The Annual Tease of New Year’s Resolutions
Do you, like myself and many others do a bit of a mental review of your year (or your life)at New Year and come up with some ‘resolutions’ for the coming year? Some big goals for personal change? If so, to what extent do you achieve those goals? I read yesterday that 25% of people abandon their New Year’s Resolutions after one week, and 60% do so within six months. I didn’t check if there is any research backing up these statements, but they were food for thought, all the same.
I think there are many reasons that their New Year’s Resolutions don’t work for many people, but I will list just three that I think are particularly important. Hopefully this list might help you to identify some of the thing/s that trip you up if you are unable to persevere with your resolutions. Or they may even allow you to give yourself permission not to engage in this annual tease, if the time is not right for you.
Your challenging goals – problems or dilemmas?
1. If it is a challenging enough goal that we need to set a New Year’s Resolution to achieve it, it is most likely not a simple or easy goal to achieve. Dike Drummond, M.D. in his book ‘Stop Physician Burnout’ writes about the distinction between a problem and a dilemma. Understandably, we generally approach challenges with a ‘problem-solving’ mind-set – analyse the problem, identify possible solutions, choose the best solution, implement it and voila! Problem solved. This approach works well for straight-forward problems – e.g. there are two people in your house-hold and only one car, but today, you both need the car. Apply this process and voila! Problem solved.
But many of our challenges are more of a dilemma than a problem. A dilemma is a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two alternatives – especially when both alternatives are either undesirable or mutually incompatible. Or perhaps both alternatives are very desirable – for example “I want to lose weight and I want to keep on enjoying yummy sweet and fatty foods”. And in the case of the changes we tackle in New Year’s Resolutions, it’s not just one difficult choice, but a choice we need to make over and over and over again, day after day, after day – on days when we’re feeling highly motivated and on days when we are exhausted and don’t have any delicious and easy-to-prepare healthy food in the refrigerator.
A dilemma requires managing, not solving. And managing requires an ongoing strategy with regular reviews to ‘tweak’ the strategy to find what will work best. It’s not a quick fix process. Many people approach their New Year’s Resolutions as if they are problems, when they may in fact be dilemmas.
Maintaining mindfulness, awareness and perspective regarding our goal over the long-haul
2. When we are working on an issue that requires us to make ‘the good decision’ over and over and over again, we need to be able to maintain a relatively high level of awareness or mindfulness. Using the weight loss example again – we need to be able to notice the urge to grab a bag of chippies or chocolate bar from the ‘snack box’ at work, before we’ve gone ahead and done it. We need to be able to resist urges, see the bigger picture – remember our overall goal for better health or losing weight, be aware of the consequences of our actions, be aware of alternatives for healthier choices – to generally maintain a state of awareness, choice and perspective. These are all mental functions that we can only achieve when we are in a ‘relaxed and focussed’ frame of mind. When we are stressed out, in the ‘fight-flight’ physiology, we are more likely to be caught in tunnel vision, impatience, impulsiveness, and black-and-white thinking – not a place where we can make wise decisions.
In fact, to have a ‘fighting chance’ of sticking to our New Year’s Resolutions, we need to spend as little time as possible in the ‘fight-flight’ physiology, and know how to change state to the ‘relaxed and focussed’ physiology each time we notice that we are stressed. In addition to Mindfulness and Diaphragmatic Breathing, Neurolinguistic Programming has some great strategies for accessing and anchoring resourceful states such as being relaxed and focussed. But first we need to have a good level of awareness of our current state so that we know when we need to change it! Again, Mindfulness is vital here.
Ironically, at the time when we make our New Year’s Resolutions, we are usually in quite a ‘relaxed and focussed’ place. We may be on leave from our jobs or on holiday, and are giving ourselves some ‘me-time’ / thinking time where we intentionally choose to enter a place of perspective. Which is a great place to formulate goals, so long as we stay there long enough to formulate a fairly detailed and grounded strategy that will ensure we are able to achieve those goals. But many people don’t take the time and effort to formulate a detailed strategy at that time, and then return to a busy life and get caught back into the rut (and ‘tunnel vision’) of being busy, ‘fire-fighting’, and coping or surviving. It is likely to be almost impossible to stick to resolutions that involve managing dilemmas under these circumstances.
‘New Year’s Resolution’ or ‘New Year’s Wishful Thought’?
3. Maybe it would help to ‘call a spade a spade’. We think of these things we set in the new year as ‘resolutions’. Definitions of ‘resolution’ include: the quality of being resolute, great determination; a mental pledge. But for many, New Year’s Resolutions could more accurately be thought of as ‘New Year’s Wishful Thoughts’ or perhaps ‘New Year’s Vague Goals’ – if we haven’t developed a long term strategy for implementation which includes supporting our ongoing determination in keeping this ‘mental pledge’ or ‘promise’ that we have made to ourselves. So my suggestion would be that if we haven’t got the time, or level of commitment to create a good strategy, why not spare ourselves the guilt and disappointment and slight erosion of self-esteem that occurs when we break our promises to ourselves, let ourselves down – again, and just acknowledge the reality of the matter, without judgment – that the time is not right for this particular goal at this time.
So bearing this in mind – choose your ‘thing’. If not a ‘resolution’, then what? I do think that setting general intentions without a clear goal can be helpful. Last year, a friend set her friends the challenge of selecting a quality to focus on for the year. I chose the quality of ‘spaciousness’ – which I pondered upon many times during the year. It served as a general sense of direction for the year, and although I didn’t have a specific detailed strategy I frequently revisited this somewhat vague intention, with positive results I wouldn’t have predicted.
Be kind to yourself, and get real
My words of advice on New Year’s Resolutions
– Be real with yourself – accept what is, because it is – yourself and your circumstances. Following the advice of the Serenity Prayer – accept the things you can’t change, have the courage (and determination) to choose to change the things you can when the time is right, and use your wisdom to know when and how to effectively tackle those changes you want to make.
– Be kind to yourself – don’t set yourself up for guilt and disappointment with unrealistic and ungrounded ‘resolutions’.
– Consider using this year to put some more foundations in place to help you tackle those important goals that the time is not yet right for. Look out for ways to develop more mindfulness and mental spaciousness this year – and maybe next year you will be in a better place to tackle those goals successfully.
A penny for your thoughts … (not literally, but you know what we mean – we’d love to hear your opinion and learn about your experiences). Please add your comment/s below.
Do New Year’s Resolutions work for you? What words of advice would you offer regarding setting New Year’s Resolutions?
Any and all comments welcome – whether or not you agree with what I’ve written.