With the New Year upon us, you may be thinking about what resolutions you want to make, and how you can ensure you follow through with them.
Nobody likes change. It’s painful. That’s why so few people succeed at weight loss, smoking cessation, or anything else that requires altering behavior. You mean well, and you really do want things to be different this time. But after a while, you give up—and no one cares or even notices that, once again, you’ve failed to follow through on your resolutions.
I’ve found that the only way to guarantee success is this: Make the pain of not following through greater than the pain of changing.
Let’s take a habit many would like to break—cigarette smoking. Imagine you are a smoker, but now a burly chap is following you around for three weeks with a baseball bat. His instructions are to hit you hard in the back of the head if you take one puff of a cigarette. Are you going to light up and take the knock on the head? Not likely.
Since burly guys with baseball bats are hard to come by, you have to find a different mechanism to inflict the pain of not living up to your promise to yourself. The one I recommend is a binding “commitment contract.” Here’s how you do it.
- Decide on the specific behaviors you want to change. If you want to lose weight, don’t commit to losing X number of pounds. Pledge instead to not eat breads and desserts and to take a 30-minute walk four days a week for the next three weeks. Of course you’ll be aiming at a target weight, but if you focus on your behavior—what you eat and how much you exercise—weight loss will naturally follow.
- Come up with some disincentive that hits you where it really hurts. For most people, that’s the wallet. Pledge a significant sum of money to your least favorite charity, payable if you renege on your commitment.
- Write the details of your commitment down, sign it, date it, and have it witnessed.
- Make your contract public. Tell everybody, family, friends, and co-workers about your commitment and its consequences, and keep them abreast of your progress.
This is the approach I’ve been using for the past 25 years, and I can tell you from personal experience—my own and my patients’—that it works. Vague hopes and promises won’t cut it, but creating realistic, actionable goals and unpleasant consequences will. Let me know how it works for you.
Now it’s your turn: Do you have any techniques for making New Year’s resolutions stick?