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New Year resolutions require ‘SMART’ approaches to success

Valentine’s Day did me in.
I’m pretty convinced that chocolate stains my teeth, and admittedly, I’m a little vain. So when the remnants of our Christmas holiday treats disappeared last year, I joined millions of Americans who make New Year resolutions by going cold turkey with the candy.
My resolve, unfortunately, couldn’t last until my next dental appointment. Heart-shaped boxes of cashew clusters and cherry cordials simply proved too difficult to resist by the time February rolled around.
Now here we are on the cusp of a new calendar year, many of us vowing yet again to improve our lives in some fashion. Popular resolutions include drinking less alcohol, eating better, getting fit – all health-related behavior changes. We also pledge to spend more time with family, or get more sleep, or save more money every payday. While many people make resolutions, by some recent estimates, just 8 percent of us will achieve our goals.
What is it about resolutions that set us up to fail? How you behave, particularly when it comes to your health, is influenced by a variety of things, perhaps none more prominent than your own experience with a vice or bad habit. Even age and gender affect how you approach a New Year’s resolution.
Do you have the time to practice a new behavior or habit? Do you have the money and the support from your family and from your boss? Consider what will help you stayed committed. For example, what is your immediate reward for giving up cigarettes? Can you stick with a diet long enough to actually lose 10 pounds and, if not, what will help you get there?
Behavior change takes strategy and lasting behavior change takes time. To be successful, two things are necessary. First, connect a resolution to something you value – your health, your family or your potential for wealth. Second, develop a plan that matches your current circumstances and abilities.
Research by James Prochaska, a prominent professor of psychology and behavior change at the University of Rhode Island, suggests that self-change happens in stages. You go from learning about a behavior change, to thinking about it, to thinking about trying it, to planning to try it, to actually trying it, to permanent change.
These stages happen at different rates because if you aren’t ready to change, change won’t happen. Take smoking. If you like the idea of quitting, but don’t really have a compelling reason to stop, you may not be ready to ditch the cigarettes. Instead of setting a resolution to kick the habit outright, make an appointment for a physical, and include a breathing test to determine your current lung health. This information could provide the motivation for a future behavior change.
Armed with information, think about what has to happen before you make that change. Can you picture yourself not smoking? What does that look like? What needs to happen at home, at work, out socially for you to become a former smoker? Contemplation of these issues can reveal areas that first need attention.
Once prepared to change, set a “SMART” goal – specific, measureable, attainable, realistic and timed. An example could be to decrease the number of cigarettes smoked to eight per day for the month. The next month, make it seven per day. The month after that, shoot for no more than six per day. You get the picture.
These sequential goals would be specific, measurable, attainable and realistic, especially for someone who smokes less than a pack a day.
Putting a time limit on achieving the goal helps make it manageable and owning it by telling others of your plan increases the likelihood of sticking with it.
I should pay extra attention to these things if I ever again attempt to refrain from chocolate. I had no way to measure whether my efforts were working, and I sure didn’t do anything to change my immediate environment.
My children loved the Valentine’s Day chocolate I brought home for them. I didn’t want to deprive them of a treat they enjoy. It turns out that I wasn’t prepared to deprive myself, either.
Setting appropriate goals enhances your potential to achieve them, which increases your confidence in your ability to make a change.
Though sometimes change requires two steps forward and one step back, good preparation can keep you moving in the right direction. Be smart with your New Year’s resolutions – and maybe 2014 will bring lasting change.
Liz Bailey is a lecturer in health and human performance at Elon University. She can be reached at ebailey@elon.edu.

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