Do New Year’s resolutions really help us achieve a better life?

Well it’s that time of year again…the New Year has hit us and many of us get excited by all the possibilities that go with the opportunity for reflection and a fresh start.. after the festive season of endless parties, lots of food and alcohol, holidays and a break from your usual routine, does any of this sound familiar?

Are you attempting to act on some New Year’s Resolutions you set with the best of intentions on January 1 2018 but worried already about your ability to sustain the change?

Alternatively, are you contemplating the resolutions you set yourself last year and beating yourself up for not achieving them?

Are you feeling like a failure and comparing yourself to all those around you who seem to have the ability to set goals and achieve them unlike you?

Are you noticing the urge to set some of the most common New Year’s resolutions such as losing 10 kilos, reducing your drinking, being organised or managing your finances better just as you did last year and the year before?

Are you realising that these goals are still just that….just goals that have not translated into action that have kept you stuck and dissatisfied with aspects of your life and maybe even created more discomfort due to not achieving them?

Are you looking at the friends on Facebook who all look relaxed and happy, beautiful, basking in the glory of wonderful holidays after that promotion last year, and wonder what you are doing wrong? What have they achieved to set themselves up for what appears to be such a happy life?

After all of that are you noticing your mind bring up a range of thoughts that are making you doubt your ability to achieve any further New Year’s Resolutions, such as:

What’s the point? I never seem to be able to change.

I’m too busy to make it happen. I’m too stressed. I deserve a few drinks or that chocolate block at the end of the day.

I’m always going to be this way – other people are able to change, but I have always been like this and so were my parents.

Well, you certainly are not alone. Recent research tells us that over 50% of the population make New Year’s Resolutions every year and the top resolutions are weight loss, exercise, stopping smoking, better money management and debt reduction, but only about 10% are successful at achieving these goals and maintaining new habits. These are some of the most common experiences for people setting resolutions.

Many people doubt whether it’s worth doing and many feel guilty and depressed for not achieving them with feelings of failure and regret dominating when they reflect on the previous year.

So what’s getting in the way? Are we better off letting them go? Are we giving up on change if we do?

What makes us not achieve New Year’s Resolutions?

New Year’s resolutions often fail for a range of reasons. Some of the most common reasons are:

Is the timing right for you to face change and be that uncomfortable? We set New Year’s resolutions with the intention to motivate ourselves into action, but just because it is January 1, doesn’t mean we are ready. Change is hard. My entire practice as a psychologist is built around people’s desire to feel better, to change patterns of thinking, feelings and behaviour and to reduce feelings of discomfort.

A lot of our habits, although they may be seen as dysfunctional, are ingrained habits often dating back to early childhood or adolescence that once served a positive function at that time, often addressing core needs that were not met or facilitating survival – for example emotional eating may have started out of a need for comfort in a stressful home environment, as a reward for hard work, as a way of being shown love, as a way of avoiding anxiety, sadness or pushing down anger.

As an adult it may just be creating more discomfort in the longer term than helping and when you are ready, the issues underneath the behaviour may be addressed as well as the work towards the desired change. This is where psychologists may often help to facilitate this process and help understand why you may continually be sabotaging yourself.

People are often at different levels of readiness for change. We contemplate the idea of change for a very long time generally before taking committed action and being in the right head space, with a reasonably rich understanding of yourself is vital for success. Just because it is January 1 doesn’t mean you are necessarily ready for the issues that may need to be addressed in order to make change happen. Timing is everything with change and support may be important too.

Do you really want to change or do you just think you should? You will only achieve your goals if it’s important to you, not others as we are never motivated to face discomfort and put in lots of effort long term when it is just for others. Sometimes those who love us may be quite vocal in their desire for change in us, and at other times the messages we get from society may also play a part in shaping our concerns about ourselves. Fundamentally, this is your life and you are in charge of what you have influence over, no one else. If you are driven to set goals shaped by your values, in other words what is meaningful to you, you are much more likely to achieve your goals. If you are driven by fear or other’s expectations, it will be a recipe for failure which will then make you feel even worse about yourself.

The goals are often too general, big and unrealistic. Many of us continually set unrealistic goals that are too large to be able to realistically achieve. I am always suggesting to people to break down their goals into manageable smaller steps and to be specific about what they are wanting to achieve. Be specific and set small achievable goals that are measurable. Focus on what you are going to do rather than what you are going to stop doing. Your brain is much more likely to create new behaviour patterns if you are able to get out of the old groove and set up a new neural pathway that is based on different associations and will support behaviour change through consistent reinforcement e.g. This could be an example of a specific goal ‘”When I feel very stressed at the end of a challenging day at work, I will talk about my stress with my partner or a friend and debrief the day rather than automatically pour a glass of wine” This is likely to be much more effective than just saying “I’m going to reduce my drinking”.

