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Faced with the dawn of a new year, people tend to fall into one of two camps: those who seize the opportunity to set New Year’s resolutions, and those who don’t. Both have common sense on their side.

On the one hand, the New Year provides us with an opportunity for a fresh start. It’s a time when many of us are naturally inclined to define new goals and establish new habits. On the other, the whole tradition of resolutions can be seen as a diabolical setup for failure.

We conjure big dreams and want to launch our resolutions with gusto. But we’re generally no better equipped on January 1st than we were on December 31st to reform our way of living, which is why even those who are initially inclined to set resolutions may find the prospect of actually achieving them much tougher than they had hoped.

In past years’ Resolutions Workshops, we’ve focused on helping those who were inspired to set resolutions develop the plans, skills and perspectives they need to succeed. This year, we decided to do something a little different and more intensely action-oriented. Knowing that our past years’ workshops are all available to you in the archives (just search on “Resolutions”), and knowing that some of you are in the mood to start creating change NOW, we skipped past the strategic stuff and went straight for something so immediately achievable that even those who don’t set resolutions might be inclined to give it a try.

No big, long-term commitments. No daunting promises of personal reformation. Just the opportunity to create positive change in discrete, simple steps — and in the process, to develop the kind of energy and optimism that can help you succeed in much
bigger ways.

“When you have small, achievable goals, they become choices that you can sign up for each and every day,” says M. J. Ryan, author of AdaptAbility: How to Survive Change You Didn’t Ask For. “The next day, you look back and you say, ‘That was pretty easy. Let’s try it again.’”

What Ryan is talking about is self-efficacy — the sense of confidence we have in our ability to accomplish what we set out to do. Building self-efficacy, which in turn builds positivity, motivation and resilience — is one of the most powerful ways to expand our sense of personal potential and achieve our life goals.

Ready to get started? Below we’ve assembled a year’s worth of practical, right-now action steps that can help you with one or more of the three most common resolutions areas: being more active, eating more wisely and managing your money more effectively.

If your resolution area of choice isn’t included here, use these ideas as inspiration to create similar types of action steps appropriate for your goals. The only requirement is that you check in regularly and show up fully with whatever measures of motivation you are able to cultivate on any given day.

For best results, make this an interactive experience right from the start:

  1. Print this article  and post any relevant pages on your fridge or bulletin board to help you stay focused and inspired.
  2. First review the entire list of action items, highlighting any ideas that seem relevant and that you are willing to try.
  3. On a small piece of paper or Post-It Note, write the phrase “I am willing to . . .” Post the note, along with this list, where you’ll see it daily.
  4. At every opportunity, scan the list and mentally fill in the “I’m willing to” blank with one thing you are willing to do that day, or at that very moment.
  5. Start actually doing these things. Make check marks next to each of the items as you do them, repeating ideas that work for you and abandoning those that don’t.

Aim to accomplish one or more items a day.

Keep this process going for just one week and you’ll start feeling a surge of new energy and excitement. Keep it up for a month and you’ll have established a healthy new habit — the habit of doing something good for yourself each and every day.

We’ve intentionally selected quick and easy steps so you can choose to do them on the fly, swap one for the other at the last minute, squeeze in one more before bed, or rotate a variety of options in and out of your daily routine. We figure that even if you don’t feel like working one resolution area on a given day, you might be willing to take action on another. And inciting action is what this year’s Resolutions Workshop is all about. So let’s get started!

Get Active

“People often think of exercise as something you do in different clothes, in different places, and where you’re required to be sweating and out of breath,” says Edward Phillips, MD, an assistant professor in Harvard’s department of physical medicine and rehabilitation; director of Active Doctors, Active Patients; and coauthor of ACSM’s Exercise Is Medicine. “But that’s just one piece of it. There is also lifestyle exercise, where you decide to park on the far end of the lot, and engineered exercise, where you take a little more time to plan out your day to add activity, like deciding to ride your bike to work.”

