Want to keep your New Year's resolutions?

A wise friend of mine says the only way to make sure to keep all your New Year resolutions is not to make any. She thinks it's impossible to keep resolutions. They create stress for a little while, she says, and soon fade into forgetfulness.

On the other hand, it is impossible not to make resolutions. At various levels of consciousness, we do it all the time. In fact, if we didn't, we would never grow. We would turn into shriveled couch potatoes. Everything we do is the result of some resolution or other. We resolve to get up in the morning. That's what starts our new day. It is appropriate, therefore, that we begin the New Year with a resolution addressing some important improvement we want to make in out lives.

I am committing social suicide even to admit this, but I used to smoke. Yes, I can hardly believe this now, but I used to inhale tars and nicotine willingly into my precious lungs. That was a long time ago, I hasten to add. I have not smoked since January 1, 1975, thirty new years ago. I quit smoking as the result of a New Year's resolution. Now mind you, I said I quit smoking as a result of a New Year's resolution. I never actually made a resolution to quit smoking.

As my wise friend pointed out, I probably never could have quit smoking by merely saying, "My New Year's resolution is to quit smoking." That resolution would have gone, quite literally, up in smoke. Here is my story:

On January 1, 1973 my New Year's resolution was: "I will not smoke until after lunch." That year, whenever I got the urge for a cigarette, I told myself, in the same firm but loving tone as I would use in limiting my children's candy consumption, "You can have a cigarette after lunch." I kept that resolution for one year. Then on January 1, 1974 my resolution was not to smoke until after dinner. I kept also that resolution for one year.

Finally on January 1, 1975, I said, "No cigarettes until after the ten o'clock news." When the ten o'clock news came on that New Year's Day, the rest of my family started putting on their pajamas, brushing their teeth, getting ready for bed. So there I sat in the living room alone with my pack of cigarettes. I put one in my mouth, lit, and inhaled. Then I took the ugly little smoking cylinder out of my mouth and looked at it. "What do I need this for?" I asked myself. The answer came back, "I don't need this." I crushed the cigarette out in the ashtray and have never picked up another cigarette since. By quitting smoking slowly, incrementally, by faithfully keeping smaller, more manageable resolutions, I had inadvertently solved the problem of my tobacco addiction.

Looking back on this experience, and on other resolutions I have kept since then, I have developed four important guidelines for making and keeping annual resolutions:

1) Select one important improvement you want to make in your life.

A New Year's resolution needs to be about something you value highly, some important improvement you want to make. Then it will exert a powerful motivating force upon your behavior. Also, I would suggest concentrating on only one improvement, two at most. In that way, the resolution will become a central focus in your life. If you try to juggle too many resolutions, they will get lost in the shuffle.

2) Carefully examine the improvement in terms of other habits, behaviors, and needs surrounding it.

With respect to my resolution to quit smoking, I chose to smoke after lunch and after dinner because, in looking at my schedule, I determined those to be times of my highest need to smoke. They were times when I paused in my busy day allowing the need for a cigarette to surface upon my consciousness. Be sure to weave your resolution comfortably into the fabric of your life.

3) Make the resolution small and doable.

I wouldn't recommend for most people a New Year's resolution like, "I'm going to get up at five o'clock AM every morning and jog twice around the Seward Park loop." While that may be a beautiful resolution and might make you feel great, it may be difficult to keep if you are a busy person with many other commitments. A more manageable resolution might be, "I'm going to jog on my trampoline for half an hour after I get home from work." Then in spring when the days get longer, you might find you want to jog outdoors longer distances now and then because you have built up your capacity with this smaller, more doable training schedule.

4) State the resolution in clear, positive behavioral terms.

Quitting smoking is not a behavior. It is the absence of a behavior. Don't say what you won't do. Say what you will do. Although I didn't know it then, I stated my resolution most effectively each time I told myself, "You can have a cigarette after lunch." Figure out a way to state your resolution so that is clear, positive, and therefore easy to keep.

I would like to wish all who have read resolutely to the end of this column a very Happy New Year. I also wish you success in formulating a simple, doable resolution that will make a profound improvement in your life.

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