Did you make New Year’s resolutions this year? How are they going?
According to researchers, approximately 50% of the population makes resolutions each New Year. Among the top resolutions are weight loss, exercise, smoking cessation, better money management and debt reduction. However, only about 8% of this group succeed. Does this matter?
Apart from the fact, that we do not ending up with the desired benefit of the change in our lives, when decisions to change our life in some significant way do not work, the experience of “failure” lowers our sense of competence and can feed into negative self-esteem cycles. Lowered self esteem has negative repercussions on all aspects of our life and so these failed resolutions end up being more destructive to our sense of well-being than if we had not made the decision. Nevertheless, change and growth are important. So how do we tackle this dilemma?
Let us first look at why resolutions/decisions to change don’t typically work:
People set unrealistic goals and expectations in their resolutions. The goals and expectations can be unrealistic for many reasons:
1. The goals are too distant from the current situation. In other words, the goal is good but does not take into account the starting point and the context in which change needs to happen as well as the time and effort that will be involved in achieving it. Even if progress occurs if the distance between what is achieved and the goal is too large we continuously feel overwhelmed, discouraged, and have a sense that we are failures. This does not support our effort to continue toward the goal. Instead, leads to discouragement, loss of hope and motivation and worst of all despair.
2. The goal is too large for the brain to handle. A new year’s resolution to quit smoking, start going to the gym, or lose lots of weight, requires the strength of our will to implement and achieve. Too big a goal is equivalent to lifting a 300 pound barbell without any previous training. Research suggests that willpower itself is inherently limited. The pre-frontal cortex that handles willpower is like a muscle that needs to be trained. So just like the bicep has to be trained in order to lift weight, so does the prefrontal cortex in the brain. If we start lifting too heavy a weight without training (set too lofty a goal) we are bound to drop everything on the floor.
3. The goal is not specified in terms of specific behaviors, but rather in abstractions. An abstract goal not tied to a specific behavior is nearly impossible for the brain to focus on. There is an important difference between a resolution and a habit and it is a habit that becomes instinctual and sticks over time. Fro example: For a Resolution to Quit smoking you might need to change a habit i.e. Stop smoking that 1 cigarette you have every morning after breakfast; Resolution: Eat healthy food vs. Habit: Start substituting that 1 daily morning pastry for a banana
4. The goals are “rational” but the person really does not believe in them. People do not attend to their emotional response to goals. If the goals are part of the “should” of life we will resist them. That is human nature! So we are already in conflict with ourselves even before we start.
5. People make resolutions as a way of motivating themselves but aren’t “ready to change” their habits, particularly bad habits. So we don’t have any motivation to actually make the change and that accounts for the high failure rate.
6. People think that a particular change will make them happy or change everything: The happiness trap. You may think that if you lose weight, or reduce your debts, or exercise more, your entire life will change, and when it doesn’t, you may get discouraged and then you revert back to old behaviors..
7. Some psychologists propose that many people are making resolutions for external reasons. These individuals think that just because it’s a new year, they’re obliged to say they’ll change their behavior. But once they face the reality of what they’re doing, they give up because they aren’t motivated enough in the first place. Ask yourself: If there were no pressure from others, would you want to change? Studies have shown that people are more likely to succeed in changing their behavior when they are motivated by internal rather than external forces.
So what are we to do?
The unfortunate truth is that change, all change, entails some degree of emotional friction, which in turn generates an activated state we call stress. When we can’t handle the stress we tend to self-sabotage. We are doomed to fail if, other than our well-intentioned resolve to change, we have done nothing to enhance our capacity to either sustain motivation or handle the inevitable stress and discomfort involved in change.
Saying this differently: To change our life we have to first change our mind!
Build Self Discipline: We often tell ourselves – I just don’t have self-discipline. I am lazy! I am weak! This leads to giving up and further despair and self-recrimination. The reality is that: You’re not born with self-discipline; it is a skill which you can develop. Will power is not a character trait.
Like a muscle, you need to develop your self-discipline muscle, one challenge at a time! Essentially, you build self-discipline by willfully enduring the transient discomfort of changing who and what you are. You do that by finding big and small ways to support and encourage yourself. Starting today, instead of reflexively feeling a need to minimize or escape the friction involved in change, recognize instead the need to endure it. Bottom line: Don’t bail! So before you focus on your goal, focus on training your brain.
