New Years is the time of year that’s universally associated with resolution making. Although most people go through the annual ritual of identifying the things they are determined to change, almost 90% of all resolutions get broken or forgotten by Valentine’s Day.
In theory, taking the time to take stock and committing to bettering yourself is a great thing to do.
However, setting yourself up to fail by falling short can have a debilitating effect, leave you feeling disempowered, and compromise your self-esteem. It’s worth exploring why resolutions fail so you can go about the process in a different way.
After working as a therapist for over 31 years, I’ve noticed several recurring themes that seem to contribute to the dissolution of resolutions. Here are a few tips that can increase the likelihood of following through with those New Year’s vows.
Tips for Making New Year’s Resolutions that Last:
Make the resolution specific.
If you’re like most people, your resolutions are probably too vague. Vowing to “lose weight,” “be a better person,” “work harder” or “take better care of yourself” might sound lofty but when the goals are not specific or measurable, it’s hard to know when you’ve actually achieved them, and therefore, easier to abandon them. All of the above examples represent “themes” rather than specific goals. If, instead, you change the resolutions to “lose 5 pounds,” “volunteer once a month at a soup kitchen,” “devote an extra hour a week to my job” or “go to sleep two hours earlier once a week,” you are far more likely to succeed.
Make the resolution smaller.
Chunking down a goal into smaller, more manageable pieces always makes it easier to achieve. Ironically, if you start smaller and reach that goal it gives you the motivation to build on it. And in the end, the cumulative effect makes your accomplishment even bigger. Since the goal of weight loss is typically the most common resolution, set yourself up to succeed by starting with the goal of 2 pounds rather than 20 and add 2 more pounds every time you achieve that goal. And remember to celebrate each baby step along the way- that’s often the best way to reinforce new behavior.
Make the resolution doable.
When you look for ways to make changes or improvements in your life, put those potential new behaviors in the context of your current life. Is it really doable to commit to 10 hours a week in the gym given your other obligations? It’s important to be honest and realistic about your life circumstances. Make goals that resonate with the actual amount of time, financial resources, relationship and workplace obligations, and emotional support you currently have in your life. The secret is to identify a goal you really can achieve, not one that sounds great but in actuality is unattainable.
Make the timeframe reasonable
As important as it is to make sure that your goals are realistic, it’s equally essential that you give yourself a timeframe that makes sense. It’s easy to be overly enthusiastic in the earliest stages of embracing a new behavior and to assume that excitement will help you achieve the goal quickly. But you’re probably underestimating the amount of time it actually takes to practice and integrate new changes to your lifestyle or mindset. If you expect to achieve results quickly, then you may be setting yourself up for disappointment and will be more likely to give up sooner. Consider how long you’ve been doing the old behavior and then ask yourself if the time you’ve allotted to changing is actually reasonable.
Make the resolution positive
If you’re like most people, without realizing it, your resolutions are probably being stated in a negative way. “Quitting,” “giving up,” “stopping,” or “letting go” of thoughts, feelings or behaviors you want to get rid of or change. Although the distinction may seem subtle, when you rephrase the resolution and focus on what you want to embrace or do “more of” it generates a more positive mindset. You are more likely to gravitate towards positive actions and thoughts than negative ones. It’s more reinforcing and rewarding to focus on what you want to add to your life rather than what you are trying to get rid of. And ironically, there is less internal resistance to a positive invitation, “I can become a non-smoker” rather than a negative command, “I will stop smoking.”
Make a resolution that matters to you
If you have a long-standing history of making the same resolution every year because it’s never been resolved, it’s worth asking yourself why you’re making it in the first place. You might be focusing on a goal that someone else wants you to achieve. Maybe you think it will make someone in your life happier. It might be a change that your feel pressured to make because society or your culture deems it important or necessary. Although those sound like noble reasons, changes and new behaviors really stick when they matter most to you. So take the time to ask yourself what you want and need in 2016. Do you want to focus on improving your health, the quality of your relationships, a sense of inner peace, more self-confidence? Do you want more professional growth and challenges? More downtime?
Start with one thing—one thing that really speaks to you. Go slowly. Chunk it down into manageable and measurable parts. Give yourself adequate time to achieve it. Celebrate the baby steps of progress along the way. With this approach you are far more likely to keep the momentum going.
Lisa Ferentz, LCSW-C, DAPA is a clinical social worker, psychotherapist, educator, and the founder of The Ferentz Institute, formerly known as The Institute for Advanced Psychotherapy Training and Education. She presents workshops and keynote addresses nationally and internationally and is a clinical consultant to practitioners and mental health agencies. She is the author of “Treating Self-Destructive Behaviors in Traumatized Clients: A Clinician’s Guide,” now in its second edition, and “Letting Go of Self-Destructive Behaviors: A Workbook of Hope and Healing.” Lisa’s newest book, “Finding Your Ruby Slippers: Transformative Life Lessons from the Therapist’s Couch,” was recently published in 2017. In 2009, she was voted the “Social Worker of Year” by the Maryland Society for Clinical Social Work.