It’s mid-January, which means that the holidays are officially over and most people’s New Year’s resolutions have been thrown by the wayside, perhaps including yours. At the beginning of each new year, many of us make grand proclamations about what self-improvements we are going to make; how in this new year we are finally going to become the best versions of ourselves. And yet, by this time each January, we end up feeling like it will never happen and are resigned to defeat once again. Instead of giving up on your resolutions, maybe it’s time to reboot and put them into action in a way that will actually be sustainable this time around.
First, let’s take a look at why our resolutions don’t seem to work. The reality is that most of us are setting ourselves up for failure by the way we make resolutions to begin with: “I’m going to go to the gym EVERY day this year”, “I’m not going to eat any sweets EVER”, or “I’m going to quit smoking cold turkey.” When we frame our resolutions with such absolutes, we leave no room for error, for being human. It’s like saying that my goal is to run a marathon and imagining that I can get up tomorrow and run 26.2 miles. When we think about it like that, it sounds ridiculous and yet this is what so many of us do in making those resolutions. To run a marathon, maybe it makes more sense to commit to getting some sneakers and starting just by running down the block. Those grand proclamations that we make at the stroke of midnight on December 31st usually aren’t sustainable, and, when we can’t achieve them, it leaves us feeling angry with ourselves with significantly reduced motivation to try again.
This January, try something different and consider using some behavioral training principles to try again and reach success with your resolutions. A really useful concept to try is that of shaping, and increase behaviors in incremental ways with rewards all along the way in order to reach your desired goal. Instead of announcing that you’ll be going to the gym EVERY single day, think about setting a goal of going 2 times a week for the first few weeks, and make sure to find a way to reward yourself when you do that. Instead of NEVER again doing a behavior that you want to get rid of (e.g. smoking), try doing a gradual reduction again with rewards along the way. Make sure that the reward is fairly immediate, and is somehow linked to the behavior. This is called shaping and reinforcement, and research time and time again shows us that this is the most effective way to create lasting behavioral change.
Instead of accepting defeat this year when it comes to your New Year’s resolutions, accept that the process of change takes time AND that it is totally achievable when you set out to do it in a more effective way. Be realistic with yourself, and recognize that thinking in absolutes leaves us feeling absolutely defeated pretty quickly. Use the principles of shaping and reinforcement, and this will be the year that you actually get to know what crossing the finish line feels like.