January 1st, the beginning of a new year. It is a time ripe with possibilities and fresh starts. For many, it is a tradition to make resolutions for the upcoming year—new hopes and dreams, new goals and ambitions to add to your life. It’s also an unspoken tradition to reach the end of February and realize that you’ve already given up on most of your resolutions. If you have any doubts about this, check out how busy your neighborhood gym is in the first weeks of the New Year and revisit it in March. There will be plenty of empty treadmills and weightlifting machines. Here are a few suggestions to make this year’s New Year’s Resolutions stick.
There are a number of reasons why we give up on our resolutions. The first is we set unrealistic expectations. Many people in recovery (especially those in early recovery), as they compare themselves to others, tend to feel like they are “behind” in their lives. It’s as if the time spent in active addiction slowed or stopped the progress of our lives. And now that we are sober, we tend to want to hurry to make up for lost time.
All too often we set ourselves up for frustration and failure before we even get started by choosing a goal (or a time frame) that is not based in reality in the hopes of “catching up” with our peers. We set unrealistic goals, become overwhelmed by the huge task we’ve set for ourselves and give up. For a non-addict, this can be frustrating and demoralizing. But for an addict in early recovery, it can actually be dangerous. We spent years in our addiction trying and failing, and we can scarcely afford to put ourselves in a situation that undermines our self-esteem and confidence early in recovery.
Indeed, any changes we try to make in our lives and in ourselves that are fear driven or based on comparing ourselves to others, or even comparing ourselves to some ideal we have adopted of how we should be, will tend to be transient. They won’t “stick” because they are not accompanied by changes in our brain. Fears and idealization help gather and focus our attention. They do not promote lasting change.
Sustainable changes, the kind that are supported through time because they involve fundamental changes in our habits of mind and action, “stick” because they involve changes in our brains’ structure and neurochemical function. These sorts of “neurobiological” changes are inhibited by the neurochemistry of stress, negativism, and feelings of inadequacy and self-blame.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make resolutions. It just means we need to spend time considering the best goal to set for ourselves. Instead of saying “I want to lose 30 pounds in 2 months,” say “I want to change my lifestyle and eating habits so that I lose 30 pounds and keep it off sustainably.” The first resolution is great, but not only is the time frame too short, the resolution itself is too vague and stems from an idealized notion of what’s possible and appropriate. How am I going to lose the weight? The benefit of the second resolution is that it implies that there are steps necessary to achieve my goal, which leads us to our next suggestion.
Make a plan
The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous states that we “make many resolutions, but never a decision.” So what’s the difference? The difference between a resolution and a decision is that a decision has action based on it or it’s not a decision. The brain changes because of actions, not resolutions, the carrying out or accomplishing of plans not merely making them. In order to accomplish them, they have to be realistic, that is, doable. The change is in the doing not in the wanting…no matter how much we want them.
How am I going to achieve my goal? Do I need help? Where can I find it? What are the steps I will need to take? Oftentimes, the first step to reaching your goal is to spend time researching what you need to actually do before you start. Hoping for the best is not a solid plan for the future. Plus, with a plan in place, you will have milestones by which you can measure your progress. This reinforces the development of the habits necessary for the changes in the brain to occur. Being able to measure your progress makes the journey from where you are to where you want to be much more sustainable. When you inevitably become frustrated and want to give up, being able to look back at the goals you have achieved along the way can be a huge help in staying on track.
Just like staying sober, we are much more likely to accomplish our resolutions if we have support from people around us. The accountability of admitting your goals to others will help you stay committed. Finding a partner to work toward your goal with is also very helpful. Find a gym buddy, or a weight loss partner, or a sobriety support team. And if you can find a mentor – someone who has already accomplished the goal you have set for yourself, all the better. The more support you have around you the better your chances of sticking with it until you reach your goal.
And finally – resolve to have fun!
So you’ve made resolutions to stay sober, to get in shape, to go back to school or get a better job. That’s great! There is one more resolution to consider: Having fun. We get so caught up with adult responsibilities that we oftentimes lose sight of the fact that life isn’t supposed to be all work and no play. This is the only life you get, and it’s important to enjoy it. Make a resolution to do something fun on purpose at least once a week all year long. It doesn’t have to be something big like going to Disneyland. Schedule coffee with friends. Go out to dinner or a movie. Find a hobby. Do something you enjoy just because you enjoy it.
It’s really easy in early recovery to settle for just not hurting anymore. The relief that recovery can bring is powerful after years of suffering from our disease, but recovery can offer so much more than just not suffering. By the time many of us finally get sober, we have no idea what we like to do for fun. The things we used to do for fun were mostly just excuses to get loaded. Or they were things that were fun for a 20-year-old, but not so much in your 30s. And the task of trying to figure out what we actually enjoy can be so daunting that we don’t want to try.
Getting sober is just the first challenge in a life of recovery. Once you are sober, learning to meet life’s challenges and pursuing your dreams while staying sober is the challenge. There’s no time like the present to make a start. This New Year’s make some resolutions, then make a plan on how you will reach each of your goals. Find some support from the sober community around you and get started. Lean on the tools you are learning to use and anything is possible.