New Priorities

Keeping goals realistic called key to avoiding post-holiday tradition of resolution breaking
By Pamela H. Sacks

Sally Gadaire has resolved to stop worrying about what might happen tomorrow or the next day. The cataclysmic events of Sept. 11 were in her thoughts when she made that pledge on Dec. 31.

“It made me realize that life is very uncertain,” she said. “It proved that this country isn’t as indestructible as we hoped. Things can be over very quickly.”

As 2001 became 2002, Mrs. Gadaire, 63, and legions of other people made New Year’s resolutions to, in one way or another, live every day to the fullest.

In fact, Leslie Bourne, a psychologist and director of the division of behavior medicine at Fallon Clinic in Worcester, believes the terror attacks have changed us forever.

“We all know in the backs of our minds what is really important in life,” Ms. Bourne said. “It’s harder to forget that now. I hear more people more easily putting things into perspective.”

Ms. Bourne hastened to add that while our priorities may have shifted for the better, old troubles and frustrations have hardly evaporated.

“We still have weight problems, relationship problems, money problems,” she said.

Mrs. Gadaire herself bears out Ms. Bourne’s view. Although her resolution is different this year, her long held desire to get in shape — the declaration she made year after year — endures.

“I do well for a while, and then I slack off,” Mrs. Gadaire said with a sigh. “I’d like to stick to it and do it all the time, make it part of my life.”

Mrs. Gadaire, who lives in Brookfield, has plenty of company.

New Year’s Eve triggers the “clean plate syndrome,” according to health and diet guru Charles Platkin, whose new book “Breaking the Pattern” will be out next month.

“You say, `Hey, it’s a new year. I’m going to get off to a fresh start,’ ” he said.

Two or three weeks in, right around this time, many people already are wavering, not for lack of good intentions but for lack of a realistic goal and a well thought out plan.

Yes, a plan.

It is simply not enough, both Ms. Bourne and Mr. Platkin said, to announce “I’m going to get in shape.” Or, “I’m going to stop smoking.” Or, “I’m going to lose 20 pounds.” Willpower alone won’t do it.

“People create shopping lists,” Mr. Platkin pointed out. “Why not create a serious action plan about how you are going to accomplish what you want? ”

First, though, it is important to be realistic about what is likely to be achieved. The tendency toward unrealistic aspirations is common.

“We tend to think small goals are unimportant,” Mr. Platkin remarked.

New Year’s resolutions are a big topic, one that is touched on almost everywhere you turn.

The Web site for “Dilbert,” the comic strip set in the workplace, recently offered amusing remarks from fans in “Goals You’re Most Surprised You Achieved This Year.” One, in particular, underscored the futility of the grand, all-encompassing resolution: “I began 2001 with the thrill of hope — that I’d clean my house, get my finances in order, be professionally where I want to be. And I still have that thrill.”

It is Ms. Bourne’s experience that most people, mistakenly, go for broke. It’s not enough to shave off 10 pounds; it has to be 20 or 25. She urges her patients to cut their weight loss goals by half or even two-thirds right off the bat. Even a modest weight loss can improve health.

“If I were to say one thing — pick a tiny thing and start there,” Ms. Bourne said. “Add a string bean. Really ask yourself how much you are doing right now. If the goal you are setting isn’t close to that, then you are setting yourself up.”

The same holds true for exercise.

“Don’t go out and spend a lot of money on running shoes and a new outfit,” she said. “Go a half step beyond where you are.”

After setting a realistic goal, establish a plan of action, Ms. Bourne advised. “Exercise more” is a recipe for failure. “Walk down the block three times a week” is far more likely to become reality.

“You want to make it easy so you succeed,” Ms. Bourne said. “Then you pat yourself on the back.”

Ms. Bourne believes tracking sheets are a good aid to keeping on course.

“You can look back and not kid yourself,” she said. “Retro- spective memory has been shown to be inaccurate. It’s sort of like wishful thinking.”

Mr. Platkin recommends devising “excuse busters” to counter rationalizations for resolution breaking. You can’t exercise because the weather is bad? There’s always the exercise videotape.

Not all goals apply to weight or exercise, of course. But no matter what the category, being precise is a key to success.

Laura Cahill, who lives in Worcester, apparently had an innate understanding of that concept. She is 27 and had never before made a New Year’s resolution. She didn’t feel the need because she was always very organized. Now, she works full time as an art teacher and has two young daughters, one born in November.

“My life is completely crazy,” she said. “I just felt I needed an attainable goal.”

Mrs. Cahill’s resolution: keep up with family members’ birthdays and send gifts to nephews and nieces.

“I feel I have so little control over everything in my life — my job, my house, my kids. I feel like even doing that might be a challenge in itself,” she said.

Both Mrs. Cahill and Mrs. Gadaire would be encouraged to know that good intentions do count. Mr. Platkin said he was surprised to learn that studies dispute the notion that it is self-defeating to try and try again. He pointed to an article in the July 1999 issue of the American Psychological Association journal. It concluded that simply saying you want to do something is a step in the right direction and seems eventually to lead to some degree of accomplishment.

“Persistence matters,” Mr. Platkin said. “Research has shown that the more times you go back to your resolution, the greater the chance of success.”

For those who are having third-week troubles, Mr. Platkin offered a ray of hope. The cold and dark of winter is not the best time to try to make changes anyway. With the advent of spring, renewal takes wing.

Ms. Bourne has an idea that may make it all much easier.

“Try something new,” she said. “Try saying something nice to your spouse once a week. That may be much more than you are doing now. If you are working on self-esteem, say something nice about yourself once a week.”

Or, she suggested, resolve to take a long bath or watch a sunset.

Ms. Bourne said that of all the obstacles to change, the biggest one is habit, which is why it is helpful to consciously alter routine modes of behavior. A myth surrounding goals, she said, is that it is harder to change when you are older.

One thing is certain, the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon jolted many people in fundamental ways.

“I’m finding that I’m trying to be more focused and more appreciative of things,” said Mrs. Gadaire, who has four children and five grandchildren.

Even Mr. Platkin, whose career is centered on the subject of attaining goals, finally reached one of his own. Year after year, he said, he had resolved to uproot himself from Manhattan and spend the winter in Miami with his wife, whose modeling career takes her there after the holidays.

Two weeks ago, Mr. Platkin headed south.

“Sept. 11 was a key factor for me,” he said. “I asked myself, `When am I going to do this?’ I’ve been talking about it for four or five years, and I haven’t done it. Why? I said, `If you don’t do it now, when will you do it?’ ”