boredom at work, we want to recognize a more adaptive routine, which still gives our brains the same reward we crave. The next day at the office, we feel the boredom trigger coming on, we know the reward we crave is to give our minds a break from work for a moment and help time to pass. So, with this information, what can we replace our routine with that works toward our goal of decreasing time spent on social media? A few ideas come to mind: we could take a walk, socialize with a colleague, stretch for 5 minutes, or do a deep breathing/mindfulness exercise. This may be a trial and error period for a few days while we identify what new behavior gives our brains the same reward. This is one of the most crucial steps for changing our unwanted habits so remember to and give yourself some time in discovering what replacement routine works best for you. After a while, the new habit will be implemented and the old habit will be left in 2017. (Attached you’ll find an infographic from Duhigg’s website denoting the Habit Loop.)
If this feels relevant for what you aspire to achieve in the 2018, we can help. We can support you in identifying more adaptive patterns throughout various aspects of your life and set goals that work with your individual history and trauma. A new year is a great time to commit to your mental health and we’re here to support you.
The author, Meredith Azis, is currently accepting new clients in both our Escondido and Banker's Hill locations. You may contact her by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 760-884-4929 x712.