By Hannah Mirmiran, LICSW, LIMHP, CGP
Ah, New Year’s Day—that day when all of us set incredibly high, unrealistic goals to achieve better us’s only to abandon those aspirations just shortly after we’ve gotten the hang of writing the correct year on our checks.
One of my favorite things to do every year is to tally people at the gym every week throughout January, February and March. The gym is the best place to watch the resolution drop-off curve. Usually, by late February, the numbers are rapidly dwindling and I can get back on my favorite treadmill without waiting for someone else to finish. Gosh, that sounds “judgy”, right?!? (Note to self—add be less judgy to resolution list.)
I have to admit—I’m not above the resolution list myself. Every year, I think about what I would like to improve in my own life and I also often notice my motivation slipping as spring gets closer. I have many a failed resolution in my past.
Most Popular Resolutions
Each year, the Statistic Brain Research Institute publishes a list of the top ten New Year’s Resolutions we make. In 2015 they were:
- Lose weight
- Get organized
- Spend less, save more
- Enjoy life to the fullest
- Stay fit and healthy
- Learn something new and exciting
- Quit smoking
- Help others achieve their dreams
- Fall in love
- Spend more time with family
Sounds great, right? Just add world peace to that list and we’ve reached utopia.
So why is it so hard to achieve and maintain these resolutions?
- Most resolutions are unrealistic. While it’s okay to want to “fall in love” in 2016, it’s simply out of your control. Rather than setting realistic and quantifiable objectives, most of us often identify lofty goals that are just too big or are impossible to control. It’s better to start small and set goals that are attainable and within your power to achieve. For example, rather than setting a resolution to lose weight, set a realistic and measurable goal, like “lose ten pounds by April 1.” It’s also advisable to choose one or two resolutions rather than 67. And setting a goal that you’ll fall in love is a little like resolving that it won’t rain this year. Good luck with that.
- Change is hard. Most resolutions are focused on outcomes. I think we often hope or expect that we’ll just wake up one morning and magically have more money, that our soul mate will automatically appear in line at the grocery store, or that we’ll be fifty pounds lighter without working for it. That’s why we buy lottery tickets. Instant gratification. But to attain long-lasting change, it takes serious modifications in our behaviors and lifestyles. Instead of focusing on the outcome, think about the process. Detail a plan for how you’ll achieve your goal. What are the necessary steps and changes you need to make? Break the goal down into small steps that you can achieve and measure.
- Black or white thinking. It’s very common to think in terms of all or nothing, black or white, yes or no. Change is hard and when we don’t see fast results, we often give up. According to a study conducted in 2014 by the University of Scranton, the average person has 14 slips in the first two years of reaching a New Year’s resolution. Appreciate that you won’t do it perfectly, but recognize that when you don’t, it’s not a reason to give up. Get right back on that horse and try again. Which brings me to my next point…
- Trying is lying! One of my good friends John, has a great metaphor for trying. The way he describes it, if I asked you to dinner this evening and you told me you would “try” to make it, does that sound like I should expect you? Not likely. It’s about how we think about our goals. If we say we are going to “try” to save money this year, it’s a set-up for giving ourselves permission not to. “Well, at least I tried”. I’m all about self-compassion and patience, and I’ll get to that, but it’s also important to honor our agreements and commitments. Another friend of mine, Whitney, a nutritionist, has a great rule of 80-20. She suggests that we aim to eat healthfully 80% of the time while allowing ourselves to eat whatever we want 20% of the time. I think the same rule applies to a lot of things: spending money, exercising, productivity at work, etc. Instead of saying you’ll try, say you will, or say you won’t. And build in some wiggle room to allow yourself not to be perfect.
Last year, I had an enlightening conversation on New Year’s Eve with my then three-year old twins. I was educating them about resolutions and I loved their answers. One told me that she’d like to drink more Sprite in the new year and the other one vowed to eat more potatoes. Great, right?!? And guess what, they sure did hit their goals!
