In this installment of his regular column, Dr. Tom Ferguson recommends a number of achievable healthy resolutions people could make for the coming new year.
The notion of making annual resolutions occurs to a good many folks during the holiday season when thoughts begin to turn ahead toward the New Year and its opportunity for a symbolic new beginning. And this year you can make healthy resolutions, a vow to put a personal self-care plan into effect that just may benefit every part of you! Making just a few gentle changes in your lifestyle could bring about a big difference in the way you perceive the world as well as the way it (in the form of your family, friends, etc.) perceives you!
To make such a fresh start, you'll first need to define and state a commitment that you'd like to make to yourself. This pledge should be flexible, not an irrevocable promise sealed in blood. Think of your new self-care plan as an opportunity merely to try out some different behavior patterns ... which you'll be free to change at any time.
Any self-improvement regime begins with self-awareness, so you should start implementing your plan by simply paying attention to yourself. Become aware of your personal habits — both good and bad — and maybe even record them in some way. If you're thinking of going on a diet, for instance, write down everything you eat over the course of a day or two. Before starting an exercise program, buy a pedometer (the devices are available at most sporting goods or outdoor supply stores), and hang it on your belt to record the total number of miles you walk each day.
Then, while you're observing your own actions, also pay attention to the ways in which other people support your desired or undesired behavior. For instance, do members of your family continually offer you calorie-laden goodies? Does everybody else at work light up a cigarette after lunch? You should — at this stage in your preparations — observe such patterns closely, but don't try to change anything yet. Just take stock.
When the time comes to outline your plan and its goals, try to "starve problems and feed solutions." That is, use your own strengths and interests to combat your weaknesses. If you want to stop smoking — and have considered taking up running — you may discover that you're ready to break the tobacco habit by the time you've worked up to three or four miles a day. By centering your actions on goals — which enrich your life rather than depriving you of something — you'll probably be more successful in the long run at getting rid of negative behavior than you would be if you attacked the problems directly.
After you have a general idea of what kind of self-care program you'd like to begin, brainstorm a little bit — consider lots of possible goals — before you narrow down your aims. If you want to develop an exercise program, for example, consider swimming the English Channel or running in a marathon! Be creative and have fun with your brainstorming, then gradually fine-tune your ideas to include only attainable aims.
Once you get down to serious planning, you should gather as much information as you can about your proposed activities. Start with your own personal resources: Were you an athlete in high school? Have you always wanted to learn how to paint? Your resolution can give you an opportunity to reconnect with old skills or to develop new interests. You should also check into outside resources which may be of some help to you. Organizations such as Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, or women's consciousness-raising groups can provide tremendous support, as can any of your friends who are already successfully losing weight, running, meditating, or whatever. And don't neglect the special interest publications (books and magazines) in your field of endeavor. They offer up-to-date information.
Try, in addition, to inject a healthy dose of freedom into your goals. Avoid locking yourself into a rigid set of rules which are bound to restrain you. Say to yourself, "I will allow myself yoga breaks from work whenever I feel like it." Or, "When I go running, I will let myself dance, skip, stop to look at a flower, or do anything I want to."
Once you've started a program of self-improvement — whether it be for weight control, stress reduction, or exercise — keep it going with lots of support. Pay attention to your successes and reward yourself for each victory (no matter how small) that you score as your self-care plan progresses.
Be careful not to sabotage your program, either. Instead, create a supportive atmosphere in which it's easy to work toward the goal you have in mind. Remove all temptations (such as high-calorie junk food) from your surroundings and replace them with positive support devices that will encourage you to continue your plan. (For instance, you might want to set aside a special room in the house for your daily yoga sessions.)
It's also a good idea to choose a "support person" to whom you can confide your goal. Ask for his or her help in reaching that aim, and explain — as specifically as you can — the kinds of things he or she could do to assist you: "Serve me smaller portions." "Bicycle along with me sometimes when I go running." (And don't forget to express your appreciation for that help. Support your friend for supporting you!)
Finally, pay attention to the feedback you're receiving from yourself and don't be afraid to modify your goal as a result of the messages you receive. How does your new practice make your body feel? At what time of day do you most need to use your new relaxation skills? Has a change in diet affected your attitude toward food?
You should be especially aware of any negative feedback: If you've given a particular practice a fair trial and it's just not working out, give yourself a vacation and reevaluate. Go back to the earlier stages of paying attention to yourself and brainstorming your goals. Perhaps you just tried to do too much too fast, or maybe you chose a goal that doesn't really fit your intentions. Remember, you haven't failed. You've actually gained some useful information.
Bear in mind, too, that your ultimate goal — no matter how you structure your self-care plan — is to discover practices that will allow you to develop (and appreciate) your own uniqueness. You want to come to better understand your own being, to perform a sort of psychological housecleaning that will get rid of a lot of the unnecessary clutter and possibly make room for some new furniture!
So good luck in designing and following your own tailor-made self-care program. Just don't forget: It's you who must be the tailor!