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New Year’s Reservations…I Mean, Resolutions

By MICHAEL SHAPIRO, PhD

January 2020

It occurred to me this week that I had not written a blog entry for the month of December, 2019. For the year 2020, I will resolve to pay better attention to deadlines…and then to not make any more resolutions!

Speaking of which…what is the deal with New Year’s resolutions? We’ve all made them; and we’ve all failed to keep them. When we fail, most of us feel guilty. We then resolve to stop beating ourselves up about it…which ends up being the only resolution we keep, at least until next year, when the cycle starts all over again!

Are we really so weak-willed? Do our best intentions always have to go bad? Is the custom of setting New Year’s resolutions just another yearly process to set ourselves up for humiliation and failure? Good questions! Let’s make a resolution to get to the bottom of this!

According to one of my most trusted scientific sources (the History Channel), the first New Year’s resolutions were probably made about 4,000 years ago in ancient Babylon. Each year, after spending 12 days crowning a new king (or pledging loyalty to the reigning king), these ancient partiers would make a promise to pay all debts and return all borrowed objects (like CDs, power tools, and stuff like that), in the hope that the gods would bless them with prosperity during the ensuing year. Later, the ancient Romans (who actually invented “January”) would begin each year by offering sacrifices and making a promise to behave themselves for the rest of the year. We all know how that turned out. At some point, making New Year’s resolutions became a secular (rather than religious) practice. Instead of resolving to improve ourselves as a community, we decided to look inward and make personal goals for self-improvement. Unfortunately, statistics show that although around 45 percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, only about 8 percent keep them. Where do you fall in that statistic? Yeah, I thought so.

So, should we throw the New Year’s baby (the cute one with the sash) out with the bathwater? I don’t think so. Setting goals is an admirable and commendable practice! Doing so prevents us from becoming stagnant. A resolution is a promise to ourselves to keep growing, improving, and changing for the better! As a psychologist who works with patients who suffer from medical disorders that are mediated by lifestyle (for example, obesity, diabetes, and hypertension), I’ve seen that goal-setting can be a lifesaver…as long as those goals are set properly! To this end, we health care professionals (or was it the ancient Babylonians?) have come up with an acronym for goal-setting that can easily be applied to New Year’s resolutions: SMART. Specifically, make resolutions that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-based. Let’s look at each of these individually:

A “specific” goal is one that is, well, specific rather than vague or overly general. For example, rather than resolving to “look better in 2020” or “lose this gut” (yeah, that’s one of my favorites); one might say, “I resolve to lose 10 pounds.” This places the goal in clear view, thereby making it more realistic and attainable (more on that in a minute).

A goal also has to be “measurable,” mainly to help you know when you’ve achieved it! After all, to “look better in 2020” is pretty subjective: my idea of “looking better” probably differs from yours (personally, if I leave home with my hair combed and my underwear on the inside of my pants, I’m looking pretty good!). Whether your goal involves weight loss, exercise, or something else; it’s helpful to have a numerical way to measure your progress, be it in pounds, inches, days, HbA1c levels (for you diabetics), calories, school grades, blood pressure values, or number of good deeds done.

An “attainable” goal is one that is not so far from where you are now, just a small “bump” up or down, thereby making it more easily reached. For example, a weight loss goal of one pound per week is much more manageable than 20 pounds per week…which brings us to the next part of the acronym: a “realistic” goal is one that is reasonable for your body type, your resources, and your circumstances.

I’ll confess that I’ve always held on to two important personal goals: to become an astronaut, and to invent teleportation (you know, like on Star Trek). Unfortunately, now that I’m in my 60’s and have established a fairly stable career path (oh, and don’t have a sufficiently high IQ or even a decent understanding of subatomic physics), I’m beginning to think that these goals may be slightly—and I mean just slightly—unrealistic. Similarly, if your goal is to become a millionaire this year; or to diet and exercise until you look like Natalie Portman or David Gandy (who, according to a study performed in the UK, are the most beautiful people in the world, based on what are considered to be the most universally attractive physical traits); you might want first want to take a look at your bank account, your investment portfolio, and your image in a full-length mirror.

Lastly, a “time-based” goal has a specific expiration date. This will ensure that you stay motivated, which is more likely when you set a definite time limit. When your timeframe is vague or non-existent (“I need to lose weight this year,” “I gotta get around to fixing the house,” “I’m finally going to clean out the basement”), it only give you an excuse to put it off. Besides, time limits provide a “checkpoint” for you to assess your progress. If you haven’t lost that one pound by the end of the week, you can stop and re-assess whether or not that goal was realistic and attainable. If you did meet your goal, you can pat yourself on the back, and then set a new goal that’s even more challenging (“Now that I know I can handle walking one mile a day, I’ll set a new goal for a mile-and-a-half!”).

So, if you’re looking back on all the resolutions you didn’t keep in 2019 but are not yet ready to completely give up on the grand old tradition of making New Year’s resolutions; try making some using the SMART goal paradigm. However, as of the day of this writing, it’s already January 3…so you’d better hurry up and get started. Personally, I think I’m actually only a few days away from finally nailing the whole teleportation thing…