Every year around this time, the drumbeat of self-improvement begins. We are going to hit the gym 5 days a week, cut out processed foods, re-commit to personal growth, or finally write that memoir. You name it, someone’s committed to it one January.
Nevertheless, most people find that their resolutions fall flat by mid-Feb. And there are few things worse for our mental health than the vague sense of guilt we feel when we aren’t living up to our potential.
Rather than sign up for another year on the goal/guilt merry-go-round, perhaps it’s wiser to make resolutions that stick. Here’s what the experts say:
Don’t Go Big
Go big or go home? Nah. Research shows that a more successful approach lies in starting small. Creating small, attainable goals is a step ladder to success and the scaffolding that allows you to achieve bigger goals. So instead of committing to 5 days a week at the gym this January, why not try just one day a week? Here’s why: When we set a goal that is achievable, we get the feel-good buzz of accomplishment. From there, we can build. Experts say that working towards a goal incrementally is more likely to get us there. So instead of focusing on the end result or the finish line (say, for example, having six-pack abs), we start with the smallest step towards that goal (maybe doing a 1-minute plank pose every day). This way, we get to celebrate our successes instead of trudging endlessly towards a goal that is likely to remain out of reach for a while.
Attach it to Another Habit
Another strategy researchers suggest when trying to build new habits is to attach your goal habit to something that you already do regularly. For example, sticking with the fitness metaphor: you might struggle to get to the gym 5 days a week, but doing a few squats every time you brush your teeth can create a meaningful impact. One researcher found success in doing 5 push-ups every time he went to the bathroom.
Trying to improve your meditation practice but struggling to find the time? How about making a habit of practicing deep breathing every time you take a shower?
Of course, not all of your habits need to be attached to things you do in the bathroom, but the point is this – find something you already do without a struggle. Then, connect a new intended habit to it.
Those of us in recovery tend to have an “all or nothing” mindset. If I can’t go to the gym every day this week, I might as well not go. These self-defeating attitudes keep us from making the incremental progress that is often needed when aiming for a goal. Research suggests that self-compassion is a much more effective strategy. Going easy on yourself doesn’t mean you’ll be more likely to slack off. Rather, when you inevitably slack off (because you are human), self-compassion allows you the grace to get moving again.
Here is the truth: changing our lives and our habits is slow and hard work. It’s a long game. Most of us will falter, get distracted, and re-commit before faltering again. The most important thing is not that you are unwavering – it is that once you fall off the beam you get back on again. People who find lasting success are the ones who continue to get back up, again and again. It might mean a bruised ego, and will certainly take some grit, but most things worth doing don’t come easy.
Whatever your resolutions for the year ahead, we wish you luck, steady progress, and the grace to keep going when it’s hard.
Happy new year, from our family to yours