Looking Back in Order to Move Forward: New Year's Resolutions

This year, may all of us can have success, happiness, and that our resolutions become not just wishes in our future but actualities in our present lives. Know yourself, review your past, be honest, make a plan, and then carry it out.
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Are you getting ready to make the same old resolutions again? "Lose 10 pounds. (Or 20. Or 30.)" "Exercise every day." "Eat more vegetables." "Manage stress." "Be nicer." "Spend more time with family." "Get more organized." This is the time of year when we all think about the future, make plans, and decide on resolutions. Every year, we decide this year will be different. This year, we will finally do it. (That thing we keep telling ourselves we need to do.) This year, we will turn it all around.

At the same time, I know many of us are feeling an underlying sense of dread. If we didn't do it before, why do we think we can do it this time? What's changed? Who says this year will be different? Supposedly, most resolutions fail, and there are all kinds of reasons for that, but this year, I have a proposition. Let's do something truly different.

This year, before you make a single resolution, I propose looking back with a keen eye and a reflective mind over the past year. As the sayings go, "we learn from our mistakes" and "history repeats itself." Without fully understanding where you have come from, it is very hard to know where you want to go. Transition and transformation, which are endemic to the New Year celebrations, need to be grounded in the past 12 months of your life. So, let's start from this time last year.

What were your resolutions last year? Do you even remember? Maybe you do because you always make the same ones. If you told yourself that you were going to lose weight, eat less, become vegan, or just eat less meat, did you do it? You might have sworn to yourself that you will take the time to go the gym and get on the treadmill or that you would find those American Heart Association-prescribed 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week. Did you do it? Maybe you promised yourself you would stop the late night binging and cut back on taking a drag on your friend's cigarette, or maybe you told yourself this is the year that you would drink less, or none at all. Now that it has been a whole year, how did you do?

So many patients come into my office, defeated, deflated and completely frustrated when they look at their last year's list and see all the places they failed, or where they didn't reach their goals. Nonetheless, I ask them to do this, and to make sure their self-evaluation is honest and not self-critical. We tend to punish ourselves for the smallest missteps or failures, without seeing our successes. The truth is that without an honest assessment of both failures and successes, next year will tend to repeat itself. That's usually how it goes.

So review all your past year goals and resolutions one by one. Where did you succeed, or partially succeed? Did you at least make some headway? Did you keep your resolutions for a period of time, if not the whole year, before you fell back into your old patterns? Which resolutions were completely unsuccessful? In The Heart Book, I discuss different patterns of behavior, and how we tend to do things based on our personality types. For example, if you are the "all or nothing" type, then giving up meat forever is the best way to "cut back" on meat and joining a gym is the best way to start exercising. Some people like to go cold turkey or go all in. Others like to spend time researching and synthesizing the information, then making small adjustments based on informed decisions. For those people, replacing particular bad eating or exercise habits with better ones will probably be a more successful strategy.

What this accomplishes goes far beyond simply making a resolution. It involves the crucial addition of a personalized assessment and a targeted strategy. How can you actually achieve your resolution this year? Don't just have an end goal. Have a method to get there. Instead of saying you are going to get into your bikini by July when you have 80 pounds to lose, start by planning healthier choices each day with a goal of getting healthy.

Starting January 1, make a decision about one thing you can do to reach your goal. Decide on January 2 what another step you can take might be. Do that every day in January, adding up your daily changes to make a total of 30 by the end of the month. When February comes, you have been 30 days into making a real impact on having your resolutions come true. What really matters is actually doing it, not reaching some ineffable goal you exactly know how to reach.

Look back before going forward and know that without really taking a look at the truth of who you are, you can never get to where you want to go. Know your weakness and where you trip and fall, and know what triggers you to make the same unhealthy choices over and over again. Without that understanding, change is much harder and you are much less likely to get where you want to go.

I have been practicing what I preach, doing some evaluating, analyzing, and synthesizing about my past year. There are places that I need to improve, and new obstacles that I need to conquer. I have my own pitfalls and triggers like everyone else that recur and keep me in a rut, but I also recognize that I have gotten better at catching them before they get me. My issue is that I tend to be pretty hard on myself, so this year, I resolve to be a little easier on myself when mistake do happen, knowing that every day is another chance to do it again. But I won't just resolve it. I am already making strategies for doing it. I am planning scenarios and how I will react to them, knowing who I am and what I am likely to do and feel.

This year, may all of us can have success, happiness, and that our resolutions become not just wishes in our future but actualities in our present lives. Know yourself, review your past, be honest, make a plan, and then carry it out. Most importantly, know that it is never too late to make positive lifestyle changes. It's time to just do it. This is your year! With the right strategy for your personality and an understanding of what doesn't work for you, you're going to get to exactly where you want to go. In 12 months, you'll finally get to make different resolutions, because your resolutions for 2014 will be checked off your list and part of your life. Happy New Year!