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Why New Year's Resolutions Are a Bad Idea

Focused on Health - January 2012

by Warren Holleman, Ph.D.

resolution, lose weightThat's right — I think they're a bad idea.

According to an article in Forbes magazine, 44% of Americans made New Year's resolutions this year. If you're one of those people, and it's working for you, please share on our Facebook wall and tell us your secret.

But if New Year's resolutions don't work for you, it's not your fault. They don't work for me either. There are much better ways to break bad habits and start good ones.

Most New Year's resolutions are doomed to failure because (for most of us) it takes a lot more than a “resolution” to change. It takes a self-understanding, skills, strategies and support.

Let's take a typical example: a “resolution” to lose weight. Losing weight is a complicated process that requires a comprehensive approach.

resolution, lose weightIt starts not with a resolution but with self-understanding (a.k.a. honest reflection).

  • Why do I want to lose weight?
  • What are reasons that I might be ambivalent about losing weight?
  • Why do I eat more food than I need?
  • What are the reasons that I eat simple carbohydrates rather than healthier foods?
  • What positive purpose do comfort foods play in my life?
  • Are there other ways I could get that comfort? 
  • What are my attitudes about exercise?
  • What would I have to give up if I were to eat better and exercise more?
  • Is it really worth it?

After you achieve a certain level of self-understanding, you might decide that you're not ready to lose weight. That's fine. In my opinion, that's ten times better than a premature resolution to lose weight, which will only lead to failure and shame.

You're being honest with yourself, and that's actually the first step toward a real change. Just keep thinking about self-understanding questions (see bulleted list above), and see where they take you. If it's complicated — and it always is — you might consider talking with a psychologist or other professional counselor.

At some point, though, you might decide that you really do want to lose weight. What that means is that you've got the motivation. But do you have the skills? This is crucial because it takes a lot more than motivation to lose weight.

You've got to know exactly what to do when you get tired in the mid-afternoon and your brain tells you that you need a cone of ice cream. What do you say to your brain? Or, what do you say to your friends when they invite you to Happy Hour during your exercise time? Or to your co-workers when they cut a birthday cake for your boss? It takes skill to navigate those situations.

resolutionFor me, it even takes a script. I have to write down what I'll say and how I'll say it, then memorize it, then rehearse it with my wife. She'll tell me if I need to change the script or hire an acting coach.

Let's say you acquire the necessary skills. What's next? Strategy. Strategy means that I will bring an apple to work each day to eat at 3 p.m. when my brain tells me I gotta have that ice cream. That I'll make a big pot of vegetable soup on Sunday evening to bring in my thermos each day for lunch. That I'll join a new gym that has a racquetball court and swimming pool because these are my favorite sports. I can do them for hours, which is what I gotta do to lose that weight.

Social support means that I will talk with my friends about my plans and ask them to help me in specific ways. For example, pleeeeez don't invite me for Happy Hour at the restaurant with all those high-carb appetizers, but do invite me to go for long hikes on Saturdays at the state park.

Social support means that I will recruit my family to help me by changing what we eat, when we eat and how we eat. I might ask them if it's okay to stop buying cookies, potato chips and ice cream. If this isn't possible, I'll at least ask them to understand why I'm not eating with the family.

Social support might also involve: talks with co-workers, making new friends, distancing myself from old friends, joining a support group like Overeater's Anonymous or Weight Watchers.

So, if quick and dirty New Year's resolutions don't work for you, try taking the slow train. Start with self-understanding, develop some skills, plot some strategies and recruit some social support.

Before you know it, you'll start losing weight. And, in the process, you'll gain lots of good stuff.  Like self-understanding, skills, social support, and all sorts of new ways of viewing things and doing things.

Warren Holleman, Ph.D., is a professor in Behavioral Science and director of MD Anderson’s Faculty Health and Well-Being Program. This post was originally featured in MD Anderson’s internal blog, Faculty Voice.

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