New Year’s Eve often opens up a time for reflection, and as a consequence, new goals, targets and resolutions emerge. I’m not sure if I’ve ever actually completed a New Years’ resolution; I seem to get more energy planning them than I do from their implementation. Most of us can easily find something that we want to change about ourselves for the coming year. It comes from a beautiful desire to want to be the best version of ourselves. We call this the “actualizing tendency.”
Now that we’re nearly a month into the new year, how are your resolutions going? The truth is that most resolutions fail. After planning to eat healthily, I’ve already gotten through 1/4 of a tub of Hagen Das without even realizing it. You may have missed a day or two of your 30-day challenge, or dry January may now be looking more like a slightly damp January. Often our response is to give up. We think it’s better to simply forget about it or postpone it to next year. Maybe that is because the goal was motivated by shame rather than self-actualization. If this is the case, take a moment to redefine your goals using the tips below and see if you can find a more solid platform from which to begin the New Year.
Step 1. Review the Year
My instinct is to make spur-of-the-moment and unreflective goals. In all honesty, these targets never have a chance of success. What can be really helpful is to create thoughtful and reflective goals. First, take stock of the year that we’ve left behind. 2021 probably challenged you in ways you couldn’t have perceived, as it did for most of us. It may have shown you strengths or weaknesses you never knew you had. You may have learned new skills and coping mechanisms. Before moving into setting goals and resolutions it can be helpful to first look back. Go through each month or even each week and think about what gave you energy, and what was difficult for you?
Start with the things that brought you enjoyment. They don’t have to be big moments – pleasures as simple as cooking, wine tasting, crosswords, hiking, or even finding new ways to connect with friends and family. Identify those moments and include them in your New Years’ goals. Make space for them in your diary; schedule them.
Next, identify the areas you struggled in – exercise, diet, socializing, screen time. Choose some areas that you would like to change for 2022. Be curious and compassionate and ask yourself why you found it difficult to prioritize these goals in 2021?
From this exercise, you should now have a few clear targets. How do they compare to the ones you made at the start of the year? If they are the same, great! If they’re different, also great! The next stage of goal setting is often overlooked – why is this your goal? What is your motivation?
Step 2. Is shame or self-compassion driving you?
What is the reason you set your goals above? Are you wanting to lose weight or eat healthy because you don’t like how you look? Are you doing no TV in January to fix your laziness? Are you decluttering to fix your disorganization? These are goals based on shame, meaning a rejection of yourself. This is a strategy that simply doesn’t work.
You might notice that there’s still some evidence of last year’s Christmas turkey lurking on your waistline. Self Compassion looks at the extra weight not with harshness or criticism, but rather it motivates us by wanting to be our best selves. It takes a more logical approach, saying something like: “My energy levels are probably being affected by my lifestyle, and the sugar and fatty foods affect my mood. I’m going to work on my health in the New Year so that I can feel and be my best.” With this mindset, the waistline tends to follow on its own.
Many people think self-compassion leads to self-indulgence or an easy way out, but in reality, self-compassion leads to faster growth and a greater likelihood of reaching your goals (Check out the work of Kristin Neff).
In our enthusiasm, we wipe months of dust off our runners and open the door, excited to get around the old 5 km lap, only to be completely exhausted by the time we hit the first kilometer. Or you start back at work, have a hectic day, and miss day seven of your Yoga program. What we do in response to these moments defines our chances of completing our goals. When you fail, how do you react?
If we’re too harsh on ourselves for skipping one single day, we are more likely to quit altogether. All streaks will come to an end at some point. Our minds tend to tell us that a single failure means you should stop altogether. Negative bias focuses on the one day you missed versus the 10 days you succeeded – but it’s important not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. A self-compassionate response would recognize that you haven’t run in a while, so 1km is a great start. Research has shown that this can result in an increase in goal reengagement. So get up and get out there again tomorrow.
Step 3. Small incremental growth – know your enemy.
After reviewing 2021, were you able to identify any pitfalls? It may be that the ease of Netflix trumped reading or mindfulness. Perhaps not knowing what to cook or lack of planning lead you towards take-out or easy meals. Come up with strategies to manage these moments (meal plan, freeze meals). For example, if I want to run in the morning I need to be in bed a bit earlier. I also know that if I’m tired I’ll make every excuse I can think of not to run. I’ve even been known to sleep in my running gear to give me one less reason to stay in bed. Recognizing these excuses or thoughts helps you get to know your enemy; the subtle voices in your head that tempt you away from your goal.
Finally, be patient. You are most likely battling against years of automatic behavior. Most of the habits we are trying to change are pretty instinctual. These instincts can change through a process called neuroplasticity, but it takes time and consistency. Keep going, be compassionate with failure, and your brain has a chance to solidify new habits.