How can we ensure that our New Year’s resolutions don’t become a joke?

Change is hard and how we resolve to make those changes makes a huge difference. As a clinical psychologist, I bear daily witness to the process of growth and change and the many paths it takes. Here are some common mistakes people make with their resolutions and more effective ways resolve to change.

1. We don’t specify concrete behavior.

We cannot make progress without knowing what action to take.

We have a general sense of what we want to change but we don’t translate this into an actionable goal. For example, consider something like “I will spend more time with my family” or “I will be kinder to myself,” or “I need to work on being more grateful.” While these are worthwhile goals, we don’t define a pathway to achieve them. Without any clear behavioral change, we inevitably fail to live up to our aspirations.

Instead, specify one new action that we can take:

  • “I will spend more time with my family” might translate into “I will set aside 6 - 8 pm on Mondays to be at home.”
  • “I will be kinder to myself” might translate into “I will set an alarm for myself at 5pm and reflect for 2 minutes on forgiving myself for my mistakes that day.”
  • “I need to work on being more grateful” might translate into “I will write myself a reminder in my prayer book so that I can intentionally express thanks to God for at least one thing.”

Taking concrete action itself is a change and can eventually lead us to our goal.

2. We use negative phrasing.

Our bad habits and failure often stand out to us more strongly than what we could be. When setting our goals, we tend to focus on what should not be rather than what should be. This leads to setting “dead man goals” – goals that we could accomplish if we were dead. For example, we might say “I’m going to be on my phone less” or “I’m not going to overeat” or “I’m not going to waste as much time.” Those goals could be reached if we were dead or sleeping, not doing anything at all. We need to define the goal to which we can move forward, not just a problem to move away from.

  • “I’m going to be on my phone less” can translate into “I’m going to install an app that blocks my access to social media from when my kids get home from school until they go to bed.”
  • “I’m not going to overeat” might translate into “I’m going to drink two liters of water per day.”
  • “I’m not going to waste so much time” might translate into “I’m going to schedule myself ‘chill time’ at 9 pm so I don’t feel like I need so many breaks during the day.”

If we can formulate what we would like to be doing differently instead of what we don’t want to be doing, we stand a much better chance of reaching our goals.

3. We aim too big.

People desire to improve their lives, so when we see what needs to be changed we want to go all the way. But we overestimate our capabilities and underestimate our human weaknesses. If we set a goal to get more sleep, we take it to mean that we should aim to get eight hours a night. If we set a goal to eat healthier, we take it to mean that not one bite of chocolate, candy, or cake should enter our mouths. We set standards that we will inevitably not reach which quickly leads to experiencing a sense of failure and giving up on our goals and our resolutions to change.

It would be more effective if we cut our goals in half, and then cut it in half again. For example, maybe I want to lose weight. Keeping in mind the need to identify a positively-phrased concrete behavior as a goal, I decide that I will prepare myself healthy snacks to take to work instead of visiting the snack machine. Or maybe I decide to drink two liters of water per day. The motivation and positivity that I feel in the moment blinds me to the fact that these goals are too big a departure from the status quo for me to possibly maintain.

On the other hand, if I cut them down significantly – say I decide to drink half a liter of water a day or choose one day a week on which to prepare healthy snacks – I am far more likely to succeed. And once I succeed I gain the opportunity to level up and start drinking a whole liter a day.

4. We assume motivation is constant and that commitment is long-term.

Buoyed by positivity and motivation, we tell ourselves that from now on we will be doing things differently. We underestimate the power of habit and the comfort of the status quo. The motivation we feel now will inevitably fade, even though making a smaller change may help prolong it a bit. We will fall back into the ease of old patterns and not feel as motivated for change as we once did. We mistakenly assume this won’t happen, and compound the mistake by assuming that when it happens, we have failed.

This isn’t the case. Motivation rising and falling and commitment growing weaker and stronger does not make us a failure; it makes us human. If we can gracefully and forgivingly accept that our motivation and commitment are as fickle as our emotions, we open the door to our ability to return to them again and again as needed, rather than abandoning them as failed efforts.

One way to do this is to plan our changes to be time-limited from the start. For example, I commit to drinking half a liter daily for one month.

Another way to do this is to be grateful for the wave of motivation, knowing that we will ride it as long as it lasts and then intend to return to it at a future time, not only at the new year!

How can we make the wave last as long as possible? For this we turn to our final point:

5. We don’t anticipate obstacles in advance.

Riding the wave of our motivation and commitment, we feel powerful and confident in our ability to change. But our confidence may blind us to the fact that we often fall into predictable patterns of behavior or thought that trap us in our status quo. Taking the time to self-reflect on what might happen would go a long way in helping us problem-solve in advance.

For example, you set the goal of not using your phone during your kids’ dinner and bedtime. Ask yourself what might happen to cause you to be on my phone. You may suddenly remember an important message that you have to send. Then you can mentally plan that if that happens you will write a reminder to take care of it later.

We will never be perfect and we will never reach all of our goals. But we are capable and desiring of growth and change, and by setting goals with the knowledge of our strengths and weaknesses, we can go very far indeed.