Ahh, it’s that time of the year… Time to set new year’s resolutions, go really hard at it for a month, then give up like it’s no one’s business… until the next year when we get to do it all over again. I’m joking of course, but most of us have been there. We become enchanted when setting goals and set high expectations for ourselves, thinking that on January first we will become a totally different person with a totally different lifestyle and habits. But then after some time, reality sets in and we revert back to our ‘old’ behaviors, doing what feels natural and comfortable to us. The reality is, that simply deciding what we want isn’t enough. It requires adjustment, giving up old ways, incorporating new ones, trial and error, shifting your mindset, and thinking in new ways. I want to share one way (my way) of looking at resolutions. Keep reading, utilize what’s helpful, find what works for you, and ditch the rest!
Why do we struggle with creating and maintaining new behaviors?
As human beings, we crave consistency. We become set in how we see ourselves and who we think we are. This self-image is located in our subconscious mind and based on how we see ourselves, it guides our behavior and actions. For example, in the past when I saw myself as a smoker, I would consistently go to buy cigarettes, but now that I’m a non-smoker, I don’t do that because smoking doesn’t match my identity. We have established habits and do the same thing every day. We behave in predictable ways, think the same thoughts, and even have a range of feelings that are familiar to us that we experience most of the time. Essentially, we don’t deviate much from our set patterns and ways in which we see ourselves. When we set new year’s resolutions, we don’t think about all the things we would have to change and what kind of person we need to be in order to accomplish our goals.
We say we will do things that are new to us and that we will behave in ways that we generally don’t behave. These new goals, most of the time go against our deeply ingrained identity and in a sense, require us to be a different person. Let’s say your goal is to work out five times a week starting on the first of January, but you currently don’t work out at all. This behavior is not consistent with your current identity and will require a lot of effort to create and sustain. Your brain will work hard to keep you in your consistency of not working out, meaning it would take a lot of will power to intentionally keep doing the new behavior.
We can do new behaviors for a short while by relying on will power, but this wears off over time. New behaviors feel almost impossible to maintain for the long term, unless we change the way we see ourselves and practice new identities.
Since we can’t do a reset on who we are, all of our unhealthy habits, ways of being and thinking simply roll into the new calendar year. The most basic premise of why I believe new year’s resolutions fail is because most people operate from a mindset of HAVE -> BE -> DO, meaning that they believe if they HAVE something, they will BE someone (different), and then they will DO things differently. This can help you create change, but it will take a lot of effort. A different paradigm that can actually help sustain, not just new year’s resolutions, but any new goals and behaviors is BE -> DO -> HAVE. This paradigm shifts the mindset to: Who do I need to BE, in order to DO the things I want to do, so I can HAVE things that I desire. This way of thinking is addressing the core identity first. In order to accomplish our goals, we need to BE a different person. For example, in order to be fit, lose weight, start exercising, start reading books, spend less, etc. (whatever goals you may have), you need to be someone who can delay pleasure, be determined, be uncomfortable, give up using food as a coping mechanism and reward… Essentially, you need to be that person at your identity in order to do those behaviors that you want.
Setting goals for yourself is wonderful, you just need a better way to set goals. And of course, I wouldn’t be a therapist if I didn’t believe we can create change in our lives. Google claims that the most common new year’s resolutions are: starting to exercise and wanting to lose weight, so I will use these goals as an example throughout.
Here are a few tips on what to consider when setting new year’s resolutions.
1.What is your intention?
Really think about why you want this. There is no wrong answer, but you need to know what your reason is. Knowing your ‘why’ can make a world of difference as it creates an intrinsic motivation and desire to keep going when you struggle the most. Why do you want this, why it is important to you, how will it change your life?
Anyone can stick with a new behavior for a short while, but unless this new behavior/goal/habit is supported by your lifestyle, it is unlikely that it will be sustained over a longer period of time. Think about what you need to adjust in order to make this new goal part of your life. Do you need to give up something in order to create this change, and are you ready to give up? What adjustments do you need to make so you can keep doing this for a long time, not just for a few weeks or months?
