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Ask Us Anything About… New Year's Resolutions

For many people, a new calendar year sparks a new-found drive for self-improvement. But New Year's resolutions are easier broken than kept. We get tips on how to break bad habits — and start good ones — Dr. Carly Smith, a clinical psychologist at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

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Description – The video begins inside an office setting within the Department of Humanities at the Penn State College of Medicine. Two people are standing next to each other looking at the camera. From left to right is, Dr. Carly Smith and Scott Gilbert.

Scott Gilbert – From Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, this is Ask Us Anything About New Year’s Resolutions. I’m Scott Gilbert. Well, for many people the New Year sparks a new found sense of self-improvement. However, those New Year’s resolutions, many people find they’re more easily broken than kept. Now here to share some tips with us on how to break bad habits and start some good ones is Dr. Carly Smith. She’s a clinical psychologist here at the medical center. Thanks for making the time today.

Dr. Carly Smith – Sure.

Scott Gilbert – Let’s start by talking about those keys to setting a reasonable resolution because, you know, let’s face it. I think that that’s the first step in the process. You can’t keep a resolution that’s unattainable.

Dr. Carly Smith – Yeah, I agree with that. I think one of the things that people really struggle with is how to set their own resolutions instead of the ones that they hear a lot, you know, from their friends or on the news, and really choosing one that’s relevant to them.

Scott Gilbert – Mm-hmm. And kind of the societal pressures. They think, well, what does society want me to do versus what I want to do. Well, how can somebody kind of zero in on what’s appropriate for them? What’s the right resolution for them?

Dr. Carly Smith – Sure. Well, I think really looking at the areas of your life that are really not going the way that you want them to and figuring out if there are small kind of reasonable changes you can make that might move you closer to the direction that you want to be headed in. Things that are really important to your own values or who you want to be as a person. That’s a great place to look.

Scott Gilbert – And we’ll touch on an acronym in just a moment that maybe can help you set a resolution. But first I’m going to remind you you’re watching Ask Us Anything About New Year’s Resolutions from Penn State Health. Dr. Carly Smith welcomes your questions. Just add them to the comment field in the bottom of this Facebook post. Whether you’re watching this interview live here on Thursday or if you’re watching it on playback, we’ll track down some answers for you and we’ll add those as comments to the comment field as well. So Dr. Smith, I want to talk a little bit about that acronym, SMART. Now this is something that I think a lot of us who work in an office environment may know from a completely different setting, and that is annual evaluations. You set SMART goals. Stands for specific, measureable, achievable, relevant, and time bound. Let’s break that down a little bit.

Dr. Carly Smith – Sure.

Scott Gilbert – Let’s start with specific. What do we mean by setting a specific goal versus some sort of lofty one?

Dr. Carly Smith – Sure. Well, you know, all power to the people who choose a lofty goal, but they could still be specific. So you know, you often hear goals like I’m going to eat better or exercise more or drink less. You know, things like that. When we think about specific goals, we want to hear what exactly that looks like. So exercise more might be like I’m going to go for a walk every day, and that walk is going to be about 15 minutes long. And that’s a much more specific goal. And what’s cool about that is, you know when you hit it, so you have this ability to check it off the list. And like checking things off lists, that never gets like less fun even as we get older. It feels good.

Scott Gilbert – And the M in that acronym is measureable, which you just touched on. Fifteen minutes a day, that’s measureable. But you can’t just say I’m going to walk every day because that’s not measureable.

Dr. Carly Smith – Yeah, and measureable often, a really good way to think about that is you want it to be something you’re doing rather than something you’re not. Because if you can say that you’ve done it, it’s easy to king of track, yes, I’ve done this each day. And you know as soon as it’s happened rather than setting a goal that says, ok, I’m not going to eat junk food. You know, you kind of can’t get to that goal until the end of the day or the end of whatever time period you set. So measureable is often much better done in I can tell when it happens, not wait and wait and wait and wait. Ok, it didn’t happen.

Scott Gilbert – And when we talk about attainable, the A in that acronym, I guess that means not saying I’m going to lose 60 pounds in the next two months or something outrageous like that.