It brings up a good point. Often, resolutions are about things we don’t want to do but feel that we need to do. We often torture ourselves with rules about what we can’t have, shouldn’t eat, can’t purchase. This leaves most of us feeling starved and deprived. If you’ve ever been on a carb-free diet, what’s the one thing you crave at first? Bread, right? Deprivation often leads to feelings of anxiety and a mindset of scarcity. It can make you completely obsessed with the one thing you “can’t” have.
So what if we approached all of this differently?
How can we set realistic and attainable New Year’s resolutions that stick?
- Focus on what you want, not what you think you need. The best way to start is to identify what’s working in your life? Chances are, most of us can identify at least one thing in our lives that’s going okay. Maybe it’s your job, perhaps it’s your family life, it could be your friendships, or maybe it’s some quality about yourself that you appreciate, even just a little. Reflect about what’s working and why it’s working. What are you doing (or not doing) that is contributing to your success? How could you transfer these skills to other areas of your life?
- Stop with the shoulds! We therapists have a great saying about this…”stop ‘shoulding’ on yourself already!” Whenever you hear yourself saying that word, “should”, stop yourself and change your language. Think about it. Would you rather hear, “you should eat your vegetables” or “there are vegetables if you’d like them.” We use the “S” word all the time. “I should go to the gym”, “I should eat better”, “I should save money”, “I should spend less time on Facebook”. Should, should, should! The problem with the shoulds is that they never motivate us. They only serve to shame us into feeling guilty and worthless. Instead of shoulding, identify an agreement and frame it as “I will”. And if you don’t keep that agreement, examine what got in the way. Why did you engage in the behavior when you really didn’t want to? What do you want to do differently tomorrow? Recognize that every action is a choice, not just a circumstance of chance.
- Gratitude. For the past six months, two friends and I have been participating in a daily gratitude list. Each morning, we email each other a list of three things for which we are grateful. At first, it was a real chore to even identify things for the list, but as we’ve continued, it’s become one of the most important parts of my day. I find that it forces me to focus on the positive things that happen throughout each day and to remember them. This focus shifts my mindset into one of appreciation and respect for the little things in life. It also reminds me that I’m not in control of much that happens. I find that I’m often grateful for the gifts of nature and other people. When I am in gratitude, it’s impossible for me to feel angry or resentful. Before you identify resolutions, make a list of ten things for which you are grateful. Things that are already present, things you have experienced, or things about yourself. By focusing on what you already have, you’ll be operating less in a mindset of deprivation and more in abundance.
- Visualize success. I’m about to get a little mindful on you right now, so stay with me. Close your eyes, count to ten, take a few deep breaths and answer these questions…what will your life look like once you achieve your goal? How will you feel? How will you know you’ve reached your goal? How will it impact the rest of your life? How will others react to you? What will you post on social media once you achieve your resolution? All joking aside, mindfulness is a fabulous tool to use to help reduce anxiety and to achieve your goals. If you don’t know much about mindfulness, I’d encourage you to include “learn about the benefits of mindfulness and begin practicing mindfulness” in your list of resolutions.
- Address temptation. This goes back to that planning thing. Identify some of the potential pitfalls that may be setbacks to your goals and then make a plan for how you might address these. There’s a great saying…”if you hang out at the barbershop long enough, you’re going to get a haircut.” Set up your environment so that you’re more likely to be successful.
- Go public. When you give voice to your goals, you’re more likely to be held accountable, both by others and by yourself. Many people speak to the benefit of social support and accountability partners. That seems to be part of the reason that people who blog have a higher success rate for reaching goals. Tell someone else about your goals and let them know that you’d like them to ask you on the regular about your progress. And discuss what you want if you’re not meeting your goal. Do you need gentle encouragement? Tough love? A combination?
