- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 30, 2020

After a year filled with the pandemic, social unrest, divisive politics and the pandemic (did we mention that one?), how do you make New Year’s resolutions that will ease anxiety over keeping them? Here’s what psychologists say.

Pauline Wallin,who has a private practice in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, says it’s important to have the right reason for changing a habit, which many resolutions are tied to.

For example, an internal reason for losing weight could be to live longer to see your kids grow up, rather than wanting to fit into a pair of skinny jeans, she says.

About 60% of Americans say they intend to make a resolution when asked in early December, but only about 40% will do so by the end of the month or on Jan. 1, says John Norcross, chairman of the Psychology Department at the University of Scranton, citing a Harris Interactive poll.

Mr. Norcross says that contrary to public opinion, a considerable proportion of New Year resolvers do meet their goals. About 40% to 44% of people who set New Year’s resolutions will be successful at six months, he says.

For one of his studies on self-change, he and his research team contacted resolvers every week or two for six months. They found that 71% were successful for two weeks, 64% for one month and 46% for six months. He acknowledged these success rates were probably higher than usual due to repeated follow-ups with the study participants who might have enhanced their behavior change.

Mr. Norcross suggests creating a positive framework rather than viewing things from a deficiency perspective. He refers to finding the “optimal balance” between push-and-pull motivators — the push of a negative past and the pull of a positive, desirable future.

SMART goals

Psychologists emphasize the importance of setting realistic goals.

“The problem with resolutions is they make them unreachable, speaking of goals, setting these unbelievably high standards. ‘I am going to lose 40 pounds in the next three months’ … you’re not going to lose 40 pounds in three months. You might lose 4 pounds and keep it off,” said Joseph Ferrari, a psychology professor at DePaul University.

He says make realistic goals that are doable, behavioral and specific. He also notes that goals can be set any time, not just at the beginning of the year.

Psychologists often refer to five criteria for goal setting — the SMART rule:

S for specific — targeting a particular area.

M for measurable — being able to monitor progress and gauge results.

A for attainable — making goals that are suitable and individualized.

R for realistic — creating a plan that can be easy to implement.

T for time-bound — creating a time frame for achievement.

“Being skilled at goal setting is important because when we set good goals … then we are going to have a greater sense of well-being,” said Sophie Lazarus, a clinical psychologist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “When we set a goal that is too large or too lofty and we don’t need it, we’re vulnerable to all kinds of negative emotions and discouraging self-talk …”

Ms. Wallin says it’s also important to be flexible in setting goals, noting that you’re more likely to give up on a resolution if you feel you “blew it.” So if your goal is to run five days a week, give yourself two free passes and choose which days to use them, she suggests.

Bouncing back after failing

Ms. Wallin says to be prepared for lapses and have an “if-then” plan to get back on the bandwagon. She compares this to working around a weightlifting injury at a gym instead of quitting training altogether.

If you lapse on a goal, talk kindly to yourself but don’t let yourself off the hook for meeting your goal, she says. Changing habits is hard because they are automatic behaviors that require a lot of effort to override, especially at the beginning, she says.

“Remember that this is a journey, and it’s not just for now. You are retraining a habit,” she said. “Don’t scold yourself and don’t use it as an excuse to give up.”

Creating a new habit is a little like driving a rental car: Once you get used to it, it doesn’t take as much work, Ms. Wallin said.

And Mr. Ferrari says a little bit of failure is a good thing, making people better adjusted. A 15% failure/85% success ratio seems ideal, he says, citing a study from a couple of years ago.

“People want to be perfect, and we’re not perfect,” he said. “We need failure in our lives.”

“Failure is not a bad thing,” he added. “The question isn’t whether you’re going to fall, but how are going to get back up?”

Mr. Ferrari recommends reaching out to others for help and understanding that success will not happen all of the time.

Resolutions in the time of COVID

Some psychologists are urging people to cut themselves some slack amid the pandemic.

“We have been under a lot of stress, and we don’t want to simply add to that stress. We want to be responsive to that stress,” said Ms. Lazarus. “So what we’re suggesting is to really cope most effectively with stress we want to set ourselves up for success by perhaps letting go of the need to make a big change. Instead, try to be more mindful and aware and in doing that, that can really help us see what might be the smartest changes or shifts to try and make. Like what is actually going to have the most effect on my happiness?”

She suggests making minor shifts to try to take care of yourself such as being kinder and easier toward yourself.

Mr. Norcross notes that New Year’s resolutions have become sort of “puritanical” and suggests creating resolutions for the community rather than just yourself, such as being less critical. He says a goal can be to ease up when circumstances demand it and reduce expectations in certain areas of life that have been impacted by the pandemic.

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