HAPPY NEW YEAR; HOW TO MAKE AND STICK WITH COMMITMENTS....
3 steps to help you reach your goals..
New years is a time when many people make commitments to themselves and others. Many of those commitments involve breaking bad habits and/or increasing good habits. This very much applies to peoples struggling with addictions and towards the end of a year many of the addicted people I see in therapy have grand plans about what changes to put in place come the new year.
For any person, addicted or not, the start of a new year can be very inspiring; not least if you sit down and look forward to great projects, trips, ideas or goals and achievements that you are hoping will lie ahead. Just as it can be inspirational it can also be daunting, and again, not least for people with addictions or mental health problems whom might be looking back over the year that has passed with regrets and ruminations, wondering if they can really trust themselves to make those changes they need in the next year any more than they did in the one just passed.
Commitment is a BIG thing and a key part of leading a life that we value and enjoy. Take a moment and think about the biggest things you have achieved in your life – if you look at what lead you to keep going all the way to the goal line ( if the nature of the commitment has a goal line which is not always the case) you will realise that it was a strong commitment to stick with the process even when things do not feel great. The thing to understand here is that we cannot listen to our feelings to decide the level of commitment on any given day. A commitment needs to be made based on entirely different basis – in brief – a basis that align well with our value system and as such can be identified as something that will make us proud of the person we are on the inside.
For some people, committing themselves equals a huge step out of the comfort zone. Because it means giving yourself a promise to stick with something. Something that most of us know will be easy some days but really hard other days. With that, we take a risk when we make commitments; we risk letting other people down and by doing so also letting ourselves down. There’s no wonder many people I see in recovery are frightened of even making any to begin with!
Unfortunately- without taking that risk; our lives will come to a bit of a standstill. Nothing materialises. No goals get met. We stop growing and developing. And a sense of void and emptiness easily sets in. Even if we DO get around to make those commitments; the race isn’t over. We now have to stick with them. This is something that the vast majority of human beings struggle with in one way or another. The New year is a particularly common time period for people to get excited about making promises, lay out the plans, make commitments, tell the world about them ...and we all know what often happens a few weeks in. That diet that never lasted. Or that new gym membership with accompanying outfit that never got used beyond the point of February. Or the addiction that picked up again once the high of early abstinence had settled down.
So how do we get better at sticking with commitments?
Here are 3 important steps that you can take right now to make the job a little easier:
# When making a commitment; here are some questions to ask yourself…
In what ways will making this commitment help/improve my life? Be specific, write it down and maybe even contemplate on the short-, medium- and long-term consequences of making this change. In brief, be certain that whatever you are about to line yourself up for is worthwhile, in line with your value system and that you are clear on how it will help you longer term.
Can I sustain this change? If your gut feeling is already suggesting that the answer to this question is NO – I would strongly suggest that you rethink your goal. You do not need to look far to realise that slow steady progress will pay off better than fits and spurts of success followed by down falls. In the life of addicted people – there is usually a real absence of balance. Things get approached with the attitude of ‘all or nothing’ which sadly all too often ends up with ‘nothing’. Not because there is not enough drive or willpower – but because there is no well laid plan on how to sustain the commitment to begin with. Think; getting married within the first 2 months of knowing someone. Making the commitment will be no challenge, but what’s the likelihood that you have anticipated the reality of living with this person for the rest of your days? For addicted people this type of short-term based thinking is typically a constant occurrence. The thinking, as you would be familiar with if you fall into this category, is focused on short term rewards, instant gratification and little or no attention is paid to long term sustainability of plans. As I write it out, I can hear some voices go
‘ yes, but recovery should be one day at the time- if we think long term, we get overwhelmed and relapse’
I can see where you are coming from with this- and I fully accept and support the notion of not overwhelming oneself by thinking of a dulled down life without drugs/alcohol/gambling/sex (or whatever the addiction is). In all honesty though, making goals, plans and creating value for your future is a KEY PART of recovery. It is by making those commitments to things other than your addictions that you will find the motivation to continue. This is not the same as dwelling on the nostalgia of losing out or worrying yourself ill about how you will cope without your addiction in your life. Ruminating and worrying have absolutely no positive function in your recovery. Planning and committing on the other hand do! Facing up to some of the fears and agonies involved with sticking with those commitments do as well. We will address that in the next point. So, what I am saying here is that if commitments are made right; they can save you from your addiction. If they are made with no foresight, consideration or realism they can seem like a bit of a trap and inevitably make you feel hopeless and unachieved. Which in turn is often the highway to relapse!
