Dr. Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for us in many articles over the years. Here she takes on the lament of a woman who really needs to keep her sensible New Year’s resolutions—but, for 20 years, has made them in vain.
Dear Dr. Ford:
I am 46 years old, and once again, when the New Year rolled in I made resolutions about the top five things I wanted to change about myself. Every year for the last 20 years I have made the same list. I get a spurt of energy generally for about three weeks, then I start to fall off the wagon. This year, it is only the first week and I am already depressed. Why can other people make resolutions and keep them? What is wrong with my good intentions? I am a teacher at a middle school in the Northeast.
Resolution One: Lose weight. I am 5 feet 5 and weigh 145 pounds. I have lost ten pounds and gained fifteen year after year.
Resolution Two: Start to exercise. I have an exercise bike in the house. All I have to do is get on it. It gives me the evil eye every time I pass it on the way to the laundry room. I used the bike for three days this time, was out of breath after ten minutes each time, and gave up.
Resolution Three: Save money. I spend all my money going out with friends to eat and take vacations. Teaching is really hard, and I need time with my friends. The trouble is, I never save any money. We do have a retirement fund as teachers, but with the way the economy is going, that may not be worth anything when I need it. I know all of this. I just cannot begin.
Resolution Four: Go back to school. I could increase my income even as a teacher if I completed my master’s in education, but I always find a reason not to take that prep course that I need to take in order to get into a graduate program. I feel so overwhelmed, and just don’t know what steps to take first. I have to do well enough on the GRE tests to get into graduate school and then I have to organize my life in order to take a class every semester—two over the summer—and it will take me forever. The idea of this is too daunting, but I really need to do it.
Resolution Five: Sign up for a dating site. I haven’t had a serious relationship in five years. I would really enjoy dating again, but am afraid of rejection and don’t know how to describe myself in one of those profiles. Failure again.
I have never seen a therapist or a life coach, but I think I should have! Next year I will add this to my New Year’s resolutions that I never keep.
What can I do to get out of this rut?
Dr. Ford Responds:
Yikes! That’s quite a list of resolutions. No wonder you’re overwhelmed.
But you’re in luck: A good deal of recent research on the nature of habits and change has shed some light on your problem.
First of all, you’re not alone. The majority of New Year’s resolutions are abandoned before February dawns. What the experts have discovered is that most people (and this includes you) are too general, too broad, too ambitious—or all three—when approaching change. The key seems to be breaking the problems down into small, manageable behavioral bites.
• For example exercise. Experts find it is much more effective to say “I will exercise three times a week … at the gym … on my bike … for XX minutes.” That is specificity. However, scope of ambition is equally (if not more) important. If you are out of shape, even 10 minutes on your bike may be too much at first. Plan on two minutes, once in the morning and once in the evening. If you feel too tired, just say to yourself, “All I have to do is sit on the bike (or go to the gym) and see what happens.” (I’m not kidding; it works). Even the smallest changes lead to bigger ones, but you have to make the smaller ones first.
The third trick, they say, is to make change as easy for yourself as possible. Maybe you need to move that bike out of the laundry room and put it right in front of the TV. It might be unsightly for the time being, but even if you really want to get on that bike, even those few extra steps to the other room may be helping you avoid it (and forget it). Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, an excellent book about this subject, describes how he created his gym habit by keeping his gym shoes closer to his bed, and broke his TV habit by keeping the remote farther from the couch.
• Weight. The idea of smaller steps will help with all of your goals, in fact. The weight issue, a particularly stubborn one for women of a certain age, is tricky. One problem is our dogged ambition: By clinging to the goal of losing the 10 to15 pounds, we deny ourselves the achievable goal of making small changes that might lead to a fairly easy loss of 5. Keep in mind that you may want to be thinner, but weight loss is not an emergency for you—you are within healthy limits.
Besides the change to your exercise regime, just plan on making one small, achievable change to your diet. Choose one thing you could do that would not be too painful, but that would make a difference. An example might be not eating after 8 p.m., or changing what you eat for lunch. Many studies have shown that just writing down what you eat every day, without making any restrictions, leads to weight loss. (There are several great phone apps to help you do this; one of them is Lose It!)
• As for money—again, saving even a small amount now can grow in time, and having even a very small amount taken out of your paycheck on a regular basis might help you sleep better. And it does add up.
I know it can be hard to resist the pleasures of eating out and vacationing, and I don’t recommend changing the things that are giving you genuine pleasure! Instead, I suggest that you plan ahead as much as possible. This will give you an advantage in terms of travel prices as well as help you resist last-minute temptations to splurge on an expensive place.
• Going back to school: While you are worrying about how long it would take, you could already be there. Again, just focus on what you need to do this year: pass the GRE. Don’t think about the whole long road. Maybe you won’t go any further. But if you decide to, you’ll have those scores.
• Jumping into the dating pond can be especially daunting after a long interval, but Internet dating has actually made things easier, and there are ways to ease into it gradually. For example, you can create a profile on Match.com without a picture and without paying, so you can see what’s out there and you can see what others’ profiles are like. The site also gives you pointers about how to create your own profile. There are many websites, including this one, that give advice about getting started dating again.
Sandra, I’m sure that all of these small steps I’ve outlined may seem to form too big a load. Duhigg’s book discusses how changing one “cornerstone habit” can ultimately lead to a cascade of changes. In other words, maybe you should focus on only one or two of these goals at a time, so as not to overwhelm yourself. Or get started with the small changes with diet and exercise, and then do one small thing a day to meet your other goals (make a reservation for two weeks from now at the reasonably priced restaurant; check out a dating website; investigate GRE classes, etc.) There’s no harm in doing it the other way around, however, which might be a novel approach for you.
On the self-help route, another book that has just been published in the U.S. by British psychologist Jeremy Dean, Making Habits, Breaking Habits, sounds promising, but if you really feel stuck, you may want to consider consulting a therapist. I say this for two reasons: Personal support is always extremely helpful in problem-solving. For many people, it makes all the difference. Secondly, there may be obstacles that are thwarting you that are too complicated, too obscure, or too painful to confront. Even if you’ve had smooth sailing up until now, there can be times in life when even a brief intervention from a professional can be really helpful.
One last thing: Although you feel overwhelmed by all the things you want to change, it might help if you step back and look at what a good foundation you are building on. You are building from a position of strength, not weakness, and you should remind yourself of that. You’re a highly functional person with a full life who’s contributing to society in a meaningful way. If you remember to look at yourself through this positive (and accurate) lens, it may give you more energy to make the improvements you want to enrich your life further.