If you already work out regularly, good for you. If not — or just not as much as you’d like — here are some super-convenient ways to build more activity into your life:

Make movement the first thing in your day. Spend a few minutes moving your body just after waking up. To try: 1) Keep an exercise mat by your bed (so it is the first thing you see when you arise) and get in five minutes of stretching or calisthenics (think pushups, sit-ups, jumping jacks or yoga) before you shower. 2) Do calf raises while you brush your teeth. 3) Do some kettlebell swings or exercise-band resistance moves while your coffee is brewing.

Make TV time workout time. Keep your fitness equipment — a stability ball, a jump rope, hand weights — near the TV. Give yourself a fitness goal for every commercial break. For example: 10 pushups, 10 crunches, 10 squats. Or, assume and hold a plank position for one or more 30-second ads.

Do cardio cleaning. Make a point of maximizing the fitness potential of housework by doing it at warp speed, lifting and moving all the furniture before you vacuum, then moving it back afterward.

Take the bus. Americans who use public transit spend an average of 19 minutes per day walking to and from their stop. If you’re already taking public transport, boost your activity level by getting off one stop earlier than your regular stop and walking the extra block or two.

Take the stairs — two at a time. Skipping steps — particularly if you do it quickly, substantially increases both your strength and cardio effort. So does running the stairs rather than walking them. Post a reminder like “Hop to it!” on your home stairways that encourages you to climb them with more gusto.

Do double duty. Instead of meeting friends for happy hour, see if they want to chat while walking around the park. Meeting with a coworker over lunch? Suggest walking to a nearby restaurant and talking on the way. Also, never sit for a phone conversation when you can stand, pace — or better yet, do walking lunges. Invest in a headset so you can move freely while you talk.

Build in fitness breaks. Set up three schedule reminders — one every two hours or so — to go off during your workday. When the alarm sounds, get up and move your body for just five minutes. You can jog around the building, run a few flights of stairs, lift and lower your chair — whatever gets your heart (and metabolism) pumping.

Pull your own weight. Install a pull-up bar in a doorway. If you’re not yet able to do a pull-up, start by jumping to the “up” position and just hanging, then work up to lowering yourself as slowly as you can.

Take a one-song run. Make a special playlist of a few favorite gotta-move songs on your MP3 player, and on days when you think you “don’t have time to exercise,” commit to doing just a one-song (usually lasting about three minutes) or two-song cardio workout. It’s short enough to feel doable, but long enough to let you say you did something.

Stretch yourself. On days you don’t feel like getting sweaty, or when you just don’t have enough energy for a full-on workout, put on some low-key music and do a whole-body stretch routine instead. For more on how and why, read “Stretch and Reach: The Unexaggerated Truth About Stretching”.

Grease the gears. When moving feels out of the question, make yourself a cup of tea and spend some time reading a fitness-oriented magazine, listening to a motivational podcast or watching a how-to fitness video. Who knows — you might just end up discovering an exercise or technique you feel like trying, or at least stoking your motivation for tomorrow.

Write it down. On the days you do exercise (even if it’s just a little), log what you did and how it felt. On the days you don’t exercise at all, log that too — and note the patterns that led to your not being willing or able to exercise. Afterward, take three deep breaths of gratitude for the body you have and three more deep breaths while visualizing yourself in the act of joyfully being active. Associating positive thoughts and emotions with exercise — even when you don’t exercise — can help break down resistance and build motivation.

Eat Smarter

If you’re going to make one resolution this year, let it be that you will NOT go on a diet. Instead, simply make a point to include more whole foods in your daily fare. This is one of the best ways to support your health and fitness goals — including weight loss — and to improve both your mental and physical vitality, says John La Puma, MD, author of ChefMD’s Big Book of Culinary Medicine.

