New Year's Resolutions: why we make them, why we break them, and how to make them stick
The beginning of a new year is often a time when we think about change. The idea of a fresh start and a new year creates space for each of us to reflect on what we want to keep (or ditch) from the previous twelve months as well as what we hope to move toward in the coming year. Whether it is setting goals around our health and fitness or recommitting to friendships, on January 1st it can feel as though everyone is making and broadcasting their New Year's resolutions. The problem? For most of us, this whole "new year, new me" mindset often does not stick beyond January. Let's look at a few of the main reasons we break our resolutions and how we can set intentions that stick.
Problem 1: unrealistic resolutions
Many of us set goals that are so far away from our current behavior that they are simply unrealistic. This does not mean that we can not ever attain them. It does mean that we cannot attain them right now. If I rarely cook and typically eat take-out for most meals, I'm not going to start meal prepping all of my lunches and preparing healthy gourmet dinners each evening simply because it is January 1st. Furthermore, if I expect myself to do a complete turnaround and suddenly cook three meals per day, I will struggle (maybe even fail), I will feel frustrated, and I will likely give up.
The solution? Leave some wiggle room for growing pains. Instead of setting the goal to cook three meals per day, set the goal to prepare one new recipe per week. Allow yourself space to be human and maybe struggle a bit on your way toward attaining your goals. Slowly incorporate new behaviors in specific ways. Measure your progress and notice what you are enjoying about your new routines. Continually increase the frequency of your new behavior, while not ever setting the expectation of doing something "perfectly" or 100% of the time. Expect yourself to do well and try to avoid being overly critical when you find yourself struggling or slipping up along the way. Behavior exists on a spectrum, perfection and failure are at the extremes, most of what we do falls in that messy in between area known as good enough!
Problem 2: vague or general resolutions
Very often our resolutions are too vague for us to feel a sense of progress. Goals such as "I'm going to get healthy this year," "I'm going to go to the gym more," or "I'm going to spend more time with my friends" make it difficult for us to track or measure our behavior. When we can't assess our behavior in relation to our goals we do not feel a sense of accomplishment or progress. If we are going to achieve any goal, it is essential for us to experience positive reinforcement or a sense of accomplishment along the way. The positive feedback loop of concrete data which confirms our progress is what helps us to maintain motivation.
The solution? Specific intentions and short-term, easily attained goals. Instead of "I'm going to go to the gym more," start with a goal of going to the gym or taking an exercise class once or twice a week for the month of January. Building on the idea of flexibility and room for growing pains, don't expect yourself to start out by doing a new behavior 100% of the time. Even folks who already have that behavior established as a habit do not follow through with it all of the time, no one is perfect. Pay attention to your behavior, notice your progress, and celebrate achieving your goal. After you achieve it, set another goal, maybe you exercise three times each week for the month of February. The feeling of consistent progress and goal attainment will help to instill a sense of accomplishment that will help to maintain motivation.
Problem 3: lack of support
Making change is hard, doing it alone is even harder. Many of us put the pressure on ourselves to figure it all out on our own. The truth is that humans are social beings and any of us feel better when we are recognized for our accomplishments and we receive positive feedback from those who are important to us. Why do you think Instagram and Facebook are so popular? When we don't feel noticed for our hard work it is difficult for us to feel as though we and our efforts matter. It is nearly impossible to make up that deficit in positive self-talk.
The solution? Share your intention with someone close to you, a therapist, partner, or best friend. You don't need to broadcast your resolution to the internet if that isn't your style, but you do need someone to check in on how you are doing, provide support when the change feels hard, and celebrate your accomplishments. Sure, a solo celebration dance party is fine, but sharing the joy of accomplishing goals with others provides the sort of social reinforcement we all need to be able to feel a return on our investment of time, energy, and effort.