This will make a true difference in you staying consistent. You have to be able to see yourself embodying and living this new goal. Create an image in your mind of what your life would look life if you already accomplished your goals or if you already live like this new behavior is part of your lifestyle. See your life unfolding in the exact way that you want, doing the things that you want. Having an image in your mind will not only solidify these goals but will work on a deeper level of changing your identity. Truly envision yourself living your life exactly how you want it to go, as if you already live as that person you want to become with having your goals achieved. One of my life mantra’s is: If you can perceive it – you can achieve it!
4.Be realistic and consistent, not perfect.
This one goes hand-in-hand with thinking long-term, especially in the case that you are looking to create a behavior change. How realistic is it that you will never eat that food, or that you will never skip a workout? It’s life! Again, setting really high, unrealistic goals will likely set you up for failure. Start with smaller, manageable things that you can actually maintain. Keep focusing on consistency and doing things you want most of the time instead of focusing on doing it 100% and seeing it as a failure that one time you don’t do it. It will always matter more what you do most of the time.
5.Have a support system.
People around you may be (inadvertently) sabotaging your attempts or they may be uncomfortable with you wanting to change things. These attempts can even be well meaning, but ultimately, they support your old behavior in which they were more comfortable. One person changing something in any dynamics requires other people to adapt. If you notice overt or covert resistance from those around you, check in with them and see if they are willing to support you. Tell them specifically and directly how they can help you with your new behaviors and habits.
6.Give up self-judgment.
Self-criticism and self-judgment may sound like good motivators, but even if you get to accomplish your goal, you won’t feel good about yourself. See your self-critic as a person that is right there next to you every single day, trying to motivate and navigate you through life. When you are struggling, imagine it telling you something supportive like: “I know that you are struggling right now, but think of what you really want for yourself.” Instead of “you are so weak and can’t do anything right.” Keep thinking about what you would tell yourself if you were your biggest supporter, always wanting what is best for you.
7.Pay attention to the words you use.
What you tell yourself and how you word your goal may not sound like a big deal, but it is. We reinforce our behaviors by the words we use, and certain words can sabotage our attempts to maintain change. For example, saying that you want to “lose weight,” even if it’s a specific amount of weight, can set you up for failure. Why? Because when your goal is to lose a certain amount of weight, it implies that once you accomplish that goal, you are going back to your “normal” ways of eating. If the goal is to lose weight, it implies ‘one and done.’ A better way of wording it is to make adjustments in the lifestyle that will support a different relationship with food for the long-term. Needing to lose weight likely requires a different way of thinking about food (for example, thinking of it nurturing your body versus rewarding oneself with food or using it as a coping mechanism), or may require acquiring a skill of cooking. A similar example is the word ‘diet.’ When we say we are on a diet, it implies temporary adjustments after which we will go back to ‘old’ ways of eating.
8.Pause before acting
We act on autopilot and don’t take a lot of time to think before we engage in behaviors. To really get to the core identity of change, practice slowing down and thinking about what you are doing in any moment. Ask yourself: Did I choose this right now, or am I just doing this because it’s a habit? Is this what I want to be doing in this moment? Does this bring me closer or further from what I want for myself? Why do I keep doing this? Get to the core of what this current behavior is doing for you and why it’s so hard to give it up.
9.Set yourself up for success.
See if you can predict things that derailed you in the past or things that may come up that will get in a way of you accomplishing your goal or creating a change. Think of how you can incorporate small steps towards your goal while having in mind your lifestyle. It is unlikely that you will all of the sudden summon the courage, carve out the time, give up the things you were doing before, and become disciplined to go to the gym seven times a week. Well, you might for a while, but you will burn out really quickly.
This was one of the best pieces of advice someone gave me when I first started exercising. Every day I was deciding if I wanted to workout. This allowed me to convince myself not to workout because “it’s too hot, it’s too cold, I’m not in a mood, now is not a good time…” But, when I stopped negotiating and decided that I will workout at least five days a week first thing in the morning, regardless if I’m motivated or not, it changed everything. I decided it will just be part of my routine, like brushing my teeth. No one really thinks about needing to be motivated to brush their teeth…I hope. If you negotiate with yourself in the moment, you will rarely want to do something that is not part of your normal routine.
Take it easy on yourself and really think about what kind of life you want for yourself. What are some things (that are important to you) and experiences that you want to remember? Think about your values and taking things one day at the time. BE -> DO -> HAVE.
Happy New Year!