“Whole foods have just the right mix of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients to effectively nourish your body,” says La Puma, whereas “diet foods” often contain synthetic compounds the body isn’t able to process — and that can wreak havoc on weight-loss efforts. (For more on whole foods and weight loss, see “Weight-Loss Rules to Rethink”.) A bonus: When you eat plenty of healthy, whole foods, your receptivity to exercise will increase and your cravings for less healthy foods will naturally subside. Here’s how to do it without feeling deprived or demoralized.

Load up on water. Drink one glass first thing upon waking, one before lunch and one before retiring to bed. Keep a water bottle with you during the day and sip while you work, drive and work out. For extra credit, mix one glass of water with a couple teaspoons of psyllium husk fiber (unless you know it disagrees with you). Shake or stir to mix, then down it fast. Upping your water and fiber intake helps curb hunger, improves elimination and substantially enhances vitality.

Eat breakfast. Most experts say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and it’s also tailor-made for more whole foods. Eggs pair brilliantly with most veggies (try fresh or sautéed tomatoes, zucchini or dark greens) and also with canned black beans, kidney beans or cannellini beans. Berries are great on cereal or yogurt, but when they are out of season, chopped apples and pears are equally delicious. Frozen fruits are always a nutritious option for smoothies, and you can easily toss in a few frozen cauliflower florets or carrot slices or even a few tablespoons of low-sodium white beans without appreciably changing the flavor or texture. Experiment with other veggies, seeds and nuts to see what works for you.

Pack snacks. Before you leave the house, fill a snack-size bag or container with some kind of healthy snack: hardboiled eggs, hummus and veggies, protein shake, an apple and cheese, sardines and whole-grain crackers, nuts and seeds — whatever will nourish you through an energy slump.

Set a timer. Eating before you get really hungry can keep you from bingeing on vending machine treats or fast food when hunger hits full force. Set a timer on your computer or download a scheduling app (like UltraTimer) for your smartphone that reminds you to eat a healthy snack regularly (say, every two to three hours).

Rethink your ratios. When you are headed out for dinner or grabbing takeout for lunch, find ways to add more of the good stuff. Getting a burrito? Ask for half the usual amount of white rice and double the green peppers and onions. On a salad, have the restaurant reduce the amount of croutons and double the garbanzo beans. At dinner, ask them to go light on the fried potatoes and heavy on dark greens. You can follow this rule at home, too: Most recipes can accommodate double the amount of veggies suggested, and you can always reclaim some of the plate space typically filled by starches and fill it with vegetables instead. For more ideas, read “Role Reversals”.

Add “just one more.” When you make your usual smoothie, toss in one extra fruit, veggie (spinach, tomato and zucchini all work well), handful of nuts or seeds, or a bit of raw ginger. Layer one more vegetable on top of homemade pizza or pasta (think zucchini, peppers, sliced tomatoes, arugula). Tuck cucumbers, sliced zucchini, shaved carrots, sprouts, fresh herbs or dark leafy greens into your sandwiches and wraps. A homemade pot of soup can always use more veggies.

Go herbal. Fresh herbs pack a surprising nutritional punch and unbeatable flavor. They will keep well in a glass of water in your fridge (or better yet, grown in pots on a sunny windowsill year-round), so you can add handfuls to almost any meal. Top soups with chervil, or salsa with cilantro. Toss fresh dill or chives into a mixed green salad. Add fresh basil, savory, marjoram or parsley to soups and pastas; mint to smoothies; rosemary, oregano or sage on roasted meats; thyme on eggs and veggies.

Back off on bread. Make more room for vegetables by eating your sandwich open-faced and replacing the top piece of bread with a big swath of romaine lettuce, a pile of sprouts or a few planks of cucumber. Or try some bread alternatives: Pan-toast Kavli (thin rye crackers) or whole-kernel rye bread (the super-dark, thin-sliced “sport bread” type) in a little olive oil. If you like, melt a light sprinkling of grated Parmesan cheese onto the surface in the process, then remove from heat and layer on veggies and other toppings. You’ll end up eating less bread and need far fewer heavy fillings for flavor.

