More than a week after New Year’s Eve, we are entering the danger zone when millions of people who resolved to quit smoking, or start working out, or begin dieting or keep their houses neat, start lapsing into old habits.
They figure one cigarette won’t kill them, waiting an extra day to get to the gym is no big deal, or they can tidy up in the morning, instead of before bed.
I’ve made my share of New Year’s resolutions that I have not followed through with, and I’m a psychiatrist who should be able to harness motivation more reliably. So, I know how challenging it is to keep it going strong.
This year, I stumbled on a very simple cognitive tool to help me. Maybe it can help you, too.
I do two things:
1. I express sympathy for my human weakness and commiserate on how tough it is to give up what I said I would.
2. I remind myself that, while keeping my resolution may cause me pain, I have made a final decision that can’t be changed.
For example, one of my resolutions was to stop snacking late at night. Now, when I feel like heading to the pantry for a snack at 10 p.m., I use that two-step formula:
1. I tell myself it’s very understandable I would want to snack. I’ve worked hard, and I’m used to grabbing something before working later into the night.
2. I tell myself, “That’s all very interesting, Keith, and you’re going to feel hungry for a while, but you already decided you don’t snack at night. So, it’s out of the question.”
'A done deal'
I know this sounds rudimentary, but it really works pretty well. It empowers one’s observing ego—the part of you that watches your life unfolding and can judge and guide you. It’s the voice in your head that you’ve heard telling you that you really should finish that project, or skip that soda, or take the dog on a walk. This technique simply amplifies that voice and imbues it with compassion and determination, rather than contempt.
Try it out. When you don’t feel like going to the gym and start hearing yourself bargaining to go another day, tell yourself, “It’s completely normal to want to stay home and watch TV, instead of running on a treadmill. Running isn’t a lot of fun. But you already decided you were going to the gym on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, so you have no option. It’s a done deal.”
By the way, you can use this technique to power through many projects that need your attention, not just the ones you came up with on New Year’s Eve.
For instance, I almost decided to write this article tomorrow morning. I started telling myself I could get to sleep early, then wake up early and have at it. So I told myself, “You’re tired. Of course, you want to turn out the lights and hit the bed. Totally understandable. The thought doesn’t make you weak. But you already decided to write the blog tonight. So, it was decided hours ago. Now, you’re stuck with it. So, get to your desk.”
And, here I am. It’s 11:20 p.m., and I feel like heading to the pantry for a snack. There’s bag of cinnamon and sugar popcorn down there. I can see it. The bag is red and white, and it’s on the first shelf, just two steps from the door. It’s very, very good popcorn. But, I’m not going there. I decided that a week ago. Period.