It’s that time of year again! In addition to holiday shopping and grocery lists, we’re "supposed" to make a list of our New Year’s resolutions. As a therapist, I’ve always disliked this ritual because by the end of January, more than 80 percent of us either forget about the changes we’ve promised to make or lose our willpower to sustain them. Whether we realize it or not, resolutions often set us up to fail and can compromise self-worth: definitely not what we want to feel in January!
The New Year can be a great opportunity to reconnect with and clarify our values and priorities, but given the incredibly low success rate for giving up, modifying, or changing behaviors, the real focus should be on understanding why resolutions don't work. Instead, let’s ask what we can do to increase the likelihood of making our new coveted habits stick.
I’d like to suggest that rather than focusing on making-and then breaking- resolutions, the new goal is to become curious about our resolutions! This means a willingness to gain insight and self-awareness about the behaviors we think we want to change or let go of, while taking a closer look at whether our resolutions are effective. Honestly addressing these seven questions can be the true measure of accomplishment in the coming year.
1. Are you making a resolution to change for you or someone else?
Although it might seem very motivating at first, the truth is, wanting to let go of, modify, or change a behavior for someone else is initially energizing and then fizzles out really fast. In order to sustain true change you must have genuine, personal “buy in.” Unless you can identify how you’ll personally benefit and grow from those changes you’ll quickly lose your motivation. In addition, making changes for someone else can breed resentment, and that’s unfair to the other person as well as to you.
2. What will you gain if you sustain your resolution?
Here’s where you need to really look within and ask how realizing this goal (or set of goals) will impact your life. When you think about what awaits you at the finish line, is it worth it? Can you tangibly describe the benefits? When you identify the rewards, what do you feel? The realization of your resolution must conjure strong feelings of joy, pride, empowerment, self-worth or other meaningful and motivating emotions, or the changes probably won’t stick.
3. What will you lose if you keep to your resolution?
Believe it or not, it’s extremely important to recognize the losses associated with behavioral changes, even when those changes will improve your life. Give yourself the opportunity to honestly explore what you’ll be letting go of because giving up a long-standing behavior means you’re losing something you’ve been using to cope, self-medicate, numb, or create a distraction from other pain. Make sure you’re willing to get comfort and support in other ways or you may become vulnerable to "relapsing" into old habits.
4. What are the obstacles that have prevented you from keeping your resolution in the past?
As you look back on your history of resolution making, it’s helpful to understand the roadblocks, triggers, or vulnerabilities that compromised your goals. Sometimes those obstacles are inter-personal, environmental, or situational. Without judgment or shame try to identify what’s gotten in the way and consider a game plan to reduce or avoid the things that have compromised your focus and intentions in the past. It's not just about stating the resolution, it’s how you go about making it a reality that can make all the difference.
5. Are you making a resolution that is truly doable or setting yourself up to fail?
Most people believe if the goal is not big, it’s not worth making. And yet research shows that resolutions must be tangible, specific, and manageable in order to be realized. Vague goals such as ”I want to be happier, “ or “I’m going to lose weight” are impossible to measure because they aren't specific enough. Start small and set yourself up to succeed. Sometimes the best approach is to make “baby step” goals that can build on themselves. If you take enough baby steps the cumulative effect is a lot of movement.
6. How much support can you get from others as you attempt to keep your resolution?
When you let others know about your intentions and enlist their guidance and support throughout the process, you’re more likely to succeed. When you go it alone, it’s much harder to resist temptation or the desire to give up. Brainstorm with others about how they can help you stay on track. Give weekly updates of your accomplishments, no matter how small. Have personal “cheerleaders” send you encouraging text messages, e-mails, and voicemails. If you know you’ll be in a situation that’s tempting or will potentially compromise your goals, ask a friend to provide extra support so you stay strong. Or enlist their help in avoiding a situation that threatens your ability to realize your goals.
7. What two things could you do differently to increase the likelihood of sustaining your resolution?
I believe if something isn't working don't do it more and harder, do it differently. If you’ve been making the same resolution for years, think about how you can approach the goal differently this year. After answering the other questions, maybe you’ll realize this time around you’ll strengthen your network of support, make the goal smaller, or decide you need a different goal—one that accommodates your needs and best interests—not someone else’s. Come up with two concrete alternative approaches and you’ll be far more likely to succeed in the New Year!