Go color crazy. Just say no to white, brown and beige meals. Insist that every meal include at least two brightly colored items. Think orange (carrots, orange peppers, yams, sweet potato, cantaloupe, pumpkin, squash, papaya), red (tomato, red peppers, berries, beans), purple (cabbage, turnips, grapes, rutabagas, radishes) and, of course, green (kale, chard, spinach, arugula, fresh herbs). Start shopping with the two-color rule in mind.

Cast your memory back. Recall a time when you were eating at your healthiest and resuscitate a habit that was working for you then (e.g., eating a good breakfast, bringing your lunch, skipping soda or coffee, etc.).

Master Your Money

The process of learning to spend and save more responsibly needn’t be one defined by drudgery and sacrifice. “Yes, you’ll have to make choices,” says Jean Chatzky, author of The Difference: How Anyone Can Prosper in Even the Toughest Times. “But that doesn’t mean you have to give up everything that makes you happy.”

On the contrary, consciously managing your finances is really an exercise in making sure you have the resources for what matters most. Here are some smart, simple ways to get started:

Make your values visible. There are probably a lot of good reasons you want to have your money life in order: peace of mind, integrity, freedom, abundance, and the well-being of your partnership and family. Write these things down along with any other values you consider of core importance. Keep a copy in your wallet or your checkbook, wrapped around your credit cards, by the computer, or wherever else you will be triggered to look at it before you spend money. Prior to making any purchase, read through the list, breathe deeply and get clear about whether the purchase is aligned with your values. If it is, take satisfaction in that. If it’s not, take the opportunity to reconsider.

Practice non-grasping. Learning to separate the feeling of desire from the feeling of “must have” is both an important spiritual and an essential financial practice. Notice that you can enjoy seeing, admiring and even desiring something beautiful or valuable without actually possessing it. Celebrate the feeling of freedom that comes with that.

Keep a wish file. If you see an item you can’t easily pass by, or have a desire for a particular item you can’t get out of your head, rip out the ad, take a picture or write a brief description of it, and place it in a file folder labeled “Wish List.” Go through the file monthly or whenever you pay bills, weeding out the items that have drifted from your radar or priority list in the interim. Any item that holds its space in the file for more than a few months may rise to the level of things worth saving for. Save enough, and the item is yours.

Wait it out. Before you make any impulse purchase, give yourself a one-day cooling-off period, adding one day for every $100 in cost. If you want to buy a $300 pair of boots, for example, wait three days.

Make space for your finances. Create a physical space in your home where you can pay your bills, balance your checkbook, review account debits and complete associated filing tasks. Clear off a desk, kitchen counter, bookshelf or other appropriate space, and designate it as “the official place to manage money.” In addition to securing any supplies you need (such as postage, stapler, pens, files), place something appealing in the space, such as a small picture of something you’re saving for, or a plant, candle or object you find beautiful or inspiring. Commit to spending just five minutes a day here (after dinner but before evening projects or entertainment is a good time) reviewing your expenditures and goals, paying bills, filing paperwork, or just keeping the space clutter-free. This small investment of time and energy can transform your relationship with your money in a powerful way.

Book your bills. Gather up your current monthly bills and past statements showing when payments are due and when automatic deductions take place. Using a computer calendaring system or blank calendar, note the date that each bill or payment is due, and the amount. Next, look for ways to group certain payment dates together (by paying some bills early or requesting alternate due dates) so you can accomplish all your bill-paying activities on select days of the month (just after paydays, for example). Write those consolidated bill-paying dates into your regular calendar, or set them up as recurring events in your electronic scheduling device. Write the amount, date paid and check number, if applicable, on each individual statement when you pay your bills. File statements by vendor or expense type in chronological order, most recent on top.

