New Year Resolutions that Work

Some people say that New Year’s Resolutions are of no use at all because no one keeps them. But I think they are useful in that they make people think about their lives in broad terms – the long view. New Year’s Resolutions are to-do lists for the year, versus the daily to-do lists that so many of us make. When we think about New Year’s Resolutions, we’re thinking about where we want our lives to be a year from now.

New Year’s Resolutions can be useful, but that doesn’t mean they are always useful. Today’s post is about how to make New Year’s Resolutions that work – resolutions that will continue to inspire and guide you for the rest of the year.

Self-Affirming vs. Self-Flagellating

One resolution that appears frequently on people’s lists each year is to lose weight, or some variation on that (stop eating desserts, exercise more, etc.). If you’ve been practicing Normal Eating for a while, your New Year’s Resolutions may include "eat only when hungry". Most of the time, resolutions such as these do not lead to change.

The distinguishing feature of New Year’s Resolutions that work is that they are self-affirming, rather than self-flagellating or self-punishing. If your New Year’s Resolutions read like a reproach – e.g. "Stop eating when not hungry", "Do something about my weight" – chances are that you won’t stick to them. Similarly, a resolution to "Exercise five days a week" is punishment to someone who hasn’t exercised at all for the last year and doesn’t (yet) enjoy it.

New Year’s Resolutions are meant to be actions that will improve the quality of your life. But it’s not as simple as it seems to figure out what actually will improve your life. To make this evaluation, you need to look at your life holistically. What are your needs and what are your constraints? What actions can you take that will move you closer to your goals, without being so difficult that you won’t follow through? If a resolution, on balance, makes your life worse, you won’t follow through.

What Do You Need to Be Happy?

This question is particularly hard for emotional eaters to answer because emotional eaters tend to be out of touch with their true needs, and/or disrespecting of them. Emotional eating means using food bandaides to soothe or numb the discomfort of unmet needs. Sometimes people know what these needs are, but dismiss them – don’t think they are important enough to act upon. Other times, people have ignored their own needs for so long that they don’t even know what they are.

An urge to eat when you’re not hungry is a red flag that something is bothering you. It doesn’t have to be a deep issue from childhood (though it can be). Emotional eating can be a way to treat yourself when you’re tired, soothe your annoyance when your partner is more interested in the TV than conversation, or fill the emotional void of loneliness. Whatever it is, the best way to stop non-hunger eating isn’t by mandate – by simply resolving not to do it. The best way to stop non-hunger eating is to think about your real needs in life, to respect them, and look for ways to meet them. When you’re meeting your emotional needs authentically, you don’t need food bandaides.

Another major reason for emotional eating is rebellion against feeling trapped in a bad situation. When you’re in a situation that’s very uncomfortable that you can’t see a way to improve, and that you don’t feel free to leave, breaking all the rules about what and how you eat can feel like your only freedom and pleasure. Even when you think there is nothing you can do to improve a situation, there always is something – no matter how small. And when you take an action towards helping yourself, no matter how small, it has a huge impact on your sense of personal power. Even small actions on your own behalf can take away the feeling of being a victim and eliminate the desire to eat.

So when making your list of New Year’s Resolutions, think about how you can better meet your needs in the new year, since that’s ultimately what improves people’s lives. Try to think about your resolutions as things you want to do, rather than things you should do.

Something to Try…

Before writing your New Year’s Resolutions for 2007, write out answers to these questions:

  1. What areas of my life are going well right now? What are the things I can be grateful for?
  2. What areas of my life are not going as well as I’d like? What needs do I have that are not being met?
  3. Where would I like to be in my life a year from now? What changes would I like to have made?
  4. What actions can I take – realistically – that will move me towards this goal?

Thoughts? Comments? I’d love to hear them.

This article was first published in the January 2007 newsletter.

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