New Year New You? How To Make Long Term Changes!

As the calendar turned over to January 1, 2021 there were likely many emotions this year – relief (good bye 2020!!), hope (will there be more normalcy this year?) and the often-experienced motivation to make a change. However, we know that New Year’s resolutions tend to not result in long-term change. Many often wonder, why?

In a pre-pandemic world one of the most common New Year’s resolutions was to get in shape and gym memberships would often boom. The gym would be packed in January! However, by March attendance would often revert to those that had come regularly for years whereas the post New Year’s surge of individuals had rapidly fallen off. Where do all those people go and why are they unable to maintain these changes? Their drive to change might have well been extremely high when they signed up and they attended the gym eagerly upon joining. The reasons for resolutions often failing can be understood by examining ideas regarding motivation to change and elements for enhancing long term change.

Let’s start with ideas regarding motivation to change. Miller and Rollnick first began using Motivational Interviewing in the context of substance abuse. This is a therapeutic approach to enhancing motivation to change. These concepts and skills have now been applied quite broadly across mental health. These clinical psychologists spoke about stages of change and working in therapy to ensure that you are in a state of preparation or action when you are engaging in a change process. These stages ensure that you are ready and willing and confident in your ability to change. Ambivalence towards change is a normal part of the change process. One can actually be both ambivalent towards change and willing to start the process! Most importantly, if an individual recognizes that there is an issue or problem that they themselves want to change and they are fully willing and engaged in the process of change, they have an excellent prognosis for success.

Returning back to our New Year’s resolution example, is It possible that people are not ready or willing to change and that is why the long-term success is so small? I suspect that these individuals are motivated when they sign up for the gym or when they begin to make dietary changes. So, what is missing? Another important element of change is the reinforcement of success when making that change. We often speak about approaching change in small steps. Small steps ensure immediate success with respect to change and also ensure that individuals want to keep making those changes. Success often motivates more change.

When working with clients, I will ensure that we start small when making change and that we ensure our goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. These are often referred to as SMART goals. If an individual indicates that they have not exercised in over one year and they want to work out 5 days per week, this might result in frustration if that pace is not possible to keep up. However, if we instead agree that they will commit to working out 1-2 days per week and the rest is a bonus that will often enhance success if achieved, and in turn, provide ongoing motivation. Other strategies would include planning out all the details to ensure that individual has what they need to get to the gym (clothing, equipment), time protected etc. When an individual is unable to achieve their goals, it can be seen as an opportunity to learn from and fine tune the plans for change. All information is regarded as useful towards enhancing change and motivation – both in the short term and in the long term.

Have you been considering making a change? Perhaps with respect to behavioural goals or wanting to make changes in your daily experience of anxiety or depression? We at Forward Thinking Psychological Services would love to work with you and enhance your ability to make those changes and get your life back on track.