- Rather than a resolution, set an intention. For some people, this is just an issue of semantics. If you’ve had years and years of failed resolutions, you may want to change the wording. I believe that setting intentions each day can have a powerful impact. When we think in terms of intensions, it allows us to be more flexible and patient with ourselves. Some resolutions are just hard to quantify or break down into reasonable objectives. A great example is a goal of spending more quality time with family. I could reasonably break this down and say that I’m going to spend at least two hours of technology-free time with my children each day, and that would be an admirable objective. It’s a great goal, but A) it might not be reasonable to expect that to happen every single day, and B) it could turn into a deal where I’m watching the clock or timing myself. And that kinda defeats the purpose. If I set an intention to spend more quality time with my family, it forces me to examine my choices and behaviors. With each minute, I am choosing to follow my intention or to make another choice. By focusing on intention, I live more consciously and am in the moment. I also think of intentions as being something I do each day. A great habit is to identify a daily intention each morning and then to think back to that intention at least ten times throughout the day.
- Write them down. There’s just something about writing something down on paper. I think it reminds us of a contract. When I get something out of my head and onto paper, it becomes real. So write your goals on something you’ll see. Some people use post-its and put them in places they’ll see them, like the dashboard of the car, the mirror where they apply make-up, or the refrigerator. Writing and posting your resolutions is a great daily reminder of what you want to achieve.
- The rule of three. In my therapy practice, I see many people who struggle with anxiety and depression and sleep deprivation goes hand in hand with both. One of the tools I teach clients is the rule of three. I encourage people when they go to bed to close their eyes and identify three things they accomplished during that day they are proud of, three achievable things they’d like to accomplish tomorrow, and three things for which they are grateful. This can be applied to bigger chunks of time as well. Think of three things you did in 2015 that went pretty well. What were your biggest accomplishments? What are three things you’d like to do in 2016? (Be specific and choose things that are measurable, within your control and reasonable: i.e. don’t say world peace.) Then think of three things you have in your life right now for which you are thankful.
- Track your progress. For some people, a daily check-in is needed, and for others it might be a weekly or monthly progress update. You might want to keep a resolution journal and log how you’re doing on your progress.
- Reward yourself! Like I said earlier, change is hard. Honor yourself for making a commitment to yourself and bettering your life. Be patient with yourself and don’t expect to be perfect. Have compassion for yourself and recognize your successes, even if they are small. When you achieve milestones along the way, pat yourself on the back and take a breath. Recognize how hard you are working.
- Reflect along the way. I know, it’s cliché, but it really is about the journey and not the destination. As you are working toward your goal, reflect about whether it’s working for you. Chances are, if you’re meeting your goal, there’s a part of you that feels better. Identify that part. What does feel better today than when you started? How have you changed? What have you given up? What would it feel like to start at square one again?
Wrap-up and Game Plan
In conclusion, here are some specific steps to help you set and reach your goals for 2016:
- Make a list of 10 things you have in your life today for which you are grateful.
- Reflect on what’s working in your life today. Identify one area of life that’s going okay right now.
- Write down one or two goals you have for 2016. Make sure they are things that are reasonable to achieve and can also be measured.
- Envision how you’ll feel when you reach your goal.
- Tell at least one other person about your goal and ask them to check in with you regularly.
- Write down your goal.
- Each morning, set your intention and identify what you’ll do that day to help you reach your goal.
- Track your progress.
- Reward yourself along the way.
- Reflect on ways you feel better while you’re working toward your goal.
Change is hard and it’s not easy to accomplish alone. Therapy and counseling can be extremely helpful in this process. Working with a licensed therapist can help you examine the roadblocks and obstacles along the way, identify ways you might be unknowingly sabotaging your success, support your progress, and hold you accountable. What are you waiting for? Start the new year with a therapist to help you reach your New Year’s Resolutions. Call Omaha Psychotherapy today at 402-715-9710 and arrange a consultation.
From all of us here at Omaha Psychotherapy, we wish you a peaceful, prosperous and promising 2016.