New Year resolution stress reduction: Tackle the "yeah-buts"

Planning what you'll need to meet your New Year resolutions – and facing the "yeah-but" hurdles – is a simple way to increase success and decrease the stress of falling short. 

Evan Spindler, 7, wears 2013 glasses on New Year's eve 2012 during festivities in Scranton, Pa.

This time of year a lot of lists are written. Unfortunately, many of the same goals keep appearing on these lists year after year. They often include things that need to be done around the house, home improvement or organization projects. In conducting stress-reduction workshops, I noticed how frequently people mentioned the perennial unfinished project list as a source of stress.

Part of the problem in accomplishing the goal is that it appears at the top of the page. We often don't think about the fact that the item needs to be at the bottom of the page with dozens of steps preceding it. It's clearly not as simple as placing the item at the bottom of the page, but that act realizes the truth that the lack of accomplishment is not a character flaw, but a lack of planning. We are not just being lazy or procrastinating - more often we're missing a clear path to the goal.

This faulty thinking reminded me of a sampler I embroidered with the phrase, "Plan your work, then work your plan." Most people in the workshops had not really planned their work, even though they were making stabs at it.

From that observation I began including an activity in the stress-management workshops that focused on the process of planning one's work. It also recognized the importance of giving a name to all the little obstacles that are between the goal and its accomplishment. I titled the activity the yeah-but List and invited participants to work in pairs, but it is not a complicated exercise and can easily be done alone.

The directions are simple. First, write the goal at the bottom of a page, then start a series of yeah-but, all reasons that the specific task can't be done. Write each yeah-but down, working your way up to the top of the page by answering each yeah-but with another.

One participant shared her reappearing goal of getting the bathroom remodeled. It started with: "Get the bathroom redone." The first yabut: "Yeah-but I can't do that until I get the name of a good contractor." So, her partner wrote, "Get the name of a good contractor."

The next yabut: "Yeah-but I can't do that until I call my cousin's neighbor, she had a great outcome." And her partner wrote down, "Call my cousin's neighbor."

"Yeah-but I can't call her until I find the gardening book she loaned me." And her partner wrote down, "Find the gardening book."

The process continued with each yeah-but translated into a step. "Yeah-but I can't do that until I can get into the garage, where we stored all the books when we repainted the office. Yeah-but I can't do that until I get my son's car out of the way. Yeah-but I can't do that until I get the garage door fixed. Yeah-but I can't do that until I get the number of the garage-door installer."

The final step was, "Yeah-but I can't do that until I get online and find his number." The partner wrote down, "Get online and get the number!"

When the exercise was done, the woman had a list of steps to get her started. Little did she realize when she began the exercise that her bathroom remodel hinged on the phone number of the garage-door installer.

I don't know if the woman ever got her bathroom remodeled. I do hope that she and the other participants gained a new strategy for chipping away at the annual list by understanding that most accomplishments happen through dozens of baby steps, formerly viewed as obstacles.

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