Every year it’s the same drill: make a long list of changes that will make life better; try to do them all at once, without ever messing up; mess up once or miss one day, give up and return to less better self. Why do we always fail? Why does all of that hope and aspiration fail to lead us directly to the better life we can imagine? And is there any way to make a resolution stick?
What are Resolutions Really?
Resolutions are more than just empty promises to ourselves. Resolutions are not even really about the goal whether it be losing weight, spending more quality time with family, cooking healthier meals, or doing a couch to 5k. Resolutions are simply the manifestation of our desire to have another chance, to start with a clean slate, to be a better person than what we’ve become. Resolutions are about that most beautiful of human feelings: hope. When we allow ourselves to hope, we dare to imagine that we have the power to make our lives better. We may even believe that we have a chance to change not only our lives but who we are.
Hope is more powerful than we realize. Though it is merely an intangible concept, hope has been studied for its effects on depression and anxiety, on children’s academic outcomes; and even on the neuropsychological changes it evokes. And those effects can be powerful – unexplained healing in hospital patients, better grades at school, and improvement in depressive symptoms. Hope may be just a feeling, but it seems to have the power to change lives.
So this year, instead of scoffing at people for being naive enough to think a New Year’s Resolution will last, perhaps we can use a different method to harness the power of all of that positive energy. With a few updates in the way we approach resolutions, we can affect real change in our lives.
Why Resolutions Fail
So with all this positive energy in the air, why do resolutions almost always fail? For starters, we tend to be overly ambitious with our resolutions. We never just pick one. We decide we are going to go to the gym 5 times a week, and stop eating fast food, and wake up an hour earlier, and never touch alcohol, and stop watching TV, and learn to play the guitar. All at once. Somehow we think if we tackle everything at once, while we are “motivated,” we will be able to make our lives into what we think they should be.
Right along with taking on too many resolutions goes the idea that it’s “all or nothing.” We set ourselves up for failure by thinking that our improvements must equal perfection or they are not worth attempting. We decide we must go to the gym five days a week. We must never touch a drop of alcohol. We will never eat out again! While most people know deep down that this sets unrealistic expectations, somehow with resolutions, we never think that incremental progress is real progress. We go from sitting on the couch streaming marathon sessions of reruns to thinking we can bench press our own weight and run a half marathon by January 14. Why does no one question the logic of this? We would never expect a toddler to go from crawling around to playing soccer overnight, but we think we can do the grown-up equivalent? These false expectations and unrealistic goals are another strike against our odds of successfully changing our lives.
Lastly, many people choose resolutions full of “shoulds.” Never mind what change you might really want to make in your life, New Year’s is the time to hit the gym, lock up the liquor cabinet, and finally have quality time with your family, just like those TV shows from the ’50s. But what if we took time to reflect on what we really want to change in our lives? Perhaps you don’t want to go to the gym, but you would really like to read more this year. Why not skip the gym and head to the library instead? Maybe you don’t want to learn anything new right now but are tired of having a “Facebook relationship” with your brother or sister. Why not set a date to hang out with them, or schedule a call to catch up? Forcing changes that do not resonate is a sure recipe for disaster a few weeks down the road. Instead, we can take time to reflect on some things we do want to improve in our lives and set about achieving them.
How to Keep a Resolution
Pick one thing. When we spread our energy out over several tasks, we rob ourselves of the power of focus. We make it so we have to be determined in many areas that we obviously already struggle in. Instead, if we can prioritize the changes we would like to make, we can start with the most important and focus all of our energy and effort on that change. We can make that one change our priority over everything else. We can make working towards that one change something non-negotiable. When we choose one change at a time, we can use our single-minded focus to work towards our goal.
Small steps. Somehow when it comes to making sweeping changes in our lives, we all tend to develop superman syndrome. We think we can take off the geeky glasses and suddenly we have the power to stop an airplane before it crashes, or catch a building before it can crumble down on an old lady and her toy poodle. Instead of signing up for a triathlon or spartan race five minutes after you make a resolution to “get fit,” perhaps it would make more sense to download a couch to 5k app. Instead of running out and buying a treadmill, maybe we could choose to put on our coat and walk around our neighborhood each evening after dinner. Instead of deciding to wake up 2 hours earlier so we have time to run, what if we choose to go to bed 5 minutes earlier so we are more rested? I overlooked the power of using small steps until I decided to try it. Small victories build momentum and lead to bigger victories.
Incremental progress. When we try to achieve dramatic results in a short time span, we often end up frustrated, injured, and burned out. We exhaust our motivation and then give up altogether when we decide to eat at Chipotle instead of cooking at home. And since we’ve already ruined our attempt with one slip, the next night we swing by the nearest fast-food chain on our way home from work. Our string of perfection is already broken, so why bother trying? But one of the greatest tools of bettering ourselves is the idea of incremental progress. If we can run for 5 seconds longer than yesterday, we have already improved. If we can eat out only once this week instead of 3 times, then we are doing better. This is in no way a license to slack off and slow-poke your way to the finish line. But instead of beating ourselves up that we are not perfect, we can begin to see our progress in a positive light. And if you are upset that you are only able to do one more push-up at the end of this week, then use that disappointment as fuel to double down next week. Perhaps you will be two push-ups stronger. If you can do one more (insert goal here) than yesterday, you are already better. We forget that the biggest battles are won a day at a time.
Forget rewards. The idea of the reward system is the Achilles’ heal of improving your life. And if you think about it, the rewards we set up are so often counterproductive to our goals that we should start calling them “landmines” instead of “rewards.” For example, we decide to eat healthier. After 2 weeks of dedication and progress, we are feeling great. We are sleeping better and have more energy. We aren’t relying solely on caffeine to get moving in the morning. So what do we do? We decide we’ve “earned” a reward. So we head to the nearest ice cream place and get the big one with cookies mixed in and fudge on top. After all, we’ve been good for 2 weeks! We deserve a treat. And by following this rationale, we’ve just set ourselves up. Now broccoli doesn’t sound so great for dinner. And so we begin to “cheat.” Just one reward a week, we tell ourselves. But it’s a slippery slope. And before we know what’s happened, we are answering the door for the pizza guy while our bok choy rots in the crisper. When it comes to rewards, all or nothing can actually be a great help. If we decide that eating ice cream is not an option, then we’ve just made our choices down the road easier. When the idea to stop by for a reward or treat enters our heads, we can simply remind ourselves that “I don’t eat ice cream” and there’s no debate. Don’t even begin rewarding yourself. The reward we really seek is the change we’ve decided to strive for. Don’t lose sight of the real prize.
The New New Years’ Resolution
This year, your resolution can be a tool for powerful change in your life. Instead of choosing several changes to make, try choosing only one. Instead of having the same old resolutions as the past several years, take some time to reflect on one really important change that you can dedicate yourself to wholeheartedly. Once you’ve made the change permanent, you can move on to the next change.
Don’t give up if you slip up. Instead of thinking your attempts must equal perfection, try using small steps to create incremental progress. Be one second faster than yesterday. Eat one meal healthier than yesterday. Get up 3 minutes earlier. Small victories add up to big victories over time. Don’t use this as an excuse to treat yourself with rewards though. Rewards that are counterproductive to your goals are landmines in your path to bettering your life.
Embrace the power that hope brings to your life. Because when you believe in a better future, you can find the strength to begin working towards it. Hope can be your greatest asset when the goal seems too far away or the challenge of the day seems overwhelming. Hope gives us the ability to show up one more day and to try one more time. And that may be all it takes.