Dr. Carly Smith – Right. Yeah, and when it comes to weight loss, we have experts here that can set really attainable goals. I mean typically you hear the convention no more than a pound a week of weight loss. Your doctor might be able to tell you a body, you know, a percentage of your body weight. But when I think about attainable, I often think about what it is about your environment that’s going to make it possible. You know, so if I set the goal here in central Pennsylvania that I’m going to visit the ocean every day, that’s probably not attainable. It’s measureable.

Scott Gilbert – Yeah, good luck with that.

Dr. Carly Smith – Right, right. Yeah, I might not make it into the office as much. But so you want to kind of look at the types of things you have around you that might support you get closer to that goal or make it harder to do a behavior. And that is really a way to kind of take stock of what’s attainable.

Scott Gilbert – And when it comes to relevant, the R in the acronym SMART, I guess this goes back to what the right resolution is for you may not be the right one for me.

Dr. Carly Smith – Absolutely, yeah. The places that I’ve really seen people do wonderful things is when they set goals that have a really deep meaning to them. So you know, they want to be able to make it to a really meaningful event. They want to be able to run a race with a family member. And then they have this kind of meaningful experience that helps them continue to find motivation even when, you know, they might be having a crummy day or unexpected things are popping up that are really getting in the way of their plans that you can kind of look inside and say, ok, I’m really motivated to do this. And that relevance is something that other people probably can’t do for you. You have to know.

Scott Gilbert – Yeah, finding that inside of you. And time bound. What do we mean by time bound as opposed to when we talk about attainable or an achievable goal? What do we mean? I guess that involves, obviously, a period of time, but —

Dr. Carly Smith – Yeah. So time bound can be a place that actually helps you do more than you think you can. So a lot of times when people think about setting a resolution, it’s kind of implied that it’s forever. You know, I will start exercising and I’m going to do this forever. And that can be really daunting, especially when you’re trying to make changes to really ingrained habits. But if you can say something like, you know what? I’m going to do this new routine. I’m going to take a walk every day and I’m going to do it for a month, and then I’m going to see how I feel. And having this kind of understanding that, ok, this might be really hard, but it has an end point where I can take stock if it’s working. It makes it easier to do something harder.

Scott Gilbert – You’re watching Ask Us Anything About New Year’s Resolutions from Penn State Health. I’m Scott Gilbert alongside Dr. Carly Smith. She’s a clinical psychologist here. And we welcome your questions. If you’ve set a resolution and you think you might need to tweak it and you want to know how to do so, put a comment in the comment field here. Even just share your resolutions with us, too. I mean feel free to just type in the comment field and let us know what you’re resolving to do here in 2018. And that actually leads me to another question of accountability, too, by sharing your resolution with people, whether it’s in this Facebook post or even with friends, and kind of getting them involved. How can that help things?

Dr. Carly Smith – Well, I think it can be really helpful for a lot of people. I think one of the ways that you really have to know yourself in getting other people involved is know that for some people disappointing other people or feeling like other people know that they didn’t meet a goal, that can be so guilt inducing or embarrassing that it actually is not inspiring. It’s kind of counterproductive. But having people know your goals, and even a step further, knowing what they can do to encourage you is really helpful. The other thing that I might suggest in terms of knowing who you’re enlisting as your support is try to find people who will be impressed and supportive of your goals. So if I’m starting to, you know, develop a running habit, I might not want to join a group of, you know, seven-minute milers and try to keep up. You want to choose peers and sources of encouragement who are going to be impressed and supportive of what you’re doing.

Scott Gilbert – It goes back to attainable. Don’t say I’m going to run a marathon in February if it’s currently January.

Dr. Carly Smith – You know, for some people that’s an attainable goal. You know, if you’re already clocking 30 miles a week, go for it! Run that marathon in February. But it’s knowing what’s attainable for you in that case.

Scott Gilbert – Good luck to them. Sounds like a lot of effort to me. I don’t know, man, because I’m not that great of a runner. And we talked a little bit about the importance of making sure you choose something that’s something you want to change. How important is it also, though to make sure you cut yourself some slack? Because you know, we’re all going to occasionally let it slip. If we say I’m going to run every two days, we might let three days go by and not run. Does that mean resolution over? Probably not, right?

