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I understand the reasoning behind New Year’s resolutions, of course. Fresh start to the year, fresh start to one’s life and all that yumminess. And yet it seems fundamentally flawed to me. Deciding to make a pile of changes of a single day, after weeks of excess and partying, strikes me as a recipe for failure and for feeling crappy about yourself when you end up flagging and falling into old habits because the changes were too wide-ranging and ambitious to be sustainable.

We all know the truth of it: long term lifestyle changes are ideally small, incremental, and undertaken gradually, in the context that will support the changes, and thereby allow each new habit to settle in and stick. Otherwise, they’re not going to last. And though it feels like very little is being done when transformations are undertaken in this manner, they add up. Look back after a year of small changes, and you’ll be amazed at how far you’ve come.

Similarly, New Year’s Day as a time of change also makes little sense to me. It seems arbitrary. Work to change your life whenever you feel ready to do so. Don’t wait for some random day that has little to do with who you are or the cycle of your life (if your day of change happens to coincide with New Year’s Day, of course, then so be it).

Here, then, is my list of steps to change in an incremental and sustainable way (bearing in mind that it still takes persistence and discipline to change, but this method makes it a little more do-able over the long term):

  • To change your life, you first need to decide on what specific kinds of changes you want to make. So, to take a weight loss example: do you want to lose X number of pounds, or be healthier, or fit into a particular dress? These are three different things. Your body may be healthiest at a higher weight than you aspire to, and depending on how you go about it, fitting into the dress of your dreams might mean a weight loss of more or less than a given number of pounds. So decide which outcome will motivate you and that you can aspire to–what makes you excited, and fixes your determination?
  • Break the changes down into smaller steps. Look at the stages you need to complete, make realistic estimates on how long the changes will take to gel, particularly if they are habit-based. Aspire to something that feels small and bite-sized, whether it is a ten minute, intense workout, or a few more veggies and a few less refined carbs at each meal.
  • Work on one of those smaller steps at a time, until it becomes a habit. Don’t squander your energy trying to do it all at once, while losing focus, flagging in your determination as you go. Instead, concentrate on doing well with and figuring out ways to enjoy and remain engaged with one of those smaller steps at a time. Concentrate on building the habit and making it a part of your life that you would miss if you didn’t do it. This doesn’t mean that you have to be perfect with it–just that you need to be at the stage where it comes somewhat naturally. Then you can move onto the next small step.
  • remember that sustaining the change over the long term, once the goal is achieved, is about a transformed life, not about a short-term set of changed behaviours. Reaching a goal weight by denying yourself to extremes because you know it’s a short-term state means that as soon as you loosen your hold on that state of self-denial, you’re going to fall back on your old behaviours and will have no new habits or practices to keep you in your new paradigm. Going on a “diet” means that at some level your psyche didn’t commit to the change–it was a temporary state. Building long-term habits, and working on coping skills for when you fall out of your new routine and want to get back on track, means that you’ll have a far better chance of long-term success.

Some may succeed in reinventing their lives as a result of a day’s set of decisions, implemented immediately and made to stick, but I suspect the majority do not. It’s hard enough to reinvent one’s life through sustained effort–particularly because the small changes may not seem to be having effect in the shorter term. But the essential component is the creating the habit, and making it a sustainable part of your routine. If you manage that, sustained over time, then change will come, no matter what time of the year you decide to begin the journey to a new version of yourself.

Best of luck, Happy New Year and a wonderful 2012 to everyone!