How to Keep Your Resolutions
People joke about resolutions, but it is possible to keep them if they're properly crafted.
One New Year's Eve, I wrote in my journal, "I will run 3.5 miles every day next year." My friends thought this was a stretch for an overweight middle-ager, but the 3-1/2-mile circuit through my Connecticut neighborhood is picturesque and quiet, and I had trekked it many times before.
I've never had more fun trying to fulfill a promise. In January I ran during a blizzard, slipping and sliding and dodging snowplows. In May I jogged under a full moon, reveling in the fragrance of lilacs. In August I ran in broiling heat, with sweat soaking my headband and stinging my eyes. In September I sloshed through flooded streets in a tropical storm. In November, I tasted the first snowflakes of the new season and thought, "I'm going to make it!"
Then, shortly after Thanksgiving, a dull pain developed in my left calf muscle. I continued my daily run, thinking I could "work through" the pain. But on the evening of December 16, as I rounded the first corner, I felt—and heard—a sharp snap. Suddenly, my left calf hurt so badly that I had no choice but to turn and limp home. For the remaining two weeks of the year, my chain of days was broken.
I learned a hard lesson from that—it's Rule No. 3, below. And decades of experience have taught me a good many more lessons. Here are eight of the most important:
Rule 1: Be specific.
Everyone wants to be a better person, but "I'll be a better person from now on" is an useless resolve. So is "I'll get in shape this year." How are you going measure it? What will success look like?
You're much better off with something like "I will lose ten percent of my current weight by my next birthday." (That's enough to significantly reduce your risk of heart disease or diabetes.) Or "I won't end a day without at least one act of kindness." (I love that one. Acts of kindness are a lot easier to count than sheep.) Or "I'll read at least 50 new books before the end of the year."
By the way, write your resolutions down. Nothing forces you to be specific better than putting your thoughts on paper (or on the computer screen you're looking at right now).
Rule 2: One goal at a time.
The year I turned 35, I resolved to quit smoking, stop drinking, lose 30 pounds, and run my first marathon. I ended up doing none of the above. But I did quit smoking the following year, and I lost the 30 pounds the year after that.
The point is, adopting a single goal can focus you for success, while trying to achieve multiple goals may only dilute your resolve or, worst-case, make them compete with one another. It's better to stick to your most important goal each year and damn the rest. If you're an overweight smoker, for example, resolve to quit smoking first. Tobacco is the nation's No. 1 killer, whereas overweight and inactivity are No. 2.
Rule 3: No bull****!
Thanks to my ill-fated daily running experience, I'm making a smarter resolution for 2011. I'm going to cover the same 3-1/2-mile circuit every day of the year, but I won't necessarily run it. Walking is less risky—and a bit more effective for weight loss, too.
Similarly, if you hope to lose 30 pounds in 20 weeks but you've never averaged more than a pound a month, don't kid yourself. Move your deadline back a few months. Maybe you can still reach your original goal—but if you don't, at least you won't be kicking yourself.
Rule 4: Go public.
The year I lost 30 pounds, I placed a bet with two co-workers. At a weigh-in at the company store each week, whoever had lost the most collected $5 from each of the others. All three of us got slimmer that year. It wasn't the money, of course—it was the fun of competition.
If contests aren't your bag, then ask your spouse or a friend to throw a party when you reach your goal. That's how Mary and I celebrated my first smoke-free year—and the memory of that surprise gala (I had forgotten asking for it) helped to keep me straight thereafter. How could I let those people down?
Rule 5: Take it in steps.
When it comes to resolutions, I'm all-or-nothing. If I fall off the wagon, I generally don't climb on again until I've lost everything I worked for and then some.
This is what happens to yo-yo dieters. They stick with their program for two or three months and lose 15 or 20 pounds. Then, in one crazy week (a vacation, a business trip) they gain four or five pounds—and a heavy load of guilt. "I'm not good enough to do this," they tell themselves. And over the next couple of months they pack all the weight back on again.
Here's a solution: Instead of 35 pounds in a year, resolve to lose four pounds in four weeks. At the end of the fourth week, reward yourself by eating as much as you want for one weekend. Then get back on the program for the next four pounds, and so on. That way, you'll have a big reward to look forward to every month—and you'll still end up losing the 35 pounds.
Rule 6: Write a backup plan.
Actually, my 2011 resolution has a rider attached to it: if my walking routine is interrupted by sickness, injury, or travel, I'll walk an extra half-mile each day until I make up the loss.
No resolution is complete until it answers the question, "What do I do if I screw up?" Write yourself some contingency rules.
Rule 7: Get the right tools.
I have never been able to lose weight without counting calories. If I don't monitor the numbers, then my only adviser is my stomach, which is a pathological liar. "Come on! One more bite won't hurt!" it whispers. In fact, just one extra bite per day will make the average person 17 pounds heavier at the end of a year.
My favorite tool is DietPower software, which not only counts calories but shows my intake of 33 nutrients. Other people may prefer reading labels and wielding a calculator. And still others (the lucky ones) are like Charlie Morgan, a slender coworker who once told me, "I just make it a rule to leave the table a little hungry." (His stomach is more truthful than mine.)
Robert Epstein, one of the world's leading behavioral scientists and a member of DietPower's advisory board, once gave this tip to readers who wanted to stop biting their nails: Buy a box of emery boards and put one everywhere you sit. A friend whose daughter read this advice told me it worked like a charm. "All I needed was good tools in a handy place."
Rule 8: Remember what a resolution is.
A resolution is not a burden, but an opportunity—a chance to prove you're master of your fate.
You can do it!
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