There’s something about completing one revolution around the sun that makes optimists of us all. Every new year’s day we wake up, with the best of intentions to get started on new-year resolutions. And every year, we face some struggle or the other in sticking to them. Whether it’s getting rid of an unhealthy habit, working on an exercise routine, or learning a new language, we find ourselves going off track sooner or later.
To understand why our new-year resolution isn’t working, we need to understand how human psychology works. Human beings are not designed for self-control. Our minds are wired to put in the least amount of cognitive effort possible. We prefer to conserve our limited cognitive capacity and so we follow old routines and habits rather than put in the effort of exploring and trying new options. For example, you may automatically light a cigarette after a meal, because that’s become your routine. Because activities that have short-term rewards take less effort to do we find them harder to curb.
Aside from the way our brains work, the way we approach goal-setting may also affect our new-year resolutions. When envisioning a goal, we often assume it will be a lot easier than it is. We go in expecting changes overnight when in reality the process is much slower. So rather than slowly building a healthy lifestyle, we opt for a crash diet or 10-day weight loss program to see quick changes, which ultimately ends up not working.
Additionally, we often spend a lot of time thinking about goals rather than actually working toward them. It’s good to plan and prepare before working on a goal, but if you spend endless hours creating the perfect to-do list but don’t actually get around to doing things you’ll never make progress.
We also tend to focus more on the end result rather than the steps it takes to achieve our new-year resolutions. As a result, we set relatively vague or unrealistic goals (e.g. ‘I want to be healthier this year’ or ‘I want to climb Mt. Everest in 6 months’), without considering what it’s going to take to reach these goals.
How we deal with setbacks also affects our progress towards new-year resolutions. When we encounter failure (e.g. we end up smoking a cigarette after a week of cessation), we often get discouraged and believe that all is lost. This all/none thinking can break our confidence and stop us from trying again.
Is it possible to circumvent these roadblocks and achieve your yearly goals? The answer is yes. Here are some strategies that can help you set new-year resolutions that work:
Keep your new-year resolutions specific: Instead of saying ‘I will manage my stress better this year’, set specific goals such as ‘I will meditate for 20 minutes every day’, and ‘I will prioritize my work tasks so I don’t feel overburdened’. Making your goal concrete can help you make a plan and stick to it.
Identify your intention behind setting a new-year resolution: Sometimes we know what our new-year resolution is but we don’t know why we want it. For example, if your goal is to have an exercise routine, try to identify the underlying intention or need. This can increase your commitment to it.
Keep your resolutions at a minimum: Rather than a long list of new-year resolutions, pick one to focus on. Establishing new behaviors takes time and effort and taking on too much could make it overwhelming.
Take baby steps: Trying to do too much too soon by starting a highly restrictive diet or overdoing exercise can backfire. Instead, approach it in stages. For example, if you’re changing your diet, start by replacing some unhealthy food options. Then start working on another aspect of your diet like changing meal timings or portion size.
Learn to bounce back when resolutions don’t work: Relapses are one of the most common reasons why people give up on their new-year resolutions. Working towards your resolution is not a linear process. If you slip up, you can restart and continue toward your goal. Additionally, these slip-ups are a chance to figure out what didn’t work and try a new and more effective approach.
Play to your strengths: Identifying resources you already have and using them to work towards your goals. For example, if you’re planning to go on a diet, ask a friend if they would like to join you. This can hold you accountable for reaching your goals.
Account for possible obstacles: It’s helpful to know what barriers you might face in advance so you can prepare for them. For example, if you’re prone to self-criticism when you fail to do something, write down five encouraging statements you would like to tell yourself in those moments so you don’t feel discouraged.
Reframe your resolutions to short-term and achievable goals: For example, if your goal is to read more, break it down into a short-term goal - finishing one book in the next three weeks.
Remember to reward yourself: In the early days of working toward your new-year resolutions, you may be confident and motivated. But after the sixth day of hauling yourself to the gym at 5 AM, you may notice this enthusiasm dwindling. This is why it’s important to reward yourself regularly. In addition to setting short-term goals, make sure you reward yourself for achieving them. These rewards can be as simple as treating yourself to your favorite meal after you’ve completed a task.
Hold yourself accountable: Having something to hold us accountable in completing a new-year resolution can help us follow through with it. One way to do this is to write down your goals and record your progress toward them every day. Alternatively, you can enlist a friend or family member to work on your goal with you.
So while there are some obstacles to setting effective new-year resolutions, keeping these points in mind can help you overcome them. Furthermore, something we often forget when working towards our goals is to actually enjoy the process! We often view the process as a constant struggle. But it can also be exciting and fulfilling. So as you work on your new-year resolutions, don’t forget to take time to enjoy the process. Celebrate the little steps you take and find something to enjoy in each task you do. Written By - Riea Enok (Psychotherapist at The Mood Space)
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