We start the new year and each day with the hope of attaining these goals. But we are often really afraid to try because we have tried so many times before and don't want to be disappointed. Recent research suggests that 88% of people fail to stick to their resolutions to change and improve their lives.
We often fail to change our habits because our brain craves consistency and routine and tries so hard to resist change. It can be very discouraging to try to do things differently, only to find ourselves falling back into old maladaptive patterns.
Most people believe that if we are hard on ourselves, we will be motivated to change. But the contrary is actually true. Showing self-compassion, being warm and supportive towards ourselves and actively soothing ourselves, helps more when we fall short of our intentions and goals. Self-compassion leads to less anxiety, less depression, and greater peace of mind. Most importantly, it makes us feel more motivated to make the improvements we want to make.
Here are three steps to achieve your resolutions.
1. Forgive yourself
The first step to making lasting change is to forgive yourself for having failed in the past. It’s okay; it’s normal, even. You did the best you could with the skills you had. Take a deep breath and soothe yourself like you might soothe or talk to a good friend. Use kind, reassuring words to ease yourself out of a stress response. Remind yourself that few people are successful the first time they try to change their routines. Explain to yourself that feeling bad about your behavior will not increase your future success.
2. Aim for an inherently rewarding target
The second step is to set the right resolution, whether that’s a big audacious goal, a new habit you’d like to get into, or a bad habit you’d like to break.
To begin, you might want to:
- Lose weight
- Get in shape or establish an exercise habit
- Spend more time with your friends
It’s important to figure out WHY you want to do this thing that you haven’t been doing so far. You might have a whole laundry list of reasons for wanting to do what you want to do, and that’s great. But right now, I want you to think of the single most compelling way that you’ll benefit from achieving your goal.
Chances are, you’ve come up with a super logical reason for, say, losing weight or exercising, like that it will lower your blood pressure.
Here’s the thing: Even though we all like to think of ourselves as rational people, logic doesn’t motivate us nearly as much as our emotions do. Why? Because we approach what feels good and avoid what feels bad.
This means that we tend to stick with behavior changes for longer when we aim for something that feels good. Doing something because we feel like we should do it doesn’t feel good. It feels like we’re being forced. It’s stressful, and stress makes us seek comfort, often in the very form of behavior that we are trying to avoid.
So, ask yourself in your heart of hearts, how do you really want to feel? Identify a WHY for your resolution that will motivate you over the long haul.
Maybe you want to lose weight, for example, and so you plan to cut baked goods out of your diet, which happen to be your favorite foods. How will that make you feel?
At first, you might feel great, because you’ve just made a healthy decision for yourself. But if you don’t cheat on your diet, you’ll likely soon feel deprived. And if you do begin to cheat on your diet, you’ll probably feel anxious and guilty. Both of these feeling states are not motivating and uncomfortable, which will make it easy for you to give up on your diet.
But maybe the reason that you want to lose weight is so that you feel healthy and strong. Feeling stronger and healthier are very motivating feeling states, which will make it much easier for you to keep your new habit.
With this in mind, rethink your goal or resolution: Restate it for yourself in terms of how you want to feel. For example:
- “I forbid myself to eat baked goods” could become → “I want to feel healthy and strong.”
- “I have to get more sleep” could become → “I want to feel well-rested and energetic.”
- “I should spend more time with friends” could become → “I want to feel loving and connected.”
3. Refine your resolution
What actions and behaviors have led you to feel what you want to feel in the past?
Maybe you tend to feel well-rested and energetic when you go to bed before 10 p.m. Perhaps you tend to feel healthy and strong when you go for a hike. Maybe you feel loving and connected when you spend one-on-one time with your sister.
The important thing here is that it is something that you already have experience with; we human beings tend to be truly terrible at predicting how something will make us feel. But we do well to use our own experience to predict how we’ll feel in the future.
Here’s an example of how we frequently go wrong: Say we'd like to feel stronger this upcoming year. This calls for a get-in-shape habit. So, what would be a good way to get in shape? We could train for a marathon! Fun! Ambitious! But before we start researching destination marathons (because why not make it a vacation, too?), we'd do well to stop and ask: How do we feel when we are training for a long run?
On the other hand, I can think of two activities that DO make me feel stronger:
- Taking long hikes
- High-intensity exercise classes where I sweat a lot
Your “why” for your goal needs to be a rewarding feeling that you experience when you are doing your resolution or, at the very least, immediately after you do it. A daily hike must genuinely make you feel energized, for example, if that is the feeling you are after.
From here, refine your resolution one more time. Make sure that your resolution reflects a really specific behavior, so that you know if you are succeeding or not. For example, resolve to take three hikes per week after work on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays instead of resolving to “go for more hikes.”
Finally, do a little reality check. Setting unrealistic resolutions is a sure path to failure. If it’s just not realistic for you to, say, leave work an hour early on Tuesdays and Thursdays so that you can do your hike, please don’t make that your resolution.
If you are now aiming for a target that is specific, realistic, and inherently rewarding (because you know it is going to make you feel good), you are all set to accomplish those 2020 resolutions!