Turning Over a New Leaf: Balance and Baby Steps

It’s almost a new year, and you know what that means – everyone is excited to make big life improvements. Well, at least for the first few days of the year. You’ve probably been there yourself. You have the best of intentions to quit smoking, eat healthier, get in shape. You’re confident, you’re optimistic … and by February you’re over it. But take heart: you’re far from the only one. In fact, a study in the Journal of Clinical Psychology showed that less than half (46%) of people who made New Year’s resolutions were successful. So why do we do this to ourselves every year? “Psychologically, the start of a new calendar year creates changes in our mindset,” said Dr. Glenn Miller, a California-based psychiatrist. “We hearken back on prior year’s events that have passed and our thoughts drift to what could have been, what we could have done better.” The tradition of making New Year’s resolutions began during the reign of Caesar. At the time, New Year’s resolutions were of a moral nature, such as being kind to others. These days, the most common resolutions tend to be more self-focused, such as losing weight, spending less money, or learning a new skill.

Step by Step

You’ll have more confidence throughout your improvement journey if you work from baby step to baby step, says Dr. Heather Cook of Kingsport, a people developer, aka life coach, and author. “I don’t like the word ‘resolution’ – it’s negative and final,” she says. “My mantra is ‘moments to milestones,’ meaning that a moment is fleeting, but a collection of those moments leads to a milestone.” Cook uses a ladder as an analogy for lasting change: A ladder with widely spaced apart rungs is incredibly hard to climb; but one with rungs close together is much easier. Small steps help you build mini-habits, and mini-habits eventually turn into major ones that you don’t even have to think about. She says that usually, we know “what” we should do to reach our goal and may even know “why,” but the “how” is harder to grasp. “We know why we should get healthy and what to do,” Dr. Cook says. “But you may feel like you don’t have the willpower, or the support, or the time.” A good way to find the time is to “create space, not waste.” Dr. Cook recommends looking at how much screen time you “waste” every day – then use that time to make the space for new, improved habits.

About Heather Cook

Dr. Heather Cook defines herself as a People Developer. She is also a certified Cultural Engagement Specialist and author of the self-help book, “You’re Welcome, Mama: Permission Granted to be a Better You.” She is a graduate of ETSU, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees and a doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis.

Start Off in the Right Direction

Kingsport therapist L. Gordon Brewer Jr. agrees that to successfully make major life changes, we must start with small ones. 

“It’s good to have big, audacious goals, but you need to look at the smaller changes that will get you there,” Brewer says. 

In his blog post “Compass Theory of Change,” he says, “Work on what you can realistically control and change. It’s how we make lasting changes rather than temporary ones.”

As Brewer explains, for a plane or ship to get from point A to point B, it must follow a certain bearing based on compass coordinates. If it changes that bearing, even by just a degree, it will end up in a completely different place than it was supposed to. And, as long as the vessel stays on that incorrect course, the farther it will go away from its destination.

It’s the same for people. “The longer we keep doing the things that keep us on a certain course, the farther it puts us from where we might want to go,” Brewer says. 

He adds, “If you see that you are headed for disaster down the road by maintaining the course you are on now, it only takes a minimal amount of change to start yourself in a new direction.”

Increase Your Chances of Success

Several factors can give you a better chance of success. First, “find your why,” Brewer says. If you want to lose weight, is it because of societal pressures, because you want to fit into your clothes better, or because you want to have more energy? It could even be a combination of all of the above. The important thing is to dig deep and find your true underlying motivation. He also recommends writing down what you hope to achieve.  “Most of us don’t take the time to write down our goals,” he says. “You have a greater chance of reaching your goal if you simply write it down.” According to Forbes, people who very vividly describe their goals are up to 1.4 times more likely to successfully accomplish their goals than people who don’t. Brewer also recommends following the SMART method:
  • Specific: What do I need to accomplish? What steps should I take to achieve it?
  • Measurable: How will I track my progress?
  • Achievable: Is this something I can reasonably accomplish?
  • Relevant: Does this goal take into account my life circumstances and values?
  • Time-Bound: What’s my personal deadline?
Don’t back down if you fall short of perfection. “Give yourself some grace – don’t make the thinking mistake that ‘well, I failed at that this week, so I’ll give it up completely,’” Brewer says. He recommends talking to friends, family, or a counselor/therapist if you need support. “It’s always good to seek out others that you can process things with and bounce ideas around with,” he says. “One of the things that leads to poor mental health in general is people will isolate themselves. Whether you’re an introvert or extrovert, we’re all social creatures and we need to interact with others at some level.”

About Gordon Brewer

L. Gordon Brewer Jr. has been a therapist/counselor for more than two decades and is the founder of Kingsport Counseling Associates, PLLC. He is a Licensed Marital and Family Therapist and Clinical Fellow with an Approved Supervisor designation from the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (AAMFT).

Fun Facts

  • The month of January is named for the Roman god Janus. The ancient Romans imagined Janus as a two-faced god: one facing forward and one facing back. Janus was the guardian of arches, gates, doors, beginnings, and endings.
  • There is a Native American proverb that says that every person is a house with four rooms: one physical, one mental, one emotional, and one spiritual. Most of us tend to live in one room most of the time; but to be a complete person, we must go into each room every day.
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