Every time New Year’s comes around, I make some half-hearted resolution to improve something in my life – be more this, be less of this, and like many others, losing weight is on permanent repeat.
This year, I decided enough was enough. While the intention is always good, an estimated 88% of people give up on their resolutions by mid-February. With such a low success rate, it’s no wonder people, including myself, don’t take it too seriously. What is the point in making a resolution if you’re not going to give it your all? So I did what I always do when something vexes me – researched it! I looked up why we make resolutions (which may have originated in ancient Babylonia, but is now a decidedly Western-Hemisphere tradition), why we fail, and how to succeed.
What I discovered was not only enlightening, but surprisingly simple.
Why resolutions fail:
They’re not specific enough. How many years have you added ‘lose weight’ to your list of resolutions? That is a pretty vague goal. The problem with not being specific in your resolutions is that you will never truly know when you have reached your goal.
They’re unrealistic. Oftentimes, people make grandiose resolutions in an effort to revolutionize their lives. The problem with having such lofty aspirations is that they are usually so far out of our comfort zones that we are literally setting ourselves up to fail.
They’re based on end goals without a plan on how to reach them. It’s great that you want to lose weight, be healthy, spend less, or be more productive. But without a plan on how to accomplish these personal improvements they are nothing more glorified dreams.
There’s too many of them. This could also be part of ‘unrealistic’, above, but I thought it deserved its own attention. While it is a wonderful thing to want to improve many different aspects of your life, focusing on too many at once becomes overwhelming, and when we’re overwhelmed, it is far too easy to seek comfort by doing what is familiar. However in this case, the familiar might just be the very thing we are trying to change.
You only make an effort at the beginning of the year. The changing from one year to the next signifies opportunity to start fresh, and motivates people everywhere to better themselves. But self-betterment should be a continuous, life-long journey and not one that you only take seriously when January comes around.
Now that we know why resolutions don’t work, let’s take a look at how we can put ourselves in a better position to reach our goals.
How to successfully reach your resolutions:
Identify what you’re really ready to change. Sometimes, we feel that making a change is something we should do, but that doesn’t mean that we want to do it. Yes, we should all exercise more and spend less, but is this a priority for you? Really think about how ready you are to change a behaviour before making it a resolution. If you’re not fully committed to it, you’ll only be setting yourself up to fail.
Be prepared for setbacks. Backsliding when trying to make a behavioural change is almost inevitable. Don’t assume that success means a lack of setbacks. If you convince yourself that you’ve failed after a mistake, you’ll never reach your goals. Realize and accept that backsliding will happen; plan for them and don’t give up when they do.
Work out how to attain your goal. In the words of Ben Franklin, “If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail”. If you want to lose weight, how is that going to look? If you want to cut back on spending, how are you going to accomplish that? Resolving to make changes in your life will only get you so far if you don’t plan how to make those changes.
Be accountable. Write down your goals or share them with friends, and review them often. Research has shown that people who put their goals down on paper are significantly more likely to achieve them than those that make mental vows. And revisiting your list from time to time allows you to relive the intensity of the moment you created the goal, giving your will-power a positive boost.
Banish the absolutes. You know the fastest way to get someone to do something? Tell them not to. The same is true for yourself. “Absolutes like ‘I’m giving up all sweets’ or ‘I’ll never use my credit card again’ set you up to try and get around your own overly strict rules,” says Connie Stapleton, Ph.D., a psychologist in Atlanta, GA. Instead, be more specific with your restrictions: ‘I’ll only have sweets at a fancy restaurant’, or ‘I’ll only use my credit card in emergencies’. You’ll be much more successful.
Use visual cues to help. The primitive cravings center is highly susceptible to visual cues, explains Tufts University psychologist Christopher Willard, Psy.D. Use this to your advantage by keeping a photo of a thinner you in the kitchen, or a picture of your vacation spot in your wallet to remind you of what you’re saving up for.
Relive your successes. It can be really easy to focus on what we haven’t been able to accomplish, but it’s more important to remember that there are far more things that you have accomplished. When you’re feeling discouraged, make a list of all the things you have done that required self-discipline. You’ll soon be back on track.
Focus on one thing at a time. We do not have an infinite amount of will-power, which is why having a laundry list of resolutions won’t work out positively. Most resolutions made this time of year require a lot of behavioural changes. Losing weight, for example, requires you to not only eat less, but shop and cook differently, increase the amount of exercise you do, even avoid certain activities like social events. Trying to incorporate too many changes at once can be extremely overwhelming. There is no law that states you have to attempt all your resolutions on January 1. Break them up over the year. After all, the goal is to have them completed by December 31.
Know your limitations. Will-power, like your muscles, needs to be worked to become stronger. But also like your muscles, will tear when stressed beyond your limits. Being tired, hungry or stressed will also limit your will-power. During these times, the best thing you can do for yourself is to recognize that you’ve reached your limitations and get away from whatever is tempting you until you’ve eaten and rested.
And don’t forget! Change takes time and effort. Be patient and continue to motivate yourself throughout the year.
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