I'm in the midst of preparing my annual tome of New Year's resolutions. Such an act usually requires two clean notebooks (lined for my purse and quadrille for my fitness resolutions), two datebooks (one big, one small), lots of project folders, a journal, a blog, index cards, Post-its, and Sharpies (fine and ultrafine). Add the fact that I'm turning 40 this year, and by the time I'm through with all my oaths of clean living, healthy eating, increased spirituality, reduced spending, sustained brilliance, and moderate excess, I'll need an Excel spreadsheet and an intern to crunch numbers. Nothing warms my little perfectionist heart like an official clean slate. To me, January is 31 days of vows, turning over new leaves, battle plans for optimum productivity, recipes for squeezing every drop out of life, and journaling all the way. It's ridiculous, pointless, exhilarating, and a ritualized part of every new year. By March, unfortunately, I've usually returned to my old bad habits (and sometimes even added in new ones). I know I'm not alone in this tendency. According to Dorthy.com, only 6 percent of resolution makers actually achieve their goals. Plus, when you match the number of people who vow to lose weight at the beginning of the year (63 percent) to the number of obese people in the U.S. (millions), maybe it's time we realized that resolutions aren't cutting it.
So this year, my first New Year's resolution was to break the cycle of resolution failure. I reached out to Dr. David Spiegel, the Willson Professor and associate chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford School of Medicine and director of the Center on Stress and Health, for some advice on how to stick to my goals. Spiegel can usually be found studying the effects of supportive-expressive group therapy on the survival of patients with metastatic breast cancer, but that's no matter. Calling him fit in with my second resolution, which was to consult only fantastically overqualified people for advice. (Maybe next week I'll ask Warren Buffett for some investing advice for resolution No. 45: "Get control over your retirement savings.") So if you have a bunch of resolutions that you've made five or 50 years in a row, come ride my coattails.
According to Spiegel, the first rule to keep your resolve is knowing that changing ingrained behavior is hard to do, especially when we've "built communities that set up reinforcement of bad behavior." So that's why it's really hard to curb your taste for high-fat foods (resolution No. 23) when there's a McDonald's or Dunkin' Donuts within 13 square miles of virtually every American. Thin may be the new black, but fat is a whole lot easier. Same goes for exercise (No. 7)—as Spiegel noted, it may be healthier to take the stairs, but most stairwells look like they belong in a maximum-security prison, while elevators are safe and warm and some even have televisions. Thin may be the new black, but fat is a whole lot easier and less likely to get you mugged. So not unlike what happens in Intervention, the first step is to admit you are powerless over the proliferation of fast-food restaurants and the paucity of walking trails in America, but also to acknowledge that the extra nine to 100 pounds you're carrying around your backside have made your life unmanageable. That'll give you a moment to pause and think about whether you really need those Chicken McNuggets before you slap down your credit card and order 20.
As for the next step, Spiegel recommends that you keep your resolutions affirmative. You'll be hobbling yourself if you say, "Don't eat candy" (No. 11). All you're doing is making sure not only that you think about candy constantly (very true) but that you break down altogether and eat seven Chunkies for dinner. Instead, say to yourself, "I vow to eat a salad every day" (No. 11). Which brings me to Spiegel's next piece of advice, which is to keep your goals small. Rather than vowing to eat a salad every day—an unmanageable goal for a woman who, as of Dec. 31, hadn't eaten a salad in a month—vow to eat a salad for lunch twice a week (No. 11). Same goes with all your resolutions. If you want to lose weight (No. 2), start with one pound a week, as opposed to 50 pounds by your 40th birthday in May. See how easy this is?
OK, once you have your newly moderated resolutions, the next step is give yourself encouragement. "To maintain change, you have to keep giving yourself positive reinforcement," Spiegel counsels. "Discover things you like about the changes you started to implement. You have to pay attention to it. Don't take it for granted." Which is why, starting today, my latest resolution is to call my mother every day and brag about my salad eating and walking and all the other resolutions. Because, while I'm pretty good at patting myself on the back, I'm much better at giving up all my resolutions all at once in a fit of frustration, so I'll have to rely on Mom for some of the praise. She'd better not nag, though—that will just make me defensive and prone to falling off all my wagons. If you think social reinforcement will work for you but your family can't abide the no-nag rule, try tapping your friends instead. Because I have no shame, I think I'll use you readers as my social reinforcement and check in with you in a month or two to let you know how it's going.
And that's it. That's all there is to it. I thought Spiegel would at least suggest a star chart, or maybe even a splurge day. His recommendations just sound like common sense, you're thinking, right? Look at the most popular New Year's resolutions, and you'll notice that most of them don't fit this rubric. Stop smoking. Get organized. Save money. Spend more time with your family. It's too much to ask of ourselves. So I'm pitching the index cards and the project folders, but the Sharpies stay. How else can I log my small daily victories?