Dr. Carly Smith – Yeah. You know, I often talk with my patients about this. We set really specific behavioral goals, knowing full well that they might not happen. They might not achieve them. But you know, rather than get a case of, I guess, on this particular account, I might say the forget-its, we try to learn from those mistakes. When it didn’t go right, then there’s a ton of information there. Ok, you had the intention. What are the exact things that got in the way that derailed you? And those kind of failures are a huge source of information to do it better the next time or even achieve the goal the next time.

Scott Gilbert – And we talked about relying on peers and family, and you know, what about support groups? Are there, is that an option for people who are trying to either quit some habits or pick up others?

Dr. Carly Smith – Oh, absolutely. Yeah. Wisdom of the crowd and wisdom of your peers can be better than any, you know, doctor telling you you should do this. Having that support and having accountability is one thing. But really kind of working with people who are going through the same things can be incredibly validating and give you the source of motivation and sense that, ok, this is something that I can do. I know there’s other people working on it. It’s really valuable to have those peers.

Scott Gilbert – Even if at least just to show you I’m not alone in doing this. There are other people with the exact same plate.

Dr. Carly Smith – Yeah, absolutely.

Scott Gilbert – You’re watching Ask Us Anything About New Year’s Resolutions from Penn State Health. Dr. Carly Smith welcomes your questions. Just put them in the comment field below this Facebook post. And if you find this interview helpful and useful, as we hope you do, feel free to share it on your feed to help us reach even more people with it. Because, let’s face it, a lot of people trying to set resolutions this time of year. And I’ve heard that there’s been some research done about certain amounts of time, that if you keep a resolution or if you stick with a habit, then the likelihood that you’ll stick with it for another six months, five years is a little higher. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Dr. Carly Smith – Yeah, so there’s a pretty broad range of timeframes supported by research. You know, some say as little as two weeks. Some say it’s, you know, closer to two months. And what I would suggest is to kind of take this idea that, you know, making a new behavior a habit is the goal. I would suggest taking that idea maybe a little lightly because a lot of times the things that we do in our lives that are most effective, it’s not because they’re automatic or just kind of ingrained and we do them without thinking. We kind of have to choose them over and over again. Like I choose not to raid the pastry case at Au Bon Pain every morning. I choose that every morning. And so having this idea that it’s automatic, it’s cool. It does make things stick in kind of adjusting your environment to make a behavior more likely or perhaps take less, you know, resistance to overcome an old habit. That’s great. But in terms of making a behavior automatic as the end goal, I don’t know that that’s always necessarily the right way to think about it.

Scott Gilbert – If a patient comes to you and is in total frustration, just like I just, I can’t quit smoking or I can’t do this. I just can’t. They just use that word can’t over and over again. What do you offer? How do you try to encourage them? How do you try to get them back on track toward their goal?

Dr. Carly Smith – Yeah. Well, so probably the first thing I would say to a patient like that is like that’s, it certainly seems the case that you haven’t been able to. We can look at your behavior, and you’re right. You’re still smoking and you don’t want to be. And so letting go of this idea of I can’t, there’s some kind of inborn quality of me that I will always be a smoker and this is who I am. The first step is kind of letting go of that and looking at the behavior as one that is supported by some sort of reinforcement in the environment. Something about the behavior is pleasurable or gets rid of a negative feeling. And really just approaching it like two scientists working together. What are the variables that lead to this behavior? How can we change them that maybe the behavior changes? And really starting from there. I mean the first step of really making any type of change is having some sense of hope that it’s possible. And I often tell my patients that like I’m totally willing to be the only one who has hope, at least in the beginning. I expect them to carry some of the hope eventually, but I’m totally fine to carry all of it in the beginning.

Scott Gilbert – When it comes to picking up a new good habit such as exercise, it seems a lot of that must come down to time management. But what’s your advice for people for time management when we seem to be surrounded by what many consider to be a culture of busy?

Dr. Carly Smith – Yeah. Yeah. Well, I mean it is kind of being realistic about what the demands on your time are. So if you’re setting this goal of exercising every morning at, you know, 6 a.m. but you’ve got three kids to get up and get on the bus and that’s exactly when they’re kind of all roaming around the house. Like it’s being realistic about what part of your time is truly manageable versus what kind of belongs to other people or might be taken, you know, taken in a direction you didn’t intend. Certainly setting goals that can be worked into a busy day is really helpful because a lot of people, for example, you know, with habits like exercise or meditation, they have this really strict image of, ok, exercising is only exercising if I go to a gym for an hour and that’s the way exercising looks. And being able to be flexible about what that actually means and how it could fit into a busy day.

