If you have a New Year’s resolution for the coming year, I want you to have the best chance of success. In the first part of this blog post, I guided you through selecting and refining your goal, and provided a worksheet to assist you. In this post, you will learn some strategies to create an action plan to implement and maintain your goal.
One of the most common reasons people don’t stick to New Year’s resolutions is because they simply forget! Visual reminders can be very helpful. If you want to keep a gratitude diary, keep it on your bedside table with a pen so you see it there when you wake up. If you want to read more books, keep them in sight where you sit to relax in the evening, instead of tucked away in the hallway. If you want to exercise each day, keep your exercise clothing or equipment where you will pass by it on the way out of your bedroom, or as you come in the door from work, depending on when you intend to do the activity. Put a note on your mirror to remind yourself to do a mindfulness exercise after brushing your teeth.
Technology can also be a convenient way of reminding yourself. If you want to do a short relaxation exercise each day, set a reminder on your phone to do it first thing in the morning. Maybe set a recurring reminder to call a friend each Thursday evening. On some devices you can even set location-dependent reminds – a reminder to go for a run when you get home; a reminder to spend 5 minutes planning and prioritising tasks for the day when you arrive at work, instead of getting lost in the task that happens to be sitting on top of your desk.
Print out your New Year’s Resolution Action Plan, and write down some reminders that may work well for your selected goal.
Reduce temptation & barriers
Your environment has a large impact on how successful you are in achieving behavioural changes, and it is something you can modify. Frequent temptation makes patterns of behaviour much harder to change. Environmental changes can reduce mental barriers: less willpower, or self-control, is required if you are tempted less often. They can also reduce physical barriers: creating one less step, or less physical energy to accomplish the task.
If you are trying to reduce your intake of processed foods, for example, it’s going to be much easier if these foods aren’t widely available in your own home. If you want to quit smoking, hanging out in bars with smokers will hinder your chances of success. If you want to arrive at work more relaxed and motivated, you may choose to leave home earlier to reduce the stress associated with rush hour traffic and your worry of being late. Many of the examples I gave previously for providing visual reminders double as reducing effort involved in completing the task.
Have a think about anything in your environment you could modify to reduce temptation and physical barriers to success. Add these to your action plan.
Managing a slip
Most times when you commit to a change, there will be slips along the way. Interestingly, many people actually find these slips strengthen their resolution to alter their behaviour. Others find these slips discouraging. Be reassured that they are common, and be prepared for them. The ability to view these slips positively and prevent them from turning into relapses gives you a much higher chance of success.
Create a lapse plan now, as laid out in the Action Plan. First, identify triggers that are likely to cause a slip-up. Think about your past experiences, or observe yourself closely over the next few days or weeks to identify them. For each trigger, write down your usual response, and your planned alternative response. For example, if you wanted to reduce processed food intake:
View each slip-up as a new learning opportunity. Curiously observe yourself, and reflect on what happened and why. If you can identify the circumstances and triggers, you can plan to reduce the chance of it happening again, or plan for an alternative action. It can be helpful to process this in a way that helps you view the situation from a different angle, such as by writing your thoughts out on paper, talking through the problem out loud to yourself or a friend, or by seeing a health practitioner. You may also like to read back through the Action Plan you have created: you may be reminded of strategies you had forgotten about, or have new ideas to add in, having learnt from this experience.
When you have a lapse, think about how you can show yourself kindness. Although this may sound simple, and not something that needs planning for, it’s something that most of us are frankly not very good at. We are very good at berating ourselves, and giving ourselves a very stern lecture! But this kind of response has been shown to reduce our chances of success. Have a read through my previous blog post on self-compassion, and think about how you can use this when you slip up. It may be helpful to think of a phrase in advance that you can use, such as:
I feel disappointed and sad that I have had this lapse. Everyone has lapses when they try to make changes or achieve goals. I need to be kind to myself right now.
You may have physical actions that help you show yourself kindness and comfort: perhaps a hot cup of tea, a snuggle in bed with a book, or some pampering at the local spa.
