"Change or Die," the Book, and Resolutions

I'm excited to let you know that I've expanded my May 2005 Fast Company cover story into a full-length book, "Change or Die," which goes on sale today in U.S. bookstores. I'll be blogging about "Change or Die" throughout the week. Today I'll look at what psychology tells us about how to stick to your New Years resolutions.

For starters you should realize that you're up against some really tough odds. Marti Hope Gonzales, a professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, found that six weeks into the new year, 80 percent of people have already broken their New Years resolutions or can't even remember them anymore.

One of the most common New Years resolutions is to go on a diet, and we all know that's hard, but it's still shocking to realize exactly how difficult: a National Institutes for Health study found that 97 percent of people who lose weight wind up gaining it all back within five years.

Of course, any kind of profound change is very challenging. The fact that got me started on this two-year project was that 90 percent of patients with severe heart disease fail to change their unhealthy lifestyles even after their doctors tell them that they're in a "change or die" situation.

What can we do to improve the odds and make those New Years resolutions stick?

Start by realizing that it's hard to do away with our "problems" when those "problems" are actually our attempted "solutions" to deeper issues. For example, you might think that overeating is your problem, and so your New Years resolution is to go on a diet and lose weight. But what if overeating is the way you try to solve more fundamental problems such as stress, anxiety, loneliness, and existential despair? Overeating is an "attempted solution" to those deeper troubles. It's a bad solution, because ultimately it can undermine or ruin your health. But it's the "solution" that you know and trust.

In this case the way to change is to find other, better solutions to the underlying problems of stress, anxiety, and loneliness. Instead of going on a diet, you might want to take up yoga or meditation, or to get more involved in a social group or church. Instead of going back to the same "solution" that has failed you year after year when you make New Years resolutions—in this case, dieting—why not try a new solution?

The paradox, of course, is that these new solutions don't occur to us because of how we've framed the problem to begin with.

If you're interested in looking further into these issues, please pick up a copy of my new book "Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life." I also strongly recommend the writings of Dr. Richard Fisch, a pioneering psychologist. Fisch hit upon this fascinating approach of reframing problems and solutions back in the 1960s along with his colleagues at the Brief Therapy Center in Palo Alto, where he still practices.

—Alan Deutschman