Repeat after me: I promise myself…I will never again…make a New Year’s resolution!
Ahhhh, doesn’t that feel good? Just feel the release… Never again will you feel the pressure on January 1 of tackling some big change in your life that you hope you can accomplish, but in your heart of hearts, you are really just wondering how long – hours? days? weeks? – it will take before you ultimately fail and start beating yourself up for not being more disciplined? No more!
The truth is, resolutions in and of themselves do not work, so when we make them, it is almost a given that we will fail.
Statistics show that 80% of people who have made New Year’s resolutions have failed by February.
Most of us have been there. I know I have!
So why doesn’t it work out for us when we start out with the best of intentions, telling ourselves, “Okay, this is the year! I’m going to make it happen!” Why does it often just fizzle out?
A few of the big reasons we fail at our resolutions are that (1) We only have a finite amount of energy to get us through the day, and creating a new habit takes a great amount of that energy, (2) we rely solely on willpower, and (3) inertia – doing nothing – is the easiest option. Let us unpack these reasons a bit.
The truth is, we are a bundle of habits that allow us to go through our day very much on autopilot. We focus consciously on a new task, and then when we learn it, that “program” runs automatically in the background. This is extremely helpful and adaptive in our everyday life. Imagine if we had to think consciously about everything we do automatically every day. We would not be able to function! The problem comes when we decide we want to make a change to one of our programs. We must pull that program from the background into our working memory and then work to overwrite it. This takes a great deal of energy.
A small example: I had my trash can in the same location in the kitchen for almost 20 years. When I remodeled the kitchen, I moved the trash can to a new location. For months afterwards, I would head to that old location because it was what I had automatically done for years. That is one extremely small change. Imagine how much more difficult a bigger change may be and how much more “reprogramming” is needed.
On top of that, we often try to use willpower to make the changes we want. The problem with using willpower to achieve our goals is that it ebbs and flows throughout our day, week and month, depending on our energy level, our stress level and the other demands that are placed on us.
If you have ever tried dieting, like I have, this will sound familiar…eating low calorie, low fat, low carbohydrate, low taste food all day and succeeding until the evening rolls around. It is 8:00, and I am heading straight for the cake, the worst thing for me. It is not that I am hungry. If that were it, I would make a nice salad or something else healthy. Rather, my willpower had ebbed because I was tired and had spent the day depriving myself.
We are already using our self-control throughout the day…. getting out of bed when we want to sleep in, not yelling at our children when they have made us crazy or biting our tongue when necessary at work. The list goes on. This is why adding a big goal to our willpower reserves often fails; it is pulling on reserves we are already using.
Another reason we fail at making changes is that it is easier to do nothing – inertia. How many times have we thought, “I’ll get up and go for a walk” or “I’ll go to the gym after this show?” However, one show becomes the next, and before you know it, it is time for bed, and you have accomplished nothing? That is because it is easier to do nothing.
With all this in mind, is it any wonder simply saying you are going to make a change – a New Year’s resolution – without any real thought or strategic planning usually does not work? Success does sound daunting, I know, but it is entirely possible. Here are some tips to help you set yourself up for success:
- Be realistic about your starting point and start small. If you have never exercised before and your ultimate goal is to work out 5-6 times per week, an hour each time, you may want to start smaller and work up to your ultimate goal. I now work out regularly 4-5 times a week for an hour, but when I first started, I could barely do 5 minutes on the elliptical. So that’s where I started.
Keep in mind, as you start, it is more important that the goals you set are achievable than setting grand goals that will ultimately lead to frustration and discouragement. Remember, we are working to set ourselves up for success!
2. Before you take any action – before you “do” anything – carefully plan it out. We are working to overwrite entrenched programming. Here are 4 things to keep in mind when planning it out:
a. Time of day and energy level . Are you a morning person or a night owl? Work to tackle your goal when you have the most energy. Planning to start going to the gym in the early morning when you are a night owl makes it less likely you will succeed over the long haul.
I tried for several months to complete a 30-day meditation challenge but could never make it to 30 days. I finally realized the days that I did the meditation were the days that I did it in the morning. When I put it off to the evening, I would often skip it because I was too tired. Once I adjusted and ensured I always did the meditation in the morning, I was successful in completing the full 30 days.
b. Make what you don’t want to do more difficult. Some people who want to limit their credit card spending have been known to put their credit cards in a plastic bag of water and put it in the freezer. They can access the card if they need to, but it takes more energy to do it.
If you’re working to lose weight, do not keep your temptation food in the house. You are much less likely to give in to temptation if you must get into your car and drive to the store to get it!
c. Make what you do want to do require less thought and effort. If you want to start practicing yoga, keep the mat out and ready to go. Even the small effort of having to go get the mat out of the closet can cause you to decide to put it off to another day.
If you want to start working out, have your gym bag packed and in your car, preferably in the front seat next to you so that you can see it!
d. Combating inertia – doing nothing – can be difficult because it is the easiest option. In this modern age, we have so many passive activities to keep us distracted…watching television, scrolling through social media, or doing silly but entertaining things like watching cat videos on Youtube. They all bring the stimulus to us, and all we have to do is sit back and take it in; we do not have to do anything other than push a few buttons. My suggestion is to try to limit your passive activities or to put them at the end of the day when you do not have to try to muster the energy to get going again.
I have been successful in limiting engaging in these activities by using them as rewards after I have accomplished my active goals, such as watching television in the evening after I have gone to the gym. Again, it is easier to keep going than to begin again from an inactive position.
What about you? When is your best time of the day to work on the changes you want to see? What things are you doing that you do not want to do or that you want to limit? What barriers can you put in place to make those activities more difficult? What can you do to make the things that you do want to do easier to accomplish? What can you switch up in your day/week that limits periods of inertia? I encourage you to give it some thought and begin implementing small steps. Small steps, over time, can add up to big change.
My final thought is this: Making a change is not easy and involves a lot of trial and error. We often do not succeed at first. When that occurs, the most important thing for us to remember is not to waste energy beating ourselves up or calling ourselves names but rather to look at it with a detective’s eyes: What worked this time? What did not? What needs tweaking? Try again with this new information and keep going! Because the truth is, the only time we truly fail is when we stop trying. If it is a goal worth having, it is a goal worth not giving up on!