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Beyond New Year’s Resolutions: Making Real Life Changes

If you’re like most people, by the time February comes, the New Year’s Resolutions you made January 1st are a distant memory. Despite our best-laid plans, it’s hard to make and sustain real changes in our lives, even when we know the changes are necessary or desirable. Living with HIV requires a lot of flexibility and being ready to make changes that will improve our mental or physical health. For this month’s column, I’d like to offer some ideas about how January’s resolutions can be sustained throughout the year or for a lifetime.

The secret to successful changes is in having a systematic approach. Saying that you’ll lose 10 pounds of excess weight or that you’ll stop smoking is just the beginning; actually achieving your goal involves breaking down the goal into smaller steps. In 1986, Prochaska and DiClemente published a book about how people change. In this, they listed the five stages of change, which are: 1) Precontemplation – meaning a person isn’t really wanting to change, they just “do their thing”; 2) Contemplation – meaning that people are thinking about the pros and cons of changing; it could go either way; 3) Preparation – meaning a person has decided to change and is planning a strategy to do that; 4) Action – meaning the person follows the plan of change they set out – this can be the real hard part; and 5) Maintenance – meaning that a person needs ongoing support for their change, or they revert back to an earlier stage and then have to move forward again. If you’re trying to change something, which of these stages are you in currently?

Another key factor in making your resolution effective is to do some practical problem-solving around it. In using various cognitive-behavioral treatment techniques, I teach people that problem solving includes a series of steps. To paraphrase these techniques, try these steps: First, you identify the problem – what is negative that you want to see less of, or what is positive that you want to see more of in your life? Second, determine a goal. If the problem is that your dog pees in the house, is your goal to train your dog or just give him away? Third, creatively brainstorm all the different options you have, no matter how wild – make a long list, starting with, “I could….”. With the dog example, you could consult a veterinarian, ask the salesperson at the local pet store, or buy a book on training dogs. Fourth, evaluate those solutions, listing the pros and cons of each option: You could ask the salesperson, but maybe they don’t know. You could consult a vet, but maybe she’s expensive. You could buy the book, but the book can’t actually converse with you. Fifth, choose the best and most appropriate option. Given all the pros and cons, which would you choose – the salesperson, the vet, or the book? Sixth, develop an action plan. If you chose the vet, what do you do next? Open the phone book under “veterinarians” and call one? Ask your friend for his dog’s vet’s phone number? Seventh, just act. Call the vet, get an appointment, and then see what happens.

Another important piece I taught people while working for the study above involves making changes by developing and implementing a series of goals. Ideally, a goal should be realistic – not flying to the moon by flapping your arms, but something you can actually do. It should be clear – not just “I’d like to be healthier this year”, but “I’d like to quit smoking by March 1st.” It should be not too easy and not too hard – say, “My goal is to quit smoking by March 1st”, not, “I’m going cold turkey as of yesterday and will never smoke again.” It should also have a clear endpoint: If you say, “I’ll stop smoking really soon”, how will you know you achieved “soon”? By March? By June? By next December 31st? Make it clear in your mind and visualize it happening.

What resources do you need to reach your goal? Do you need money? Time? Advice? Professional treatment? Support from friends or family? Learning? Networking? Confidence? How can you get those resources? You might need the help of others to reach your goal; to quote the Stephen Sondheim song, “No One Is Alone.”

Finally, it’s important to reward yourself for small steps in your goals. If you go without smoking for 2 days, reward yourself with a special event or celebration. If you smoked two packs a day, costing about $8, maybe you can use your savings to buy a dessert (the fat content of that is another topic entirely). Rewarding yourself for small steps will train your mind to want to continue on to the next steps.

One of the greatest books I know on making personal changes is this one, which I use with clients frequently and is a source of great personal inspiration. I challenge you to read it, and just see if it doesn’t change your life for the better — Jack Canfield’s “The Success Principles: How to Get from Where You Are, to Where You Want to Be!”:)

So for this Valentine’s Day, why not make a few New Year’s Resolutions? If you follow the steps, this year, you might get closer than you ever have before.

These are some overview suggestions.  For help with your specific challenges, and to achieve the goals that are important to you, call me at 310-726-4357, or email me at, and let’s discuss how we might work together to achieve what you want. 

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