Scott Gilbert – And maybe it’s walking the dog in the morning.

Dr. Carly Smith – Oh, absolutely. Yeah, the dog would certainly be happy about that.

Scott Gilbert – Absolutely. Yeah, it would be a resolution for the dog, for two of you. You’re watching Ask Us Anything About New Year’s Resolutions from Penn State Health. What is your resolution? What have you resolved to do in 2018? Go ahead and add that to the comment field below this Facebook post or even your questions for Dr. Smith here as we begin to bring things a bit to a close. I guess is there such thing, do you ever run into patients who try to set too many resolutions? That is I’m going to quit doing this, this, and this, and at the same time I’m going to start exercising. I’m going to start eating better and it’s all going to happen in one year.

Dr. Carly Smith – Yeah. I do. I do run into that at some time or at some points. And what I’m on the lookout for there is the, and I share this with the patients that have those types of long goal lists is, you know, you only keep doing the things that are reinforcing in some way. And so if you’ve got this laundry list of things and you’re only hitting, you know, 5% of them on any given day, it’s just the rest of them are going to fall by the wayside. And having that long list tells me that they’re ambitious and they’re motivated and they’ve got lots of energy and hope about changing. And if we could funnel that into one or two of those goals, nail those, then we can go back to the list. Like you don’t always have to do all of them at once.

Scott Gilbert – Exactly. Setting priorities. Very good advice. As we wrap things up here, any parting advice for people? Anything we didn’t touch on that you want people to know as they go charging into 2018 with their resolutions?

Dr. Carly Smith – Sure. Yeah, you know, we treat January 1st like it’s this magical day where we get re-set. But like your body and your habits, they don’t know what date it is.

Scott Gilbert – It’s artificial, right? It’s an artificial deadline.

Dr. Carly Smith – Yeah, I mean I often approach a new year with new hope. But I started doing something different, made a resolution for myself and I started December 30th. And then I wandered away for a little bit and then I did it again. Like you can start and stop and restart. There’s nothing magical about that date. So hey, you know, it’s, we’re into the first week of the new year. It’s totally fine to start a new resolution at this point.

Scott Gilbert – It’s like be flexible and forgiving and don’t just view it as, well, that’s broken. I guess I’ll have to wait until January 1st, 2019, and then I’ll try it all over again. We have a question from Alicia. She’s asking Dr. Smith when trying to do something new so you find rewards or punishments are more effective in actually getting people to change. I think she’s asking do you find rewards or punishments are typically more effective in getting people to actually change.

Dr. Carly Smith – Oh, yeah. It’s punish, I’m just kidding. It’s punishment through and through, just kidding. It’s rewards. It’s very often people have this kind of punishment mentality of like, oh, I messed up. You know, I’m such a loser. Letting that stuff go is so helpful. We respond, all humans and that dog who likes to be walked as well, we respond so much better to rewards. And knowing what is rewarding for you that makes the behavior more likely, that is like half the battle I would say.

Scott Gilbert – What about putting that reward on the calendar, right? Like ok, if I run three times this week I’m going to get ice cream on Saturday.

Dr. Carly Smith – That might be an interesting goal. Maybe like a low-fat ice cream.

Scott Gilbert – Oh, if I must.

Dr. Carly Smith – Yes, indeed. But yeah, having your reward be something that actually is meaningful and feels like a celebration to you. For a lot of people it’s, there’s apps that are about tracking and like scoring points. That is really reinforcing to some people. That doesn’t really do it for me. So knowing what it is that really makes something rewarding. It’s great.

Scott Gilbert – It only figures, right? New Year’s resolutions, there’s an app for that.

Dr. Carly Smith – Yeah. Oh, there’s many apps for it.

Scott Gilbert – Many, many. Dr. Carly Smith, thanks for your time today.

Dr. Carly Smith – Sure. Thank you.

Scott Gilbert – Good talking with you. Dr. Smith is a clinical psychologist here at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. I thank her for her time and we thank you for yours in watching Ask Us Anything About New Year’s Resolutions from Penn State Health.

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