Give yourself time and comfort when lapses happen. Read back over your lapse plan, and move forward gently. Giving yourself this self-compassion will make you more likely to bounce back and continue on to overcome this hurdle.
Support and accountability
Relationships and community are powerful throughout our existence, and that includes when we want to make lasting changes. Find someone you can share this process with. If you can tell others about your intentions, whether it’s one or two close friends, or a public declaration, you are more likely to want to stick to it. It may be someone who wants to commit to the same resolution, or it may just be someone you can share your thoughts, successes, disappointments, and struggles with. In some cases, a support group for people going through similar circumstances can be more helpful than family or friends. Your GP or other health provider is another helpful contact, who you can meet with regularly for education, support, guidance, and recovering from slips or relapses.
As well as assisting you in making this specific change, higher social supports have been shown to be related to a range of positive health behaviours, including fruit and vegetable consumption, exercising, and smoking cessation. So taking the time and effort to strengthen your social support for this particular goal (which may entirely unrelated to health!) is likely to have additional positive flow-on effects for your wellbeing.
Plan to celebrate your successes along the way. Giving your brain little hits of dopamine as you reward yourself will activate the pleasure centre, and your brain will be keen for you to repeat it! Celebrate when you achieve goals or milestones, but also for maintaining a habit. For example, you may celebrate when you manage to eat two serves of vegetables a day, then three, four, and finally five serves a day. But it’s helpful to also celebrate that you have increased your vegetable intake every day that week, or that you have expanded the variety of vegetables you consume.
How should you celebrate? You may make your reward related or completely unrelated to your goal, but you should avoid it being a planned ‘slip up’. For example, if you are quitting smoking, your reward may be spending the money you would previously spent on cigarettes on a nice meal out. It should not be allowing yourself one cigarette. The reward can even be as simple as deliberately taking a moment to congratulate yourself on your achievement. Tell yourself “I’m awesome!” or “I did it!” each time you make a small step toward your goal.
Believe in yourself!
Whether you think that you can, or that you can’t, you are usually right. – Henry Ford
If you believe that you can succeed, you are much more likely to! A greater belief in yourself is particularly helpful when you face barriers or slip-ups along the way. There are many things you can do to strengthen your belief in your own ability to succeed, or your self-efficacy:
- Achieve small successes – setting small, achievable goals, and setting them well, leads to a much higher chance of success. This success leads to greater self-efficacy, which leads to greater success. This is why I recommend starting with small achievable goals, and not diving straight into an epic long-term goal.
- Reflect on past successes: perhaps keep a journal and write down times you have succeeded in the past. Read back over this regularly, to remind yourself of your ability to succeed and overcome challenges. Add to this book as you achieve more successes!
- Role models – seeing people with which you identify achieving success, can make you feel more able to achieve similar results. Consider seeking out someone who has achieved the goal you are attempting: ask them about their experiences, and notice any setbacks they have and how they react to them.
On your worksheet, write down what it is that gives you confidence that you will achieve this goal. You could include anything related to the efficacy-building tips I have discussed above, such as:
I know I can achieve goals, because I succeeded in quitting smoking and learning to crochet a few years ago.
Although I have attempted this goal before, this time I have invested the time and effort to make sure that my goal is starting with a smaller achievable milestone, and I have prepared well for it.
I met someone recently in the same position who has achieved this goal. If they can do it, I know I can too! And I have support to keep me encouraged and accountable.
If you have completed both the goal-setting worksheet and the action plan worksheet, well done! There is quite a bit of work involved, but I believe that if a goal is worth setting then it’s worth investing the energy in priming yourself for success. Even if you never look at these worksheets again, the thought processes involved in completing them and writing down your ideas, clarifications, and strategies will improve your chances of achieving your goal!
If you would like assistance in setting your goal, join us in the Facebook group. If you search the group for “#goalsettingchallenge”, you will find posts where I give a step by step example of this process. I can also work with you individually to assess your health, select a goal which matches your health needs and goals, establish a plan, and support you along the way. You can find out more about these services here.
I wish you health and contentment for the coming year!