As a new year dawns, many of us take stock of the previous year and start to plan and set goals for the year to come. This often takes the form of dreaded New Year’s resolutions—that list we may feel compelled to generate that is supposed to represent the ways we wish to be better, or different, over the next 12 months. It may come as no surprise, but most resolutions are doomed to fail, and we are left in the exact same spot with some guilt—due to lack of perceived achievement—added to the mix. Why does the same pattern unfold each year? Perhaps it’s not so much that we are setting unachievable goals, but setting resolutions—instead of intentions with clear follow-through plans—is setting us up to fail.
Somewhere around 40% to 50% of Americans set resolutions each new year (Norcross, J. C., Mrykalo, M. S., and Blagys, M. D., 2002); it was estimated 77% of this group maintain their resolutions for one week but that number drops to 19% at the two-year marker (Norcross, J. C., and Vangarelli, D. J., 1998). Let’s take a look at what we can do to help ourselves set obtainable goals, clear action plans, and ideas to help us follow through.
Setting goals—particularly goals around behavior change—needs to focus on the behavior, not necessarily the outcome. As one of the most frequent resolutions made centers on “weight loss,” it is worth reminding ourselves that chasing numbers on a scale does not lead to lasting change; making small, positive behavioral changes (intuitive eating, increasing movement), on the other hand, leads to more lasting lifestyle change (Tylka, T. L., Annunziato, R. A., Burgard, D., Danielsdottir, S., Shuman, E., Davis, C., and Calogero, R. M., 2014).
Setting attainable goals requires that we set time aside and reflect on what we are wanting. A SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely) goal can be helpful if you feel a bit stuck. Be ruthless with yourself—if you’ve never set foot inside a gym, it’s unlikely you will turn into a gym rat overnight. If you never cook in, it is unreasonable to expect yourself to become a star chef every weeknight. Think about what the minimum achievable item would look like and start there. For the above examples, it is more realistic to set a goal of going to the gym once per week and cook in twice per week. These are successes you can build on.
Once you are settled on a resolution and have identified the underlying intention, it’s time to think about the barriers and come up with a plan to continue to strive forward. One suggestion is to follow an “if, then” method.
It is important to also dig a bit deeper and ask, “What would be different about my life if I achieved this goal?” This can prompt us to think about the bigger picture and identify intentions that can be a bridge between our goals and actions throughout the year. For example, if your resolution is to cook dinner twice a week, the bigger picture might be that you believe cooking in will allow you to maintain a more mindful eating lifestyle, as well as be more fiscally responsible. This piece can also give us much-needed flexibility during times of change so that when we slip, we can find alternative behaviors that ring true to our underlying intention. In a way, it gives us wiggle room to be forgiving of ourselves rather than guilt-stricken from a perceived failure.
As stated above, a goal without a plan is not likely to lead us to achievement. Once you are settled on a resolution and have identified the underlying intention, it’s time to think about the barriers and come up with a plan to continue to strive forward. One suggestion is to follow an “if, then” method. Consider what you might do “if” an unforeseen complication arises and generate ideas to “then” implement that will keep you moving toward your goals with your intentions in mind. Using the same example above, a possibility is, “If I have had a stressful day at work and don’t want to cook in, then I will (1) eat leftovers, (2) check my budget before ordering food, and (3) consider asking a housemate/partner to help cook.” In this way, we can set up speed bumps for ourselves to slow down our reactions based in emotion and consider options that will leave us feeling more successful.
Finally, consider aligning your goals with things you already enjoy or do. Past action can predict future action. If you enjoy being outside, find activities that align with that joy. If you love to read and are setting an intention to live more mindfully, find a way to combine those two.
Resolutions don’t have to be full of pain and self-punishment. If we can focus on finding our intentions and living them through our actions, perhaps setting resolutions can lead to greater fulfillment rather than a perpetual cycle of guilt and disappointment.
- Gollwitzer, P. M., & Sheeran, P. (2006). Implementation intentions and goal achievement: A meta-analysis of effects and processes. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 38, 68-119.
- Norcross, J. C., Mrykalo, M. S., & Blagys, M. D. (2002). Auld Lang Syne: Success predictors, change processes, and self-reported outcomes of New Year’s resolvers and non-resolvers. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(4).
- Norcross, J. C., & Vangarelli, D. J. (1998). The resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year’s change attempts. Journal of Substance Abuse, 1(2), p. 127-134.
- Tylka, T. L., Annunziato, R. A., Burgard, D., Danielsdottir, S., Shuman, E., Davis, C., & Calogero, R. M. (2014). The weight-inclusive versus weight-normative approach to health: Evaluating the evidence for prioritizing well-being over weight loss. Journal of Obesity, 2014, 18 pages.
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