For the past decade or so, I have proclaimed my intentions NOT to make any New Year’s Resolutions, since they never seemed to lead to any lasting changes and only served to make me feel good at the moment. I would instead offer my intent to “do better” in the coming year. Obviously, this vague, general phrase served no purpose except to make me feel good about not making any resolutions! Recently, as I listened to many family, friends, and strangers’ accounts of their struggles with keeping their resolutions, and thought about my own past attempts, it became clear to me why many New Year’s resolutions do not work. Here are just a few:
- New Year resolutions are often a list of statements, declarations, or intentions that don’t contain a plan of action. For example: “I’m going to be more organized”, I’m going to start an exercise program”, “I’ll keep in touch with family and friends more”, and “This is the year I’ll quit smoking”. If you haven’t been organized in the past and you have yet to identify a system that will work for you, how do you plan to move forward now? What are the steps that you will need to take to help you with this area? Have you identified whether your lack of organization is generalized and pervasive – related to all areas, or limited to discrete areas (i.e., finances, paperwork, your closet)? If it’s the latter, that means you know how to be organized, but have difficulty applying it to certain areas. This opens the door to more questions. What is different about those areas in which you are successful with organization? What prevents you from following through on your plan to organize your closet? I could go on and on, but you get my point. Coming up with a plan of action is the key to meeting your goals. Just know there is some work involved in developing that plan. Generating a list of intentions or areas to work on is simply the first step.
- Oftentimes, if a plan of action is included, the goals may be unrealistic. I know that I am not a morning person, so I would be setting myself up for failure if I said I would get up an hour early every morning for devotions or decided to exercise for 30 minutes every morning. It is important to build in flexibility with your goals, based on your lifestyle and with what you know (from past experience) that you’re likely to follow through. Being more realistic has helped me reach and maintain my goal for morning devotions in that I engage in a 5 to 10-minute devotion as soon as I wake up and then plan for a late afternoon or early evening time to delve in a more deeper Bible study each day. Similarly, I try to find a time in the evenings to exercise.
- Many people fail to include accountability or social supports for their New Year’s Resolutions. There are a number of ways to hold yourself accountable, but two of the most essential and highly effective include writing your goals down (so they become real as opposed to being stuck in your head!) and sharing them with someone who can encourage you when it’s hard and you are tempted to give up, push you when necessary, and celebrate with you as you move towards goal completion. Research indicates that people who enlist the support of a partner, family or friend in working towards their goals, particularly New Year’s Resolutions, are much more successful in reaching and sustaining them, than those who go it alone.
- Some resolutions appear to be driven by more external than internal factors. That is, some people set resolutions because they caught up in the hype and emotionally it feels like the right thing to do. After all, aren’t you supposed to come up with something to tell people when they ask? But if you are honest, you just might not be that invested in working on those areas. Or, if your motivation is based more on the end result (that is, receiving compensation for quitting smoking, or losing the most weight) than on intrinsic factors like enjoying the process of working on goals or gaining satisfaction from tackling a challenge or overcoming barriers, then your focus is more externally-based. Many research studies find that although external and internal factors are equally helpful in reaching goals, people whose motivations are primarily intrinsic tend to stick with the program when it gets difficult. They also tend to experience greater satisfaction when they reach their goals
- Most resolutions do not have built-in reward systems for progress. When working towards long-term goals, especially those that are challenging, it is important to reward yourself for following through on the small action steps you developed along the way. When I was in graduate school, I used this step quite frequently! For example, after being in the library for 4 or 5 hours on a beautiful Saturday morning, I would reward myself with a movie, or by eating some chocolate, or engaging in some enjoyable activity I typically did not have time to do. Knowing my short-term reward in advance helped me to persevere with studying. For this system to be effective however, it’s important that you NOT engage in the designated rewards if you have not followed through on the action steps as planned.
I am not suggesting that New Year’s Resolutions are bad. However, I think many people place too much power in setting resolutions and fail to recognize that New Year’s Resolutions, if designed right, can serve as a launching pad for a plan to propel you forward. As a result of simply stating their desires through these resolutions, individuals become defeated when they are unable to follow through with their intended changes. So, instead of generating that list of New Year’s Resolutions that often get discarded before February 1st, try coming up with at least three goals that you would like to address and then develop your Plan of Success for 2013 by following the steps outlined above. Feel free to share your comments on what has worked for you in the past or what you plan to do differently this time around.