Chart your progress. Visual aids help you see and celebrate financial progress. Draw a thermometer on a big piece of poster board, put your current debt balance at the very bottom and $0 at the very top with hundred-dollar increments marked in between. Every time you make a payment, color in an appropriate portion of the thermometer, starting at the bottom and working your way up. Display the poster board somewhere where you will see it often and be reminded of — and encouraged by — your progress. Soon, you might find yourself upping the amount and frequency of your payments just to watch the “temperature” in your financial thermometer rise.

Make micropayments. In addition to the base payments you make each month, submit small, online payments every time you skip a latte, cruise past a tempting retail display or bring a bag lunch to work. Most credit cards will accept up to one payment a day. You can track these micropayments by writing them down on your statements as you go, or let them add up as a “surprise” extra payoff you assess and celebrate at the end of the month.

Cash it out. Budget how much money you think you will need (or can comfortably afford) this week and then withdraw that amount in cash. Enjoy the feeling of being flush for as long as you can. Notice what makes the cash dwindle. When the cash is gone, stop spending!

Give yourself a gift. If there is someplace you regularly frequent (perhaps a coffee shop or a bakery near work) and you’re having trouble giving up your daily trip, buy yourself a weekly or monthly gift card to help you pace yourself without denying yourself completely. Shelling out a larger lump sum (a daily latte habit will cost you about $20 a week — which registers as more than $3 a day) will be a wake-up call about how much you are actually spending and may encourage you to be more discerning about how often you frequent the store.

Buddy up. Connect with your partner or a trusted friend daily or weekly to go over your expenses together and discuss both positive and negative patterns, progress toward savings or debt-payoff goals, and so on.

Use your imagination. What’s one other way you could spend more wisely or save more effectively? For ideas, see “Out From Under: Escaping the Burdens of Debt Stress” in the March 2009 archives.

Just the Beginning

Taken alone, none of these steps is outrageously ambitious, yet the collective power of combining such daily actions and choices is astonishing. And once you’re into the swing of making modest shifts like those presented here, you can devise similar small steps for any goal, from teaching yourself to cook or play a new instrument to breaking into a new career field.

Just be as specific as you can about the goal you wish to achieve, then brainstorm some small, simple steps you could take right away — daily or weekly — toward that goal. Find a way to visibly track and document your progress and keep yourself focused on the actions that make a difference. Before long, you will be building unstoppable momentum and reaping rewards that once seemed out of reach.

As you move toward your goals, make sure you glance behind you every once in a while and acknowledge your incremental gains, whether it’s through miles walked, pounds lost or debt diminished. “Notice and celebrate your success over time,” advises Ryan. “Use it as the motivation you need to keep on going.”

The “I Can Do It” Factor

When Henry Ford quipped that “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re probably right,” he wasn’t just talking about achieving the impossible; he was essentially defining the idea — and benefits — of self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy is the belief we have about our own ability to accomplish a task or goal. Typically, we base our beliefs about what we are capable of doing on what we’ve accomplished in the past. If you think you’ve got what it takes to train for and run a marathon, you enjoy a high level of self-efficacy — probably because you’ve already taken on and accomplished other challenging goals.

If you don’t feel confident that you can wake up a half hour earlier each morning to meditate, it’s a sign of low self-efficacy — perhaps because you’ve tried unsuccessfully to embrace such changes, or because you’ve simply never set this type of goal. Studies suggest that those with high levels of self-efficacy are more likely to achieve their academic, athletic and creative aims.

So how do you build your own self-efficacy? By starting and accomplishing small tasks, and by setting and achieving modest goals.

These acts build the confidence and positive energy that empower you to take on bigger challenges and goals. If you can’t summon the energy to take on even a small goal, it may be that you first need to work on building your energy and positivity. You can do this by reflecting on your areas of strength and success, by taking stock of the things you’re grateful for, or by simply doing things you enjoy. Researchers have discovered that positive emotions of all kinds function as a “go” signal in the brain, building our inclination to participate, ideate and take action. Learn more in ”A Real Pleasure”.

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