Already broke your New Year’s resolution? Most people do

TPR’s Jerry Clayton recently spoke with a psychology professor about New Year’s resolutions and why most people can’t stick to them.

Jerry Clayton: Have you made a New Year’s resolution? Lo and behold, two weeks later, have you held on? Mary McNaughton Castle, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, is here to talk about the psychology of resolutions. Thanks for being here, Mary.

Mary McNaughton-Cassill: My pleasure.

Clayton: Most people fail their New Year’s resolutions after a short period of time. Why is that?

McNaughton-Cassill: I think the main reason is that we focus on the why we want to make a change, not the how. So of course we would like to lose weight, exercise more, keep the house cleaner. So the breakdown is not in the goal. It’s by not spending enough time understanding how to achieve that goal.

Clayton: Chemical addictions are very hard to break. What’s the best way to approach it mentally?

McNaughton-Cassill: Well, for any behavior change, I recommend using what we call behavior modification principles. The idea is that you must first start with a very clear vision of why you do what you do. So if you want to quit smoking, keep a record for a few days. Exactly how many cigarettes do they smoke and when do they smoke them? And where are they when they smoke? And why do they want this? And what you often find is that smoking plays many roles in your life. It gives you a break from work or it reduces tension. And if you ignore these things, then the chances of being able to quit smoking are pretty low because one of the problems with behavior change is that the long term goal is positive. But in the short term, the changes you make are not positive. Sometimes there is aversion or misery.

Clayton: How do you deal with it mentally when you fail?

McNaughton-Cassill: Well, that’s a key part, so the first thing you need to do is tailor the plan to your own life and consider the barriers and whether they’re financial, mental, psychological, social, and then you create a change plan. But you are also creating a plan for failure. And we call it the abstinence violation effect. When people say, Well, I’m going to quit drinking completely, I’m going to quit smoking completely. And then if they’re wrong, make a mistake, they give up their, Oh, it’s hopeless. I can not do that. What you really need is a plan. So during the holidays, I talk about it a lot to my students. You know, it’s probably not realistic to think that you’re going to lose weight during the two weeks you’re back at your parents’ house. So maybe you want a plan that says you’re not going to gain weight so you don’t continue with your diet, but you try to limit your calories or, you know, you’re going to a wedding, you know, you go drink it. Is it bad to have champagne at the wedding? If you know that Monday, you will start your plan again? So really, the point is to know what those barriers will be in those places that will challenge you and have a plan so that it’s just a blow instead of throwing you off the whole process.

Clayton: I wonder if making a New Year’s resolution like many people do is a bad idea. Is there a better way or another way to improve?

McNaughton-Cassill: I think the New Year’s resolution is usually too vague and too ambitious. I challenge any of you to try it. It’s so funny. Just think for a minute. Do you put water on your toothbrush then toothpaste or vice versa? Whichever one you try to change it a few mornings. But the truth is, you’ve been doing it every day for decades, and it’s really hard to change even insignificant behavior. So we have to start small and build towards them. How many people do you know who say, Oh, I’m going to start an exercise plan and they go out and they exercise like they’re still in high school and then they can’t walk for a week, and then it is the end of the regime. Instead of building something incremental that you can improve over time, so you need specific goals, you need to fit them into your life, and you need to do it in easy steps so you don’t get discouraged. You just gave up.

Clayton: Mary, thank you very much for your time today.

McNaughton-Cassill: You’re welcome.

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