Making New Year's Resolutions Work for You
Originally Published in Psychology Today.
To Make Your Resolutions Feel Successful, Consider Tailoring Them to Suit You.
As 2017 fades away and 2018 glimmers up ahead, most of us will soon hear this question pop up in conversation, if we haven’t heard it already:
“Do you have a New Year’s resolution?”
- Shed a few pounds
- Grow as a person or enhance your life in some way
- Kick that smoking habit
- Have more adventure
- Carve out more quality time with loved ones
- Devote more time to exercise
- Gain knowledge or master a new skill
- Be kinder and more generous to people
- Meet that special someone
- Obtain more enjoyable and rewarding work
Of course, you may not relate to this. A lot of Americans either rarely make resolutions or they don’t make them at all. But regardless of whether you relish resolutions or you scoff at the idea of such foolishness, there’s actually reason to give New Year’s resolutions another peek.
Surprisingly, the act of marking the start of a new year can inspire us to change. According to a 2015 study, specific benchmarks in time (like our friend, New Year’s Day) allow us to give ourselves a fresh start. Other examples include a birthday or an anniversary, or a milestone in life such as a wedding, a birth, a significant move, or a major career achievement. These sorts of time markers stoke the fires in our belly to make a change for the better. Why? Because as we pass over such a threshold in time, we’re able to create some distance between who we were in the past and who we are today. When we see our current self as new and distinct from our prior self–you know, the one with all those flaws and bumbles–we feel more capable of marching forward and taking on new goals and challenges.
“The old me couldn’t eat more fruits and vegetables, but this me can.”
Now here’s where we come to a thorny spot with New Year’s resolutions. Only eight percent of people manage to pull them off. Perhaps this is why a lot of folks don’t make them. After all, why bother setting ourselves up for failure? Who needs that?
But let’s slow down a minute and think about why so few people reach their New Year’s ambitions? Is it because resolutions simply don’t work, or is the problem how we’re approaching them?
Arguably, many of us tackle resolutions with a plan that looks something like this:
- Make a solemn promise to ourselves to change
- Harness all of the motivation and good intentions we have
- Hope for the best
And although this can work for some, this doesn’t work for all or even most of us. Essentially, we’re trying to mold ourselves to fit our resolutions. So I have a proposal for 2018:
Let’s flip resolutions upside down and design them to suit us.
Now how can we do that? How can we boost our chances of looking back on 2018 with a gratified smile as we realize that we made our resolutions work for us for a change and actually feel successful? Here are a few tips:
- Aim for the goodies along the way instead of the one at the destination.
Resolutions often have a long-term goal in mind, such as wanting to be more physically fit, to stop smoking for good, to live a happier and more loving life, or to enjoy a more fulfilling career path. And even though these far-off goals spur us to begin the journey required to reach them, a 2017 study reveals that they’re not enough to help us press on and continue that journey. However, what does help is peppering the road toward a distant carrot we’re chasing with lots of little carrots that we can savor right now. If we’re trying to be a more generous and kind human being, then an example of a short-term bonus would be to relish the uplifting feelings that come with helping someone on a particular day. Or if we hope to get in shape, we could celebrate the sensation of getting stronger as we notice how that weight seems a little less exhausting to lift, or how our feet can carry us a bit farther and faster as we run.
- Figure out what you want to achieve and where you are in the journey, and then match your resolution to that.
We humans are capable of moving in two directions when it comes to our goals. We can move toward what we want, which is also known as a promotion-focused approach. Or, we can evade what we don’t want; this is a prevention-focused approach. When the approach we use matches what we want to do and how far along we are in doing it, then we’re more likely to be successful. For example, if our goal is to cultivate a more connected romantic relationship, then we’ll do our partner, ourselves, and our relationship a favor by focusing on how we can show love and appreciation to our partner (a promotion-focused goal), rather than on how we can avoid upsetting our partner (a prevention-focused goal). And if we’re hoping to stop smoking or lose weight, then we’ll be more successful in the first six months if we focus on reaching these goals (a promotion-focused approach). Then, once we’ve managed to hit these targets and we want to hold onto them, it may be most helpful to concentrate on protecting ourselves from reverting back to where we were, such as starting smoking again or gaining weight (prevention-focused approaches).
- To achieve more, aim for less.
It can be downright intimidating to change. It’s fraught with challenges, flagging motivation, self-doubt, temptations, and stumbles along the way. And nothing quite puts the frosting on a dispirited cake like a resolution that we try at and fail, without a crumb of victory. It can feel so daunting that it seems saner to not even try. Of course, this doesn’t mean that we need to throw out our dreams and aspirations for an improved self and a better life. Far from it! Thankfully, massive goals can happily co-exist alongside smaller ambitions and triumphs as we go along. So for example, if you hope to start running, rather than telling yourself you’re going to run a half-marathon this year, try starting with smaller targets like running one minute, one block, or one mile. And give yourself a pat on the back for it. Or let’s say you want to be a better friend or romantic partner. Picture what that looks like for you and try writing down specifics. What you would be doing, thinking, or feeling if you became that upgraded friend or partner you’d most like to be? Then, when you go over your list, make sure you have a blend of steps that feel basic and simple (e.g., sending a weekly text to a friend you’re close to, but have been too busy to connect with) along with ones that may require more effort (e.g., listening to your partner and communicating in a loving way, even if you’re really mad). And no matter whether you’ve achieved a step your list that’s a cakewalk or a gauntlet, you did it, so give yourself credit for it.
When the sun sets on 2018 a year from now, maybe you won’t reach the long-term destination you set out for, but so what? The road of improvement goes on for a lifetime, not for a year. If you can honestly tell yourself that you’ve made even one small change and generally held onto it (hey, no one’s perfect), then you will have made progress, and that’s an accomplishment and a worthwhile resolution in and of itself. But if you still find that New Year’s resolutions just aren’t your thing, consider using another benchmark in time that feels more motivating. It’s all about making resolutions work for you.
And, of course, no matter whether you choose a resolution or not, I wish you a year filled with love, friendship, health, meaning, laughter, growth, happiness, and anything else that’s important to you.
See you in 2018!