It’s a new year again, and all around people are talking about resolutions, change, and how 2019 is going to be better than 2018. While a hopeful and optimistic outlook is a good thing, it’s important to look out for those dreaded expectations that can have a devastating impact on goal-setting. So why don’t New Year’s resolutions work?
We all do it; we resolve that the new year is going to be our year – the year we finally make those changes we’ve been thinking about for weeks, months, or even years. New Year’s serves a valuable purpose in that it causes us all to pause, reflect, and think about self-improvement. Maybe you make an actual list: lose weight, exercise more, make more money, etc. Did you ever notice how so many of the same items show up on that list year after year? There is a reason for that, and the key to solving this annual lack of follow-through lies with one word: sustainability.
Dream Big, Think Small
So how do you make sustainable goals? One major pitfall with goal-setting is that it can have a negative impact on our self-esteem if we pledge to do something and then don’t follow through. New Year’s is a good time to dream big, but think small. Big changes happen as a result of many, many small steps. It’s great to make a goal of exercising more, for example. You know the benefits: a healthier, happier you. It’s a simple matter to say: “This year I’m going to exercise more”, but it’s another matter to put this into action. Instead of using the future tense (“I’m going to exercise more“), think of the small changes that are involved in obtaining this goal, and change your narrative to smaller, actionable steps (“Today I will take a walk“).
Small and simple changes are usually the best way forward – they’re sustainable and manageable, and you’re not likely to give up after one or two attempts.
Keep An Eye Out for Perfectionism
How many of us decide to do something to improve our lives but overwhelm ourselves into failure? Take our first example of exercising more – this is an admirable goal but we don’t have to become elite runners to achieve it. Taking a walk around the block for 20 mins also counts towards the goal of exercising more, but somehow we discount it because it doesn’t feel impressive enough. Be reasonable, and be gentle on yourself. If your goal is to do better in school, striving for straight A’s right out of the box is overwhelming, but adding another half an hour of study time to your day may produce a more meaningful change.
Focus On Effort As Much As Result
How we talk to ourselves matters, and it has a big impact on whether we achieve change in our life. It’s usually far easier to beat ourselves up than it is to acknowledge achievement. At the end of the day, how many of us silently berate ourselves for all the things we didn’t get to? Take time to acknowledge all the things you do every day, even menial tasks like loading the dishwasher or being nice to a stranger. By focusing on our effort, instead of our result, we are far more likely to stay the course. Learn from mistakes instead of losing yourself to negative self-talk. When you don’t meet a goal you set for the day instead of telling yourself you are lazy, useless, or inept, focus on why you didn’t achieve something and make small, manageable changes to increase your ability to reach your goal.
Discover and Understand Your Why
At Herren Wellness we talk a lot about discovering and understanding your “Why”. It’s not enough to decide to change, we must understand why we want to change. If you don’t remain focused on your ‘why’, staying motivated and achieving sustainable goals becomes much more difficult. This is especially important when getting sober. Addressing substance use is always an admirable goal, and the benefits of sobriety are numerous and simple to understand. What is less straightforward is understanding what motivates us to achieve our goal (the why), and how we’re going to do this day-to-day.
For those who struggle with substance use, putting down drugs and alcohol is difficult, and your ‘why’ (you can have as few or as many as you need) is what helps you stay focused and motivated on a daily basis. Dig deep, and avoid projection statements like: I will spend more time with my children. Ask yourself what this looks like, and plan how to achieve it. For example, perhaps you carve out half an hour of time before dinner to catch up with family, or you start a Family Game Night once a week. These are specific changes you can make immediately, and you have the satisfaction of not just knowing why you’re setting a goal, but how to achieve it.
Four Small Changes You Can Make Today
One way to avoid the pitfall of expectations (which lead to future resentments) is to resolve to make a few, small changes in your life that you can implement easily and that will have an immediate impact on the quality of your life. Here are a few ideas:
Unplug: Carve out 15 minutes every day when you step away from all your devices. Those endless beeps and notifications cause stress even when we’re not online, so power all the way down. Use that time to mindfully reward yourself: meditating, going for a walk, snuggling with a pet, reading, painting your nails, or enjoying a cup of tea or coffee are a few examples.
Gratitude as an Action Word: We all know being grateful helps us feel better, no matter what our circumstances. But how do we turn the feeling of gratitude into action and incorporate it into our day-to-day lives? Start a gratitude list (or journal) and write in it every day, even if the only thing you can think of is something small like a warm pair of socks or a roof over your head. Express gratitude to people often, whether it’s a stranger who did something nice for you or reaching out to an old friend. These smaller actions fold into your mindset and create, over time, a stronger feeling of gratitude every day.
Cut Down on ‘Shoulds’: There is an expression that says “stop should-ing on yourself”, and it means cultivating mindfulness around how (and with whom) we spend our time. Pay attention to what you agree to do – if you find yourself thinking I really should do that but I don’t want to, take a moment to pause and reflect on why you’re agreeing to it. Is it to please others? Is it something you have to do? Are you motivated by something less than admirable (like trying to show someone up)? Or is it something you don’t want to do but that will improve someone else’s quality of life and that in turn makes you grateful to be of service? This helps avoid over-committing or building resentments towards ourselves or others.
Move a Muscle, Change a Mood: This relates much less to fitness and much more to mental health. Moving your body doesn’t always have to be part of an exercise regime, a new year’s resolution, or other grand plans. The simple act of taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or taking a stroll through the neighborhood to get fresh air can have a dramatic positive impact on your state of mind. If you can’t (or don’t want to) go outside, do some full body stretches or learn a yoga pose or two. The idea is to get your blood flowing, take a pause, recharge, and renew your spirit.