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

Would you like that burger with a side of exercise?
Would you like that burger with a side of exercise?

TPR's Jerry Clayton recently spoke with a professor of psychology about New Year's resolutions, and why most people aren't able to stick to them.

Jerry Clayton: Did you make a New Year's resolution? And here, two weeks later, did you stick to it? Here to talk about the psychology of resolutions is Mary McNaughton Castle, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Thanks for being here, Mary.

Mary McNaughton-Cassill: My pleasure.

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

McNaughton-Cassill: I think the single biggest reason is that we focus on the why we want to make a change, but 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 in failing to spend enough time figuring out how to reach 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 have to start first with a really clear view of why you're doing what you're doing. So if you want to quit smoking, keep a record for a couple of 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 have that urge? And what you often find is that smoking is playing a lot of roles in your life. It gives you a break from work or it reduces tension. And if you ignore those things, then the odds 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 run, the changes you're making are not positive. There's sometimes aversive or miserable.

Clayton: How should you handle it mentally when you fail?

McNaughton-Cassill: Well, that is a key piece, so the first thing you have to do is tailor the plan to your own life and take into account barriers and whether those are financial, mental, psychological, social and then you create a change plan. But you also create a plan for failure. And we call it the abstinence violation effect. When people say, Well, I'm going to quit drinking altogether, I'm going to quit smoking altogether. And then if they err, make a mistake, they give up their, Oh, it's hopeless. I can't do this. What you really need is a plan. So around the holidays, I talk to my students about this a lot. You know, it's probably not realistic to think that you're going to lose weight over the two weeks you're back home at your folks house. So maybe you want a plan that says you're just not going to gain weight so you don't stay on your diet, but you try to limit your calories or, you know, you're going to a wedding, you know, you're going to drink there. Is it bad to have champagne at the wedding? If you know that on Monday, you're going to start back on your plan? So really, the goal is to know what those barriers in those places are going to be that challenge you and have a plan so that it's just a blip instead of throwing you off the whole entire process.

Clayton: I wonder if making a New Year's resolution the way many people do it is is a bad idea. Is there a better way or another way to achieve some self-improvement?

McNaughton-Cassill: I think the New Year's resolution is typically too vague and too ambitious. I'll challenge any of you to try it. It's so funny. Think for just a minute. Do you put water on your toothbrush and then the toothpaste or the reverse? Whichever one you do try to change it a couple mornings. But the truth is you've been doing it every day for decades, and it's really hard to change even a trivial 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 that's the end of the plan. Instead of building something incremental that you can improve on over time so you need specific goals, you need to tailor them to your life and you need to take it in easy steps so you don't get so discouraged. You just give up.

Clayton: Mary, thanks so much for your time today.

McNaughton-Cassill: You're most welcome.

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Jerry Clayton can be reached at jerry@tpr.org or on Twitter at @jerryclayton.