Making New Year’s Resolutions You Can Keep

by Ariela Paulsen
Making New Year’s Resolutions You Can Keep

It’s that time again — time to make resolutions and, most likely, to give up on them by February!  If you’re hoping this year will be different, we’ve compiled a list of tricks to make resolutions stick:

Most of these tricks are inspired by the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, which I recommend highly!

1. Dream big, but make it manageable

Let’s face it, you’re not going to cure yourself through diet or completely reinvent your career.  It’s important to dream big and use that end goal as a guide, but if you put too much pressure on an unrealistic expectation, you’re going to give up.  

Dream up your ideal vision.  You can even write it down or draw it and pin it to the wall as inspiration.  But then, break it down into manageable steps! What can you feasibly do right now?  The most common resolution is exercise. Want to exercise for an hour 5 times a week?  That sounds lovely, but start with adding 5 minutes of movement each day. Set check-ins for yourself to assess and graduate to the next level.  I’d recommend actually putting reminders in your calendar once a month to do a little journaling or reflecting with a friend/partner — how did you do at your first small goal?  Were you successful? If so, why? What worked? If not, what could you do to make it better? If you did find success, awesome! Set a slightly larger goal for the next month (maybe 5 minutes of movement daily, but 20 mins of exercise two of those days).

And perhaps most importantly, accept — no, expect — failure!  Most of us give up when we realize we’ve failed. So what? You failed for a whole week; there are 51 other weeks to try again.  Failure is going to happen. Use it as an opportunity to check in about how to improve, not as a time to berate yourself. If it were easy to succeed, we wouldn’t need resolutions!  This year, I’m trying to focus on my favorite quote from Switch: “Change isn’t an event, it’s a process.”

In short:

Dream big, break it down into small doable goals, embrace failure.

2. Notice the successes

One of our biggest problems as a species is our constant focus on failure.  (See what I did there?) But seriously, we are hard-wired to notice where things went wrong and rarely see the many things we did right along the way.  When planning your resolutions, think about a time when you did make an improvement, or when you had a positive habit already ingrained.  What was different about that time in your life? Is there anything you could control to emulate that time? Perhaps in college you had friends who went to the gym, so you tended to get dragged along.  Do you have a friend with whom you could set up a weekly social walk?

During the process, too, you can use these “bright spots” to your advantage.  In reflecting on the past month, don’t just point out where you failed. Make a conscious effort to see the times you succeeded!  It will give you hope, but also you may see trends appear. You were more successful when the weather was nice, because it enticed you to get outside, etc.  This intel can help you moving forward.

Take note of your successes, however small.  Use successful moments in your past to inform your process moving forward.

3. Be specific

You know that feeling when you want to be “eating better” but you’re not even sure what that means and you certainly don’t have the mental stamina to find recipes or make decisions?  That’s going to be a tough one to maintain. When you make the resolution, in addition to making it small enough to be manageable, make it specific enough that you don’t have to exhaust your cognitive spoons by planning or deciding each time you try to act.  Want to eat better? Great. How about “eat less refined sugar before bed” or “add a vegetable every day.” You’re no longer analyzing everything you eat. You have a checklist of one — did I eat a veggie yet today? If yes, success! If not, well, grab some cucumber slices!  Done.

Speaking of checklists, they can be so helpful to keep your goals present when planning your day, especially with loftier goals.  I decided a year ago that I needed to shift how I felt about mealtimes. I hated eating because it added so much stress and I always felt sick afterwards.  

I realized that rushing might be a huge part of this.  So, I decided to force my schedule to accept 30 minutes of cooking and 30 minutes of rest after eating.  This was never going to happen by just willing it. In writing my schedule or to-do list for the day, I added entire list items that I previously wouldn’t have bothered to include: cook, eat, post-meal laydown.  I check my lists frequently because, let’s face it, with my brain fog, nothing would get done if I didn’t write it down. Seeing 30 minutes to rest after each meal was like a huge weight lifted. I’m not lazy. I have to lay down.  The list says so! If someone wanted me to come to a meeting or socialize, it would have to wait 30 minutes, because my schedule for that time was booked. And the time makes up for itself, because I can be twice as productive when I feel recharged, when my POTS is under control, and when I’m not in and out of the bathroom for an hour.

Whether you’re an obsessive list writer or not, consider writing down your resolution’s action steps somewhere you’ll see them.  This, again, takes away the cognitive and emotional work, and lets you just do it so you can move on to the next thing.

Set clear goals with specific action steps, and write them down.

4. Change of scenery

Have you ever noticed it’s easiest to break a habit when you avoid the familiar?  Hang with a different crowd or move to a new place? We are habit-driven creatures.  It’s exhausting to think through every action, so your brain makes shortcuts (habits) so that it can run on autopilot.  We often think of habits as a bad thing (see tip #2!), like smoking getting defensive or biting our nails. But we do so many positive habits as well!  Brushing our teeth, looking both ways before crossing, cleaning… None of these habits came naturally. You had to teach your brain to incorporate them into its autopilot program!  So, good news, you can make your resolution into a habit too! Here’s how to do it — 

Change the environment in some way to jolt your brain into a new pattern.  That could be a slightly different schedule or layout of your living room, or maybe a different route to work.  Think about environmental changes that would support the change — hang out with friends who already eat well. Park further away so you’re forced to walk.  Keep less sugary food in the house. Buy an alarm clock so that you can turn your phone off before you go to bed. Eat in the living room instead of the kitchen, so that your couch is too inviting to pass up and you have to lay down.  You could also hang visual reminders around the house or ask a loved one to provide external accountability.

Engineer the habit — for the first week or two, make it your top priority!  Try to do it every day, so that it becomes second-nature (and therefore less work) in following weeks.  Switch describes using “action triggers” — associate the change with a habit you already have, and write it down to reinforce the connection in your brain.  Want to call your grandparents more? Associate it with a show you like to watch until your brain associates Sunday Game of Thrones or football with calling Grandma.  Want to get outside more? Schedule 20 minutes after dropping your kid at daycare to go to that park on your way home. If you need some inspiration for the power of conditioning, here’s a gem from The Office.

Change your environment (ideally in ways that make your goal easier) so that your brain can rewire to incorporate your new habit, which you should tack onto an already ingrained habit.  

5. Make the Right Resolutions

At the end of the day, you’re going to be more motivated if you truly want to change.  If your resolution is motivated by the desire to impress or appease others, rather than genuinely improve yourself, your heart just won’t be in it.  That’s why our theme for this month is self love.  Choose resolutions that will boost your relationship with yourself, not focus on the ways in which you don’t “measure up” in someone else’s eyes.

Stay tuned for the resolutions we’re thinking about this year!

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