UW Today

December 26, 2012

For New Year’s resolutions to stick, plan ahead

News and Information

This year, for sure, you will lose weight, quit smoking, drink less, learn a new language, get a better job, and travel to exotic lands. And of course you’re going to eat better, stress less and create (and stick to) a household budget – all while spending more time with the family.

It’s gonna happen!

But according to at least one study, a third of us can’t keep these resolutions through the end of January, never mind an entire year, and four out of five of us will break them eventually.

Dennis Donovan

Dennis Donovan is the director of the UW Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute.

“I don’t make them,” Dennis Donovan said of New Year’s resolutions. He’s the director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute at the University of Washington and has spent decades helping people, usually those in recovery for alcohol and substance use problems, stick to their resolutions.

“New Year’s is a time to reflect, see things differently or for the first time. People have the best of intentions around the holidays, but it often dissipates quickly,” he said. “The lastingness of a resolution depends on the initial level of commitment and degree to which it’s made public and implemented rapidly.”

Donovan suggests some steps to help overcome the holiday afterglow and make headway on life improvements long after you finish muddling through “Auld Lang Syne.”

Are you really ready to change? According to behavioral models of change, often people start in a “pre-contemplation” stage during which they don’t see or aren’t aware of a problem. It’s also called denial. “If you don’t consider a behavior as problematic, then you won’t see a need to change,” Donovan said. So be honest and realistic with yourself: If you don’t think you’re that overweight or out of shape, a gym membership probably won’t help you get fit. But if you begin contemplating the potential need to change and the pros and cons involved, that could be a signal that you’re ready.

Weigh the pros and cons. To drink less or to not to drink less, that is the question. Donovan said that you have to think through the good and the bad consequences of change, a strategy known as decisional balance. For instance, cutting back on your drinking will improve your health, but what will you do if it damages your relationship with your drinking buddies? If your drinking helps with your depression, how else can you cope that doesn’t involve alcohol? The point is to “become aware of the benefits of changing but also know the cons because those could be the barriers to following through,” Donovan said.

Spread the word. You’re more likely to stick to a resolution if you let people know your intentions. Then you’ll have witnesses to support you and remind you not to drink, smoke or whatever else you resolve to do.

Don’t dawdle. The longer you delay in making the resolution and then acting on it, the more likely you’ll let it fall by the wayside. “Many of us are procrastinators and we’re good at talking ourselves out of things,” Donovan said. So buy that exercise bike during New Year’s Day sales.

Change could take a while. There’s no magical answer to how long it will take for a new behavior to become permanent, but there are some predicting factors. “How firmly committed the person is and how well he or she has prepared to implement change probably contributes to the length and success of change,” Donovan said. In the meantime, it’s important to stay away from “slippery places” – or high-risk relapse situations – and have emotional and behavioral copings skills and social support. People often relapse, or break their resolutions and commitment to change. Likelihood of relapse among alcohol-dependent individuals who stop drinking through treatment or on their own is greatest in the first 90 days, Donovan said.

If you plan ahead, it’s just possible the old acquaintance of some bad habits will be, if not forgotten completely, perhaps at least greatly diminished.

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For more information, contact Donovan at 206-543-0937 or ddonovan@uw.edu.

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