Christmas has been celebrated, or survived, for another year. Copious delicacies consumed, excessive gift-exchanges endured, and mountains of paper and packaging stuffed into an overflowing recycling bin.
The New Year arrives, with an impending return to normality. Out comes the brand new diary. A blank page selected. A feeling of freshness and a clean slate as you write out those same old words…
New Year’s Resolutions
Most likely, your list includes goals relating to healthy eating, exercising, finances, relationships, or adding more excitement to your life. What a great start to the year! Unfortunately, at least half of you will give up within a couple of months. Up to 20% of you will maintain your New Year’s resolution for at least two years. For the other 80%, there is a persisting cycle of disappointment, loss of confidence, and apathy. Some people hate, or never set, New Year’s resolutions because of past disappointment and feelings of failure.
I’m going to give you strategies you can use to improve your chances of being one of those 20% who sustain their resolutions. The aim is not to find one magic key to success, but having a range of skills and strategies at your fingertips to use when required. The very first step is to make a helpful resolution.
Is there really any point?
Surprisingly, yes! The process of setting goals, even if you don’t achieve them, has been shown to improve psychological wellbeing. Social and emotional goals may lead to higher life satisfaction and positive emotions. It also appears that reflecting on the past year, and specifically on challenges you dealt with successfully and experiences that have shaped who you are today, can lead to increased self-esteem, your belief that you can succeed (self-efficacy), and sense of meaning in life.
It is particularly helpful to process these thoughts through written or verbal communication. During this process, we need to construct the information in a different way, and we are less likely to get caught up in rumination. You could get a journal and write out your thoughts as you go. I have thoroughly enjoyed a tradition in past years of having a New Year’s Eve dinner party, and while everyone sits and enjoys delicious food they take turns to share their reflections on the year just gone, and hopes for the year to come. You may prefer to do this with a good friend or spouse.
Don’t make a big list of a hundred things you’d like to change this year. This may be helpful for initial brainstorming, but then you need to select just one or two achievable things to focus on first. The process of reflection, as discussed above, may have given you an idea of what you hope for next year. Some of you may still have no idea what you’d like to change, or just a vague concept of what areas of your life you’d like to work on.
Print out my worksheet and complete ‘Step 1: Selecting a goal’. To assist your brainstorming, consider:
- Career, finances
- Family and other relationships
- Health – physical, mental, managing current illnesses, preventing future illness
- Creative or artistic pursuits
- What gives you pleasure or joy
- Contribution to others
- Your values, eg family, social welfare, artistic expression
- What your ideal day would look like
- Something you’d like to learn
Once you have a relatively clear idea of what your goal is, you can move on to assessing how ready you are to actually make this change.
Don’t rush in
There is nothing magic about January 1st, although the fresh feeling of a new beginning is enticing. I encourage you to take time to prepare for a change well, and not rush into a huge life-altering resolution arbitrarily starting on the first day of the year.
When we enact change, we go through a series of stages, aptly referred to as the ‘stages of change’. Before people commit to action, they pass through stages of being ambivalent or resistant to change (pre-contemplative), then considering change (contemplative), and then preparing for change (preparation). If you are still in the ambivalent stage, or just starting to consider changes, then don’t be discouraged. It may be unrealistic for you to make this change right now, but these phases can be traversed very rapidly.
I recommend seeing a health provider such as a GP to discuss this with further, as you will have a much higher chance of success if you prepare for the change well. It may be beneficial to gather more information about the benefits this change could have for you, what the change may entail, what to expect, or process your emotional responses to previous unsuccessful attempts.
The change must be something you actually want. Not just something you think you should do. Every action has both pros and cons for changing and not changing. Write these pros and cons down, and assess whether this is really a change you want to make right now. For example, if you decide you want to exercise daily:
This process clearly illustrates the tensions involved in making a behavioural change which had looked quite simple initially. You can complete steps 2 and 3 on my worksheet to clarify your starting point and make your list of pros and cons for your goal.
If you have selected a goal and feel that you are ready to take action, it is now time to work out the specifics.
Define and clarify
The reason many New Year’s resolutions fail has nothing at all to do with willpower or self-control. They fail because the goals themselves are too vague or not thought-out. A common and very helpful method for setting good goals is the SMART acronym:
- Specific: You do not want a vague goal such as “I want to eat better”. Think about who, where, when, why and what. Your goal may become more like “I will serve up half my plate with vegetables at dinner time 5 days a week”, or “I will get up 10 minutes earlier on work mornings so I have time to prepare a more nutritious breakfast (and list out planned breakfast options)”.
- Measurable: It’s important to define ‘how much’ or ‘how many’, so that you actually know if you are achieving your goal. You could specify the frequency, such as “I am going to go for a walk two days each week”, or “I will do mindfulness exercises for five minutes every morning”. Or you could specify an end or intermediate goal, such as “I will be able to walk to the end of the street without stopping by the end of April”.
- Achievable: Your goal should be challenging, but achievable. Starting an exercise program with the intention of running a marathon by July may be over-ambitious. Walking around the block may be much too easy. You are better off making smaller, incremental achievable goals. When you achieve a smaller goal, you will feel more confident, and more motivated to set further goals. If you can introduce a small change and maintain it for ten years (or the rest of your life!) you will usually reap far greater benefits than a dramatic change that you maintain for weeks, months, or even a year or two.
- Relevant: Your goal should be beneficial and important to you. If you don’t really feel the importance of it, you are not going to be particularly motivated to succeed. Is it the most worthwhile goal you could set right now? Does it match your other goals or priorities, time constraints, or energy levels? As I discussed earlier, you can work through this by looking at the pros and cons of changing or not changing behaviours. Don’t set goals just because someone else wants you to, or because you feel that you should want it. Similarly, setting a goal or writing 10 pages a day of your new novel might not match your time and energy constraints if you had a baby last week.
- Time-bound: You must set a time at which you want to achieve the goal so that you have something to work toward. Having a time-frame helps keep you accountable and prioritise it. Don’t forget the ‘achievable’ aspect when setting your time-frame.
You can go through this SMART system in step 4 on my worksheet, and then write out a completed detailed goal in step 5.
If you have got to this point and realised that your goal isn’t suitable for this point in time, that’s great! You have invested time in realising this now, before you get started. You can now go back and select a different goal. Spending time getting your goal right will improve your chances of success. When you write out your final goal, try to phrase it positively, explaining what you want to achieve, rather than what you want to stop doing or avoid. The next blog post explains strategies to optimise your chances of sticking with your New Year’s resolution. But first, make sure you have your goal set well, and spend as much time on this as you need to. Print out my worksheet to assist you.