# Sticking with a commitment… Preparing for resistance and adapting to doing things little but often
At the time of deciding that something needs to change it is not unusual for feelings to be running high. Quite literally – I tend to get quite ‘high’ when thinking about making great changes, starting up new interesting projects, creating some new routines etc. At that time the feelings are of course working in our favour. We feel positive, nothing feels impossible and naturally our thinking goes towards just how we can start immediately to implement our plan. We might get so excited that we go totally overboard as well. It is common for clients with addiction to create patterns of behaviour that fall into the extreme range. 10 gym sessions a week, yoga every day, writing a book about their recovery by next month etc. It all suddenly seems so realistic and the energy is usually there in the beginning. When we are in an excited state of mind, changes are that we are a little bit more likely to act impulsively as well. This has actually been evidenced in research. Gamblers particularly are often a bit impulsive by character and here is a time when the impulse that has been ultra-destructive in the area of gambling- can suddenly appear so alluring and well serving. It is, and it isn’t is my feeling about that. Of course, it is nice to be a person who can ‘fire up’ about projects and get excited and passionate about things you want to do for yourself and others. The issue that I often observe however, is that the early excitement is every so quickly traded in for huge bouts of boredom and demotivation. And at this point, no matter how strong that feeling of commitment was a few weeks back – it ends up falling flat. Sticking with a commitment requires us to predict, plan and be prepared to manage those resistances when they occur. This could involve developing skills for how to overcome procrastination and boredom, and also learning how to dissect your goal into smaller segment to make it all a bit more digestible for a brain that may well be untrained and ‘rusty’ when it comes to getting things done. It also means we need to make a more balanced and realistic plan to begin with in order to not set ourselves up for failure! A useful rule of thumb is to start taking small steps little but often. Like we did in school – ‘read 10 min per day’ ‘ practice 5 French verbs per day’ etc. No teacher ever said to us – read your entire book shelf one day and then take a well-deserved reward. Our brains learn new habits when we practice them consistently and with time, we get used to doing them without straining too much; at which point we can make those steps slightly bigger gradually.
# Prioritising and scheduling: Another question to ask yourself … Which accomplishments in your life can you recall working towards consistently without any level of PRIORTISIATION taking place? A common problem I see in clients, regardless of how motivated and excited they are to make changes, is the idea that their recovery – or other life change- should not have to be prioritised. This simply will not work- and the reason it won’t work is that time is not going to be given to anything in our life. We have to MAKE TIME for the things that really matter to us. As Psychologists; we here many rationalisations such as:
‘but Annika surely it is not reasonable that I should have to remain clean when I go to that Wedding in June/Stag in Vegas in April (etc) ‘
‘ I am happy to start exercising if that is important for my recovery but give me a break – you have to realise that my work and kids also take up time’
I get it. Life is busy. I head those rationalisations go off in my own head too. But life is always going to be busy- and there is only ever going to be so many hours for everyone in the day. Same amount for all in fact. This means that without an idea of what constitute our priorities we will end up doing a lot of emotional prioritisation; namely we will go with the feelings on the day to check and see if we feel like doing something. We might almost end up with a return to the denial discussed in an earlier blog post. Where we essentially argue with reality and try and tell ourselves that we can have our results without making any sustained effort. This will go wrong most of the time- only check in with yourself and see how often a task got accomplished with this formula if you don’t believe me. Prioritising ties in directly with the commitments that we make to things that matter to us and that gives us long term value in our life. In order for our commitments to be prioritised; it will need to be planned though with an intent to maintain them. If you are new to planning, I always suggest using just a basic calendar with a week-to-view in order to get a good overview of how your week look. Important commitments such as recovery-related activities, time with loved ones, work etc need to ALL take priority and therefore need to be entered in the calendar. What often happens is that work goes into the calendar, and the rest gets left to random. I always say to clients; let all of those things take the same level priority as your work because for you most people they are as – if not more- important.
I hope you found the steps useful. In implementing them remember too that it is important to not be too outcome-driven. Life is not about the outcomes- it is about the journey. We create our life all the time and any day is an opportunity to start changing and developing.
With that I would like to wish you ALL a very Happy and Committed start to the new year!
For more information on breaking bad habits check ‘Merry-go-round of misery’ ; a blog post from earlier this year here
With love, Annika