You have about 40 days. That’s it!
I’m referring to those New Year resolutions you're making before the ball drops. If you're like most Americans, your resolutions will last until mid-February, tops -- unless you do something different this time!
Have you ever noticed how full the fitness center parking lots are in early January? Check back in another four weeks and you’ll see a lot more parking spaces at the fitness center. Maybe you've already experienced your own trouble with resolutions. Like many students, you start the New Year, or the new semester, highly motivated and with new goals and plans (like hitting the library more, increasing study time, or prioritizing exercise), but after a strong week or two you find yourself falling back into old, familiar patterns.
One reason resolutions fail is because some of us might not really want to change when we make them. We just think we should, or other people are pushing us to change and we're doing it for them. Another reason we don't follow through on resolutions is that we don't really believe we can, because we've tried before and failed. We also drop resolutions because we're succeeding at them, and expect our entire lives will improve as a result; when that doesn't happen, discouragement follows. And change itself can be scary, causing us to lose our resolve and return to the (dis)comfort of our old ways.
Finally, and primarily, we often set ourselves up for falling short by setting absolutely unrealistic goals in the first place. We then either discover that the going was rougher than we were ready for, or that we didn't outline the action steps that would get us where we wanted to be. And we give up.
So here you are, poised to jump into another 16 weeks of college life. Hopefully you enjoyed the winter break and are feeling ready for new challenges. What resolutions are you considering, and what's driving your desire to make changes? A subpar fall semester? Too much partying? Parents upset by your grades? What new goals are you establishing for this semester? Are you making simple adjustments to challenges from the last one? Most importantly, what is your plan to maintain your resolutions past the 40-day mark?
You can prepare now for the likelihood that at some stage in the future you'll want to give up. Let’s set up now, while you have the motivation, some habits that will prevent you from dropping resolutions later. By setting goals that are achievable and in line with our interests and strengths, by creating an action plan, and by setting up simple ways to hold ourselves accountable (and cut ourselves a little slack in the process), we can prevail when others don't.
These Five Take On College tips will help you make better New Year's resolutions, and maintain them until they become part of your new lifestyle!
1. Create your change vision now, before the New Year or semester begins. Your resolutions will be more effective if they're part of a holistic vision of your future, one that covers specific academic, health and wellness, stress management, and/or social goals. Are you resolving to exercise, sleep, or study more? Or party, socialize, eat junk food less? How do you see yourself different at the end of the semester?
Keep your goals reasonable and realistic. Don't try to change everything at once. it's more important to your sense of confidence and self-efficacy if you rack up smaller achievements as you go along, rather than shoot for the moon and fall short. For example, you may want to lose 20lbs by February, but it might be more realistic to lose 10lbs in that time, or to stretch the weight loss over several months. Or you may want to make jogging or yoga a daily practice, when you'll really only have time for one more exercise session per week. Don't overload yourself with resolutions; pick several important changes that could most impact your well-being for now, and make them part of your bigger vision of change.
2. Define your action steps. How will you actually fulfill your resolution? Think of specific monthly/weekly/daily steps you can take to meet your goals. Outline them somewhere, like in your phone or on a paper calendar. If your resolution is to raise your GPA two points, what precisely will you do, and when, to achieve and maintain that? Two extra hours of studying on the weekends? A tutor or study buddy? Skipping poker night once a month? List them for each resolution.
3. Create an accountability plan. Even the slightest bit of accountability to another person, or yourself, can increase your motivation to stick to your plan during the rough spots. This is critical! Determine how you'll hold yourself accountable for your action steps. Many people use an accountability buddy (usually someone with a similar goal). But you can use your parents, a counselor, a mentor. Accountability also gives us opportunity to check off our small successes, and to remind us that we're making progress even if it feels like we're not.
4. Engage in fun, meaningful activities attached to your resolutions. For example, if one resolution is to get your body into better physical shape (so you can manage stress more effectively, and sleep better), you could find a local rock wall and some climbing partners. If you get bored easily, seek out clubs, seminars, intramurals, theater. Get out of your comfort zone, and bring new energy into your sphere of influence. There are a ton of activities happening on your campuses; explore them, especially if they're meaningful to your change goals!
5. Review your vision regularly, and adjust it when needed. Each Sunday, for example, review and remind yourself of the goals you set for the semester. Check in on your action steps and accountability plan to be sure you're following through! Schedule these check-ins on your calendar. Talk honestly to your accountability buddies, and let them be honest with you about their progress. If you've stumbled on an action step, own up to it but cut yourself some slack--change isn't for dust yourself off, adjust your timeline if you need to, and continue on.
According to the Prochaska-DiClemente stages of change model, we pass through several stages while creating new habits and behaviors. Each stage has its own motivations and obstacles to address before we move on in the process, but change is not exactly linear. We might achieve some success with an old bad habit or a new good one, and then circle back to the very behaviors we are trying to change! If we don't give up during those setbacks, we'll generally find we don't stay in the old behavior for as long, or engage in it as deeply, and then we move forward to some new growth. Just keep showing up for your resolutions, no matter what.
New Year's resolutions indicate your basic desire to change. Honor that desire, and follow these simple guidelines to the best of your ability. That's how you can stay on track through the frustrations of those first 40 or so days, and move into the freedom of more permanent change. Happy New Year!
Dr. Joel Ingersoll helps college and high school students develop college transition, performance, and career success skills. As president & founder of Take On College, Joel has empowered thousands of students to maximize their potential, college experience and return on tuition. Joel is the author of the forthcoming book Take On College: Winning Strategies for College & Career Success!