We get stuck on thoughts that get in the way. Our mind is a very powerful motivator but it is also capable of stopping us in our tracks and getting in the way of us living our life by our values., When we get stuck on certain thoughts, we sometimes get what we call “fused” with them (stuck on them), being unable to step back and observe them just as thoughts, and being under the false impression that they are facts. So for example the idea that it is going to be too hard to change becomes a story that we start to see as a reality, holding us back from taking any action. Our thoughts become our reality and we stay stuck in that old groove, feeling constrained to change.
So, what’s the answer then? It all sounds pretty hard doesn’t it? It is not surprising that the statistics tell us that only 10% of people actually sustain the change 12 months later after a New Year’s resolutions. So here are my final tips to follow to find a path that leads to acceptance of yourself and sustainable change in the areas that are important to you.

An alternative approach to setting meaningful goals that are based on what you truly want for your life

Give up the idea that the best time for setting an intention for change is January 1. We are always changing, sometimes subtly and sometimes more consciously and intensely. What is important is that we truly accept ourselves at any point in time, with our strengths and our weaknesses, and in the right timing set goals when we are ready for change and are able to articulate what makes it important for us to do it. See change as something that is ongoing. Setting smaller goals more often and when it is relevant for you is much more likely to be achievable and meaningful.

Know your values and have your values be the guide for action. Goals never achieve happiness or contentment (what we are often looking for from them) if they are empty goals, and lack relevance and meaning for us. One of the most powerful and insightful tools I work with these days in therapy, is identifying personal values. One of the ways we do this is to get clients to think about what they want to stand for, how they want to be remembered, what is meaningful to them. You can think about this for yourself as how you want others to speak about you when you die or what you would like your loved ones to say at your 80th birthday. If you want to be remembered as healthy by your children, as a parent who was present, active and able to run around in the park with them, what does that mean for the daily health habits you want to set up consistently now? When we behave in line with our values we are much more likely to achieve a meaningful life and when we set goals only based on our values we are more likely to feel motivated and to be willing to face discomfort in order to achieve them.

Identify barriers to change before you start. Make sure you reflect on your patterns that you are trying to change and what has got in the way in the past. If, like many people, you cannot work out why you keep doing things over and over again that are not helpful to you, sheer willpower will not be enough to make the change happen. There may be deeper reasons that are important to identify first and tools you need to learn to be able to catch thoughts that get in your way, and mindfulness skills that may assist you in learning to respond to emotions, sensations or urges differently that enable new neural pathways to be set for change. A psychologist may be helpful in assisting you with developing a greater understanding of your issues and supporting you through this change process.

Get support – We know that change is much easier to achieve when we have others around us who believe in us and are supportive of change. Sometimes people around us may also do the opposite and attempt to sabotage your progress. It is a nice idea to think that everyone who cares about us will be supportive but sometimes your change may force others to feel uncomfortable as it pushes some sensitive buttons for them, and these people may attempt to put pressure on you to be like you used to be so the relationship will be just as it once was. It is important to understand that your change may have some people celebrate with you and others back away when you don’t go back to how you were. Surround yourself with those who are supportive and find a buddy if appropriate who is setting similar goals but also prepare yourself for some challenges. How important your change is to you will determine how resolute you are in not being swayed by the ones who are challenged by your progress.

Practice self compassion, persistence and resilience when you have setbacks to get back on track. Remind yourself that you are human like everyone else, you will react emotionally and fall back into old patterns and sometimes struggle to stay on track. Never expect change to be a linear curve, but expect ups and downs and plateaus and then you will be prepared and more flexible when life throws you curve balls that get in your way of consistent change. Be kind to yourself and let go of the self critic. When this happens try to also watch out for the comparisons with everyone else around you. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses and social media is not a true or honest representation of how people are doing. We don’t see many failures on social media – just the successes and happy times and none of the other stuff in between. So when things go wrong, just see it as an opportunity to learn more about yourself and use that knowledge to get back on track, becoming more committed to change each time. It takes at least 4 weeks to create a sustainable habit so be persistent and patient.

So take this opportunity to be free of the idea that New Year is the perfect time to set goals and start to think about what you want for your life with a greater degree of flexibility. Buying a perfect house, earning a certain amount of money or having the most beautiful holidays are not the pathways to contentment, even if society fools you into believing that sometimes. Knowing what matters to you and being prepared to rise to that challenge and be brave and authentic is what makes the difference. Change means facing fear and discomfort, change means being willing to be vulnerable, change means sustained consistent effort and sacrifice. Take it at your own pace but take up the challenge for yourself… not for anyone else. At Attuned we are here to guide you with your unique pathway to change and feel privileged to support your growth and development.

Alexandra Frost, Clinical Psychologist

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