Monday, 14 January 2013
Making New Year's Resolutions That Stick
How familiar does the following scenario sound? The New Year comes around and you make a list of all the things you need to change - to lose weight, to stop smoking, to drink less. After sleeping off your Jan 1st hangover, you get up ready to kick some ass. For a few days you avoid alcohol, you only eat salads and you go to the gym. A few days, or weeks, later it all goes wrong. You find yourself craving that late-night cheeseburger more and more, and you find excuses for avoiding the gym (it's raining, your leg hurts, you don't quite have time, something more important came up...). You try to stay strong, but you fail, and within a few days you've gone back to exactly the way you were before. You think that New Year's Resolutions are pointless, or, worse, that you are weak-willed, a failure and unable to change. You might smile and think "Oh, well, this is just the way that I am!" and smoke your tenth cigarette of the morning with pride.
As you probably know - you're not alone. Many, or most, of my friends no longer believe in setting resolutions at the turn of the year; after all, they're not going to stick to them anyway. For those of us looking for an excuse to stay the same, writing off these promises to change as impossible to keep makes a nice excuse, but for those of us who genuinely want to better ourselves, it can seem frustrating. So what can we do to stick to our resolutions?
Well, if you're anything like me (and most of the population), you plan to drink yourself into a near-coma on December 31st and wake up on January 1st late, hungover, and ready to go cold turkey. If your resolution is to cut out sugary snacks, it's likely that you'll eat more sugary snacks than ever before in the days leading up to the "new you", because you know that it's your last chance. We expect to wake up in the new year and miraculously be ready for a change that we weren't ready for before. We think that we can go from 0 to 100 overnight - and it might not only be one goal that we set ourselves. If you bite your nails, smoke, never visit the gym and think that salad is purely decorative, then expecting yourself to become a clean-living gym-goer overnight is not just hard, it's highly unrealistic.
The sudden shock of this change will do a few things to you. Firstly, it will make that thing you've cut out seem all the more tempting. One day you were eating chocolate with every meal, and now there's no sign of it. Our brains are actually very childish, and the more you tell them they can't do something, the more they want to. Forbidding yourself from having something, even a tiny bit, makes us want it all the more. Secondly, if the thing you're trying to quit is normally something that helps you to relax (smoking, nail-biting etc) and you find nothing to replace it, you might find your anxiety levels creeping up. Combined with the voice in your head telling you that if you give in, if you have just one cigarette or bite of cake that you are weak and useless, the anxiety will increase and make you crave your vice even more. If it's something you're trying to take up instead of quit, it can be hard to work into your routine - say you have an established timetable, and now you're trying to throw three gym visits a week into it. Unless you have carefully planned it out, you will soon see your gym visits as a massive chore, and look for any way to get out of them. The next thing you know, you're back to your old ways, secretly hating yourself a little for being so weak.
So what's the answer? Well, as my Mum says, it's all about moderation. Baby steps. Going vegan overnight might shock your body - slowly reducing the amount of meat and dairy you eat over time should not. Expecting yourself to suddenly start visiting the gym three times a week probably won't last - but perhaps once every two weeks, slowly stepping it up to once a week, then twice, will. Taking small steps means that you will get used to your new habits (or lack of bad ones) a lot easier, as you are just changing a little bit every day. We wouldn't expect so much of ourselves at any other time of year, but for some reason we think new year = instant change.
Lasting changes don't come overnight - they have to happen over time, with your commitment to a longer term plan. Maybe you can look at January as your starting point, with somewhere in the future - June, even Jan '14 or '15 - as where you ultimately want to be. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was any lifestyle that you admire or envy. So, where would you like to be in a year? If it's a dress size smaller, then why not start by joining a weekly yoga class? Maybe over time you'll find that you want to add more exercise, but not yet. Want to quit smoking? Try cutting down a few at first - from 20 to 15 a day, and later you can go to 10, then 5.
It's important that you allow yourself little slip-ups, too - if you really crave that food you're tring to quit, then go on, have a little. Unless you have been officially diagnosed with an eating disorder, cravings are usually your body's way of telling you that it needs a certain nutrient - you might crave sugar because you need more energy, so you could look at other ways (and slower-burning energy stored in food) to provide your body with that need. If you miss a couple of exercise classes or bite your nails for a few minutes, you are not a failure. You are on a difficult journey, and hiccoughs are acceptable. You are human, and you are allowed to make mistakes. One slip-up does not mean that you should give up trying - you are still taking steps to a healthier, better life, and nobody is perfect. Show yourself some love along the way.
So far in 2013, I've only eaten meat or dairy a couple of times. I want to be vegan, but I've realised that I just like meat and cheese too much (and I don't know enough yet about how to make sure I'm getting enough nutrients without them). Instead of beating myself up about it, I limit them to once or twice a week. Whether I'll look forward to those days or find myself increasingly apathetic about whether or not I eat them, we'll find out. My nails are also looking better than ever - I had acryllics put on to stop me biting them, although I clipped them down to a normal size after one too many painful incidents (when you're not used to them, they catch on everything and it hurts!). Now, my real nails are pretty much at the same length, but they're covered in plastic and nasty-tasting polish to stop me from biting. I can't pretend the urge isn't still there, but the hard feeling of plastic brings me back to reality and helps me consciously stop.
Good luck with your resolutions - and remember, small steps!