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The question

I've already failed at my New Year's resolution (to lose weight - I've caved to my dessert addiction and gained a pound since January 1). I can't stop kicking myself and feel like I will never be able to stop gaining. What can I do psychologically to help my willpower?

The answer

The start of a new year seems to be a perfect time to make changes in one's life. About half the population makes New Year's resolutions, with the most common resolutions relate to weight loss, exercising more, quitting smoking, and improving one's financial situation. However, research indicates that by July, the overwhelming majority of individuals fail in sticking to their resolution or even remember what they promised to resolve.

First of all, keep in mind that you are not alone in both making a resolution and feeling you have failed. Second – and much more importantly – you are taking a very extreme view in your belief that gaining two pounds represents failure of your goal! You simply don't yet have enough information to evaluate how you have done. So, you need to begin by putting the small amount of "weight gain" you have had in perspective, which likely amounts to nothing more than water retention.

Then, take the following steps to increase the likelihood of sticking to this, or any other resolution:

Pick an attainable goal

The goal should be something that, based upon the life you are living, is something that you can achieve.

Ensure that your goal is measureable. To change your goal, you will have to know where you are headed, and how to determine if you are getting/have gotten there.

Ensure the goal is realistic and time-limited. You may want to lose 30 pounds, but a realistic goal may be to lose 15 pounds this year and 15 pounds the following year. Set a specific period of time in which you will accomplish your goal. As you accomplish your time-limited steps, you can reward yourself for successes.

Remember that small change is better than no change. Get supports as you start to make the change.

Identify Barriers

Anticipate setbacks. If you have tried to make this change in the past, what got in the way of the change being successful before? Problem-solve the barriers that you have encountered in the past.

Identify the pros of not changing the behaviour (this can often help you appreciate why the change has not yet happened). Identify the cons of changing (the reasons the change may be difficult to do).

Establish a specific contingency plan for each of the barriers you identify.

Implement Change

Obtain a baseline of your behaviour. Track your usual activity for a week. This can often help you to identify patterns in your day and help identify times when it would be easier to implement the change.

Be aware of the powerful impact that conditioning plays in activity and behaviour. Actively work to change habits that you may have gotten into that are not conducive to achieving your goal.

Approach behavioural change gradually. Make small, specific changes.

Make a schedule with yourself to build the activity into your day-to-day life.

Revisit & Revise

Do not get discouraged by setbacks. If you are not on track with the changes you identified, work to identify the barriers. Were your expectations too high? Was the specific goal you set too ambitious?

Revise your goal as necessary.

Expect & visualize success.

Reward yourself: Set milestones that can help you track your progress. Ensure that you schedule in regular rewards for each milestone that you achieve.

Send psychologist Joti Samra your questions at She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

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The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.