One Small Step

Whatever your religious leanings, the holiday spirit of generosity is pervasive this time of year. Equally prevalent are New Year's resolutions.

It's actually a bit of an interpersonal perfect storm, isn't it? We tend to indulge a lot--in food, drink, and material objects--then commit to restraint the next week.

How many of you are about to pledge to exercising more, eating less, and managing your time more carefully?

In order to help us all be successful, allow me to indulge in a bit of psychological theory.

First, remember that habit reversal is difficult.

If you are really going to commit to a different set of habits, be patient with yourself.

For example, you can't go from not exercising much at all (no, clicking the remote doesn't count as exercise) to 90 minutes of hard-core aerobics and free weights.

What you can do is go from not exercising to a 10-minute walk every other day for two weeks. Then, bump it up to 15-minute walks with 15 minutes of weight training on the non-walk days.

Gradual change is more durable than sudden change. This is a hard notion to grasp, as evidenced by the dust collecting on the exercise equipment in your basement.

Second, hold yourself accountable to an external source.

If you decide to adopt some new practice, tell a trusted friend or colleague. Ask them to check in with you each week on your progress.

(This, by the way, is the secret to the Weight Watchers franchise. The weekly weigh-ins can be shared with the group, and participants feel accountable to their peers.)

Better still, find someone who shares your goal and wants company for the journey. Working out together, cleaning through the clutter in your closets together, or learning a new skill together is often more successful than the solo activity precisely because of the shared sense of responsibility.

Third, be specific in your goal setting.

Rather than saying, "I'd like to be more organized in the coming year," say, "I will sort my mail over the garbage and recycle bins each day" or "I will pay bills on the same day they arrive."

By the way, did you ever hear of the O.H.I.O. principle? When it comes to paperwork, Only Handle It Once.

Taking an action step (e.g., toss, recycle, pay, read) prevents all of those piles from accumulating around your office and kitchen.

In any case, specific goals are easier to achieve than vague goals, because the progress is measurable. Few people can persist in working toward a diffuse goal. Most of us need measureable progress to feel reinforced.

Fourth, forgive yourself.

If you slide back a step or two in your new habit, do not give yourself license to jettison the goal altogether.

Thinking, "Well, I slipped on Monday, so forget it" is behavior-change poison. Instead, think, "I can tolerate slipping up as long as I recommit to doing things differently tomorrow."

Relapse is part of recovery, they say. And so it is, in most people's experience.

So forgive yourself the small transgressions and refocus your energy toward achieving your important, specific goal.

If you'd like to share your own goals in a public way that is sure to garner peer support, I encourage you to post a response to this Week-Ender. I look forward to hearing from you.

Happy New Year!

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist, father and author of The Summer Camp Handbook, now available online for free at He is the co-creator of, a set of Internet-based-video training modules for camp counselors, nurses and doctors. He can be reached via e-mail at