I’m writing this on January 4, which means many of you have already given up on your New Year’s resolutions. If you’re still following through, I give you credit, but I don’t want you to be disappointed if and (probably) when you throw in the towel.
I know that sounds awfully pessimistic, especially coming from such a solution-oriented guy like me. But you’re not the problem. I know you can make positive changes. I see clients do that every day in my office, and I believe positive change can happen for you, too.
The problem is that the idea of a New Year’s resolution dooms you to fail at it. Rarely does someone pick a small resolution. They pick things like losing 100 pounds, or cleaning and keeping their house clean before it teeters over that fine line into something you might see on “Hoarders,” or getting a new job that will triple their salary, or … well, you get the idea. It’s almost impossible to follow through with changes like that. They’re just too big. Big changes are daunting, even overwhelming, and it’s easy to give up quickly because the task seems so hard.
I use a lot of scaling with clients – you know, “On a scale of one to 10 …” During our first sessions, I always ask scaling questions to assess where clients are and where they want to be. Predictably, most of them say they’re at one or two, and they want to get to 10 as quickly as possible.
It always takes a few seconds for them to answer when I say, “Given that you’re at two on a scale of one to 10, what would it take to get to three?”
The key to lasting change is to target small changes, not big ones. Imagine throwing a rock in the water; the ripples are small at first, but they keep expanding. Small change leads to bigger change in the same way.
For example, let’s say a parent wants to pay more attention to his child. I’d help the parent target a small but specific change — for example, asking his child once each evening about his day. That sounds small and insufficient, but as the parent has success, he feels more comfortable to ask at other times. The child might recoil at first because he’s not used to being asked about his day, but as he gets used to it, he might start volunteering more information. Soon, they’re talking naturally in a way they never imagined – all because they started with one small change.
I once met an accomplished novelist who said she didn’t know how to write a book. She didn’t believe that she could write so many words or imagine a plotline that could hold up over the course of an entire novel. “But I know how to write a chapter,” she said. “When I’m done with that, I still don’t know how to write a book, but I know I can write another chapter. After I’ve done that 20 or 25 times, I realize that I’ve written a book.”
New Year’s resolutions are exactly like that.
(Carl Grody, LISW-S, specializes in family therapy in Worthington, Ohio. He’s also a trained group leader in the Incredible Years parenting program. For an appointment, call 614-477-5565. In-person and online sessions are available.)