1. Find internal motivation: Set goals because you desire them and not because it is an expectation/demand from the outside world and a set of “right” things/shoulds.
2. Use emotions wisely: A logical message with no appeal to emotion doesn’t create a strong enough response within us. We are persuaded by reason, but we are moved by emotion. Several studies conclude that up to 90 percent of the decisions we make are based on emotion. We use logic to justify our actions to ourselves and to others. However, understanding how we truly feel is critical. Living without self-awareness is like driving your car at night with the headlights off – technically, you can still drive, but you will eventually have a collision. So how do you really feel about your goals? Do you believe in them? Do you want them? Are they coming from you? Do you feel forced to adopt them? Are you anxious about them? Are they overwhelming?
3. Don’t fall for the happiness trap. Assuming that if I achieve this goal or have that outcomes in life will make me happy is a mistake. Happiness is an internal state of mind and being. Gradually de-couple your happiness from external events and as you can learn to loosen your attachment to circumstances and feel good regardless of what happens. So instead of getting happiness from circumstances, you bring happiness to circumstances. Happiness will then support the achievement of the goal not vice versa.
The flip side of the of happiness trap is the belief that if I am less happy it means I made a suboptimal choice in the past. That’s a very disempowering belief. The truth is that you always have power in the present moment — in fact, that’s the only place you do have power. So no matter how big any particular decision seems, the truth is that every moment is a process of decision-making. There really is no wrong path, no fatal decision that will totally disempower you. You can always choose again.
4. Think small. The “cognitive overload” research suggests that attending to more than 1 New Year’s resolution is near impossible for your brain to handle. Instead,
a. Analyze everything you’ve thought about to change and pick the one thing that’s most important for you.
b. Then, let go of everything else.
c. Then divide the resolution up and make the goal a habit first. And most importantly, make it a tiny one. For example, if the resolution is lose weight then the small habit might be: every evening after work, go for a 2-3 minute run or walk around the block. If the resolution is: Manage stress the habit might be: Meditate for 2-3 minutes every morning after you wake up. By immediately breaking down each resolution and seeing what the smallest habit could be, your chances of succeeding will be 50% higher. You make it so easy and simple for yourself to create that habit that there is almost no way you can fail with it.
5. Use positive reinforcement. Once you get used to making small things happen, begin to recognize your capacity. Focus on the carrot, not the stick – positive feedback and rewards increase your chance of success. We now have lots have research that outlines how clearly positive feedback on any of your new habits will increase the likelihood of your success with your new habits and resolutions.
a. Appreciate yourself for changes in your habits. Rewards that make you feel great are a sure fire way to increase your self-esteem and bring you success in other areas of your life too.
b. Celebrate your success between milestones. Don’t wait the goal to be finally completed.
c. Moreover, forgive shortfalls. Better to do the best you can than wind up jeopardizing your growing capacity for believing in yourself. When it comes to building trust, it’s better to lose the battle than the war.
6. Cultivate optimism. No one’s life is without negatives. The key is to train yourself to focus on the positives. Don’t let insecurity suggest there are no positives. Positives may be eclipsed by a habit of pessimistic negativity, but keep looking: They’re there. Pessimism is a habit and if we realize it’s a choice we might be able to find the positive.
7. Be patient: Brain scientists have discovered, through the use of MRIs, that habitual behavior or default behavior is created by cognitive patterns that create neural pathways and memories. So to engage in new behaviors, you have to change your thinking and “rewire” your brain. Trying to change that default thinking by “not trying to do it,” in effect just strengthens it. Change requires creating new neural pathways from new thinking. It takes time and effort.
8. Find external and internal supports:
a. Have an accountability buddy. Find someone close to you that you have to report to, if possible.
b. Focus on the present. What’s the one thing you can do today, right now, towards your goal?
c. Be mindful. Become physically, emotionally and mentally aware of your inner state as each external event happens, moment by moment, rather than living in the past or future.
d. Keep a sense of humor. And finally, don’t take yourself so seriously. Have fun and laugh at yourself when you slip, but don’t let the slip hold you back from working at your goal.
e. Repair and recover. The process of change is not linear. There will be ups and downs. The key is to celebrate your ups and recover from the downs.
Change is a process and not an outcome!