Well, we’re into the New Year now. For some of us, that’s almost enough time to notice small cracks beginning to appear in the boldly announced resolutions made in the midst of all those post-Christmas excess guilt pangs. When I was one of the volunteer run leaders at our local Y Marathon Clinic during the last century, we’d often hear such resolutions from the first-timers starting our training workouts at this time of year – something like “This is the year I’m finally going to quit smoking, lose 20 pounds and run a marathon!”
“Honey,” I would gently say to them: “Pick one!” .
A New Year can be a discouraging time for those living with chronic illness – and I blame those damned resolutions. Many adults make at least one resolution for self-improvement for the coming 12 months. By the second week of February, however, about 80 per cent of resolutions are abandoned, often replaced by the remorse of personal disappointment.
Chronic illness like heart disease throws a wrench into the best-intentioned resolutions. In the PURE study (Teo et al, JAMA, 2013), for example, researchers followed over 7,500 heart attack survivors in 17 countries. They found that:
• ♥ 48% of smokers continued to smoke
• ♥ 65% did not exercise
• ♥ over 60% did not improve their diet
• ♥ 14% had not adopted even one lifestyle improvement
This reality gives us lots of guilt-driven reasons every year to make big resolutions to do better.
One of my blog readers recently wrote that she ditched the word “resolutions” in favour of the term “self-care promises”. I like that. It has a kinder, gentler ring to it, and just maybe a higher likelihood of keeping those promises.
Regular readers already know how I feel about non-inspirational advice from motivational types, advice like “Follow your dreams! Reach for the stars! Eat more kale!“
The eternal question for me is this: can accomplishing small but still personally meaningful goals actually be better for our health and self-esteem than screwing up yet another list of big New Year’s personal improvement resolutions? And will success at small wins entice us to do even more?
The realization that true wins are not limited to heroic resolutions is also why I began to change the way I reward myself the shiny sparkly stickers I use to track my daily exercise. ←Here’s a picture of one of my old exercise calendar pages. When I first I hung up a little calendar on the inside of my bathroom cabinet door many Januarys ago, my plan was that each hour of exercise I was able to do on good days (such as walking, biking, weight training, gardening, hiking, Zumba classes, whatever) would earn a shiny sparkly sticker. (I find that the shiniest sparkliest ones work best as motivational awards!)
But on bad days, when the debilitating symptoms of my coronary microvascular disease diagnosis flare up, and when doing an hour of almost anything seems impossible, every blank calendar square staring out at me made me feel even worse.
So I changed my official sticker policy.
I started deliberately awarding myself a sticker for small accomplishments on a bad day. Even if I was barely able to manage only a slow 10-minute walk around the block, I got a shiny sparkly calendar sticker. You go, girl! Whoooop!
Why? Because those were the days I really deserved an extra pat on the back for even the briefest attempt, because what I had really wanted to do instead was to crawl back into bed and pull the covers over my head.
As I do every January, I’m starting a new sticker reward calendar – but instead of calling them resolutions, this project is called 52 Small Things. I learned about this a few years ago from The Mighty, an online health community for people living with chronic illness. Full disclosure: I’m a (very occasional) contributor to The Mighty – here or here, for example!
It’s important to remember that the kind of resolutions (oops, self-care promises) that sick people tend to make are very different than those of your average Peloton enthusiast – although this “pandemic-era stock darling” (as described by Forbes in late 2022) has itself been struggling lately with both declining sales and excess inventory. In fact, people who boast about their own successful dream-following, star-reaching, kale-eating achievements can often make us feel exhausted and inadequate instead of motivated.
But I digress: by comparison, the 52 Small Things project works like this:
“Ask yourself, ‘What’s one small thing I want to accomplish this week?’
“Keeping your things small simply makes them easier to do. Cleaning your entire house in a week seems overwhelming, but cleaning just one room or spending 10 minutes a day organizing a drawer is likely doable.”
I started my 52 Small Things list this past week. First on my list seems like a very small thing indeed for most people, but one that I’d been avoiding for years: “Sort Christmas decoration storage bins BEFORE packing them away.” I managed to get two big bins culled down to just one, and loaded the unwanted stuff into the car to donate to the local church thrift shop. A win-win! And a nice sparkly shiny sticker!
When one of my Heart Sisters readers started her own 52 Small Things exercise, she wrote:
“Allowing myself to celebrate mundane tasks — ones that healthy people may take for granted every day — allowed me to tackle increasing my wellness in very small increments. And it helped me look at the positive side of things, instead of always dwelling on the negative. It made me take pride in my ability, instead of feeling the shame of what I wasn’t able to do.”
That practical wisdom brings us to the type of goals we decide upon. Behaviour scientists tell us that the most effective goals are ones that move you toward a particular objective, rather than away from something you’re trying to avoid.
As I often remind myself, an avoidance goal (“Do this so you won’t get sick”) is far less effective than an approach goal (“Do this so you’ll feel better!) For example, I could decide to head out in the sunshine today for a brisk walk to help me ward off another heart attack (an avoidance goal) or I could go for a walk to enjoy the beautiful views off Beach Drive (an approach goal).
For many of us, it’s also all about small steps. And as the late tennis legend Arthur Ashe once advised:
“Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”
Q: What are your own “self-care promises” for 2023?
NOTE FROM CAROLYN: You’ll find much more about goal-setting for heart patients in my book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease” (Johns Hopkins University Press). You can ask for it at your library or favourite bookshop (please support your local independent booksellers) or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon – or order it directly from Johns Hopkins University Press (and use their code HTWN to save 30% off the list price when you order).