Kyle MacDonald: How to make your New Year’s resolutions stick


I never keep up my New Year’s resolutions – how do I make them “stick”?

Easy to make and easy to break, most people’s New Year’s resolutions are discarded by February. Why? Well, while this time of year makes it easy to feel like making changes, we tend to overestimate how easy it can be.

So how do we increase our chances of success?

Firstly, start small. While it can be easier to make big resolutions (get healthier), too big and too vague sets us up for failure. Instead, start with a small step, and make sure it’s achievable and something you’re going to do – rather than something you’re going to NOT do.

So instead of “quit smoking”, instead resolve to “live a healthy, smoke-free life”. Then break that down into smaller goals and concrete steps.

Build on each of those small steps, allow yourself the satisfaction of achievement and set the next one. Positive momentum builds on itself and we set ourselves up for success one step at time.

I’m already having trouble unwinding from work – not checking emails, I’m looking for work to do. Why can’t I just relax?

It’s been a tough year and many of us have got through 2020 by putting our head down and keeping going – for some that meant working harder. And, no doubt, work is a useful distraction; it absorbs our attention and distracts from anxiety, worry or other emotions.

However, that distraction can become a habit and as you’re discovering, “stopping” then becomes an emotional task – one which can feel hard, where work can start to feel like an addiction.

Good news – the “treatment” is a holiday. Two important steps though – first, step away from the device; turn off notifications and set limits (only checking it twice a day, for instance). Then find meaningful activities to engage in that help you stay in the present – go for a walk, read, cook, go to the beach, play with the kids.

It might take a few days but it’s important. Otherwise we can spend weeks on holiday without ever really taking a “break”.And after this year, we all need one.

I have family in the UK and the recent strain has triggered my anxiety. What should I do?

Let’s call it what is – it’s fear and it’s understandable. Calling this anxiety can do us a discredit: it’s okay to feel frightened of frightening things.

It’s really important to keep making an effort to validate and accept the feelings we are having. Fear, for example.Sadness for missing your family at Christmas. And maybe other feelings, like anger.

Anxiety shows up as a response to not validating and accepting our feelings. It can amplify fear when we attack or minimise our own feelings. And each of these valid feelings point us to helpful behaviours.

Minimise your exposure to news and headlines about how catastrophic the situation is in the UK. Rely instead on direct contact with your family and be reassured by them and your communication with them. Also, make sure you support yourself in whatever ways you need to. Keep up your connections with people here – fear grows in isolation.

I would be very interested to know what “good therapy” for trauma looks like.

In a word: safety. Trauma, especially in childhood, scrambles our sense of what safe feels like – we may both miss signs of danger and see danger where there is none.

Good therapy uses the relationship between the therapist and client to help us understand these triggers and responses in more detail.

Some approaches also teach information – to use our brain to learn about safety – but ultimately we learn best through experience, from a relationship.

It doesn’t have to mean talking about the past but it will mean having a space where we can talk about what we think, feel and worry about saying out loud. Experience literally re-wires our brains and over time helps us to better navigate the world and relationships safely.

And it doesn’t have to be therapy. Therapy speeds up the process but any safe open relationship helps – a good marriage, a supportive mentor, a supportive group.

Kyle MacDonald is a psychotherapist, mental health columnist and co-host of The Nutters Club on Newstalk ZB.

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