Hit Restart on Your Year

If a 2014 self-improvement pledge has derailed, here are 10 ways to get back on track!

Have you kept your New Year’s resolutions completely? If not, join the club. A University of Scranton study tells us just 64 percent of resolution makers are still observing their new vows a month after the corks have popped. And less than half make it past the six-month mark.

You know the drill: We resolve to finally do the things we know we should to be in better shape physically and mentally and to get more out of life. Then we find ourselves eating the cake, skipping the gym, lighting up the cigarette, running late or compulsively checking our smartphones yet again.

You could call these moments failures, but there’s another way to frame the situation—a much more hopeful one. Authorities on behavior and addiction agree that lapses are actually a nearly inevitable— and surmountable—part of the journey toward a healthier, more satisfying lifestyle.

“Any time we are trying to promote change in our lives, we can and should expect to slip along the way,” says Simon Rego, Psy.D., director of psychology training and the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Training Program at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City. “Think about when you’re learning a new language, or a new sport, or a new skill at work. That new skill set doesn’t automatically click into place.”

So don’t despair if it turns out—momentarily—that the 2014 you is just as imperfect as the 2013 model. Instead, heed these 10 tips.

1. Don’t beat yourself up. If you slip up, “rather than saying, ‘Well that’s it—I’ve ruined it,’ simply breathe, be compassionate about your human tendencies and give yourself a pat on the back for the effort,” advises Jennie Kramer, executive director of Metro Behavioral Health Associates in New York City and Scarsdale, N.Y. “And then start fresh.”

2. Do a little homework. When you slip, recognize the automatic negative thoughts that fly through your head…and write them down. “Putting thoughts on paper or on a screen allows you to be more objective about them,” Rego says.

Then evaluate: Is a thought such as “That proves it, I can’t do it” factually accurate? If a friend said that, would you agree with him or her? If not, what would you say? Write it down.

It also may help to “do an analysis of what led to the slip, almost as if you were investigating a crime scene,” says Rego. “Look at the factors that kicked in. For example, maybe you were hungry when you went to the party and that led to overeating. This information can be used to plan to prevent the same outcome in the future.”

3. Make sure it’s for you. Be honest: Are you attempting this change in your life to prove something to someone else, or to win someone’s approval? “It’s important that any actions be taken for one’s own benefit or well being,” says Kramer. “If you do something to please someone else, failure may well be imminent. You need to have your own ‘non-negotiable’—a compelling reason to resolve to make changes.”

4. Don’t rely solely on “willpower.” Instead, arm yourself with the information and strategies you’ll need to succeed. In freeing yourself from a cigarette addiction, for instance, “being determined is necessary, but not sufficient,” says Glen Morgan, Ph.D., program director of the Behavioral Research Program at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). “In school, simply making up your mind didn’t help you pass any tests— you had to study. It’s the same with quitting smoking: Do the research, make a plan, think about what you may have tried before that worked for awhile and how you may want to refine that.” (The NCI’s smokefree .gov website offers a wealth of information on planning to quit, the effects of quitting on your body and what to do if you have a smoking setback.)

5. Make goals manageable. “The number-one reason people don’t meet their fitness goals is that they are too ambitious,” says Joan Pagano, owner of Joan Pagano Fitness in New York City and the author of numerous books, including Strength Training for Women. If you’re inactive and suddenly jump into a frequent, intense gym workout, you’ll be sore the next day and may semi-consciously start finding reasons not to return to the gym. “That’s a problem, because, in terms of the benefit of exercise, consistency is more important than intensity,” Pagano says. Therefore, set a reasonable foundation on which you can build, such as working up to 30 minutes of moderate cardio a day by accumulating it in 10- or 15-minute increments of walking or riding on a stationary bike. A mini full-body conditioning workout in just a few minutes a day can be an effective way to get a strength training regimen under way, she believes—and it can be done without any equipment.

6. Go public. “Post your goal on Facebook, or simply announce it at the dinner table,” suggests Marc Ronches, co-owner of NJ Fitness Factory, a personal training company with locations in Montclair and Bloomfield. “If you put yourself in a position where you’d be embarrassed to give up on your new regimen, you’re much more likely to stick with it.”

7. Give yourself tools. Whatever your selfimprovement goal, preparation is key. When it comes to healthy eating for you and your family, for example, don’t just hit the kitchen cold; master a few low-cal, no-fuss dinners in advance. “Since dinner tends to be the toughest part of the day, build an arsenal of five super-simple, fast, healthy dinners that you can prepare in 20 minutes or less,” advises Joy Bauer, bestselling author and nutrition/health expert for NBC’s Today show. “And make sure you have the ingredients for two of these meals on hand in the pantry, fridge or freezer at all times.”

8. Resist peer pressure. Were you once the kind of middle schooler who simply had to dress like all the other cool kids? Beware: That suggestible youngster is still alive within you, clamoring for you to emulate your best friend’s chocolate-mousse indulgence—or Scotch-on-therocks habit or spending spree.

Take dining out, for example. “Research shows that the environment around us directly shapes the quality of our choices about what we eat,” says Tom Rath, a senior scientist adviser to Gallup Inc. and bestselling author whose most recent book is Eat Move Sleep. “If I go out with a friend and he orders a cheeseburger and French fries, boy, does that give me permission to splurge! The same holds true when the dessert cart comes around: The first person to order sets the tone.” So here’s a practical tip: When you’re dining out with friends, order first. And in other areas you’re trying to improve—vices, overspending, chronic lateness or profanity, say—steer clear of bad examples till your new habits are well formed. (Sometimes, of course, peer pressure can be helpful. Having a regular “workout buddy” can make going to the gym more fun—and more likely.)

9. Take a “holiday.” Not ready to go “cold turkey” on some permanent change? Designate a temporary period to try out your reform. Restrict sweets to weekends only, perhaps, or try not to use your credit card for a week. Then there’s a habit many of us would like to cut way back on—checking our cell phones every few minutes. Our brains have literally been conditioned to do this, says David Greenfield, Ph.D., founder of The Center for Internet and Technology Addiction. “A smartphone is like a slot machine—you can’t predict when it will provide something pleasurable,” he explains. “When you receive a message or piece of information, your brain experiences an elevation in dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure. Add a smartphone’s buzzes, beeps and other sounds and you become conditioned to react just like Pavlov’s dog.”

As with many other bad habits, awareness is the first step here. “Ask yourself whether there’s really such constant change in your life that you need to check your email dozens of times a day,” Greenfield says. “The answer is likely no.” Then designate tech-free periods during which you purposely go off the grid for an hour or more. “You’ll be amazed at how much more you get done and how liberating it feels.”

10. Get more sleep. Consciously or not, many of us operate on the assumption that sleeping is a nuisance that keeps us from accomplishing more things. Science, however, takes a different view—it suggests that whatever our proposed change to a healthier lifestyle, getting sufficient sleep is a kind of skeleton key that can help us achieve it.

“We tend to treat sleep as an expense that can be cut, rather than as an investment in our well-being,” says Rath. “But an extraordinary amount of research supports the notion that getting more sleep at night sets in motion a chain that leads to better dietary and activity choices the following day.”

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