Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

New Year’s Resolutions: Proven Ways to Keep Them

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New Year's Resolutions: How to Set Them Up For Keeps

There’s something about January – beginnings, endings and that persuasive new year pull to reflect, reboot and move towards a happier, healthier version of ourselves. The promise of this is exciting but transformation is messy, and the process towards change can be a maddening one.

There is nothing necessarily special about January that will give lift-off to our wants and wishes any more than any other time of the year. What’s important is how we set up the goals that we want to give chase to.

The success of a new year’s resolution is heavily dependant on willpower. Though at times, willpower can seem to be the fair-weather friend that deserts us when we need it most, research has found proven and powerful ways to prime its strength and endurance. 

Here is a list of things that will help protect any goal from crashing into that cold wasteland where too many achievable, unrealised goals end up. Making any change will make a difference. All will take some degree of willpower themselves, but stay with them because as is the way with the things that are good for us, they will give back so much more than they take. 

The key to changing habits and behaviour.

  1. Make the force for change greater than the force to stay the same.

    This is where a lot of new year’s resolutions come unstuck. Change will only happen when the payoffs for changing are bigger than the payoffs for staying the same. Whether our behaviour is working for us or not, the force to stay the same can be huge – certainty, familiarity, comfort, the devil you know trumping the devil you don’t. It’s why we stay with bad relationships, bad jobs, bad situations and hold on tightly to bad habits. 

    Doing too much too quickly will always see a new year’s resolution struggle to breathe. The more unfamiliar something is, the greater the force to stay the same. Try breaking a big goal (for example, ‘get healthy’) into smaller chunks that can be tackled one at a time. (Do four 30 minute exercise sessions a week, then when that feels established, move to cutting back on sugar for 3 days a week and then keep going from there. Get the idea?)

    Smaller, less intrusive steps towards a goal are less likely to get barreled off track by the force to stay with the seductive, easy comfort of the familiar.

  2. Stay with the discomfort.

    Transformation will always be messy. The messiness can feel like a stop sign, but it’s not. It’s a sign that you’re right at the edge, between what is familiar and what is new. Choose the new. For a while, this will feel awkward and so damn hard. New things are like that and at the start they will often come with feelings that churn you with their discomfort. Some typical players are guilt, frustration, anger, sadness, grief. The bad feelings can be breathtaking but the more they swell, the closer they bring us to doing something life-changing. Nobody ever found crystalline, life-giving change through indifference and perfect balance. It is the recognition of imbalance and the seeking of balance that brings on change. Call on your emotional courage to keep you moving forward. It will be there but it might not look the way you think it will. It might look like stillness and softness and surrender. Courage isn’t always fierce and resistant, and change isn’t always dramatic or forward moving. It doesn’t have to be fast or done in wide lengthy strides. Sometimes the movement towards change is an amble. And it’s always okay to crawl. 

  3. Don’t jump too quickly out of the crappy feelings.

    One of the reasons bad habits are so hard to break is because they often provide relief from the discomfort that comes with life. Trying something new might bring on the very feelings you’ve been using your habits – drinking, eating, loving losers, shopping – to avoid. When wildly uncomfortable feelings find you, try staying with them for a little longer than usual. A feeling is just a feeling. It will come and it will go, but avoid sending it packing too quickly. There will be wisdom, strength and resolve in that feeling if you stay with it for long enough. When things are unfamiliar or hard, the tendency will always be to turn back to what’s familiar, which will likely be the behaviour you are trying to change. 

  4. Embrace the setback. It’s part of the messy adventure.

    At some point, probably at many points, it will be two steps forward, one step back. These are not setbacks, they are life, and all a part of the beautiful, messy, imperfect adventure. Every setback contains wisdom that can propel you forward. Be open to this and use the learnings to stand strong, settled in the fierce knowledge that you are closer to your goal than you were yesterday, or any day before now. Moving backwards is all part of getting there, but how the setback is interpreted is pivotal.

    Resist the overwhelming urge to interpret the backward step as failure. It’s not. It’s an important part of the process. This will take guts – embracing a setback isn’t easy but it is critical.

    It is often inside the setback that the beautiful transformative things reside – the missing things that will jet us forward. Be open to the great and likely possibility that the backward steps aren’t standing in the way of growth, because they are the growth.

  5. Sleep. (Oh, that again?? Yep. Again.)

    When you have less than six hours of sleep, the frontal region of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) is much less effective. The prefrontal cortex is critical for making good decisions, planning, considering consequences and resisting temptation. It is a key player in changing habits and is basically the control panel for life. It holds tightly the image of the person we are striving to be, so we can resist the open embrace of short-term gains that will swipe at the long-term ones.  The pre-frontal cortex will keep us on track for long-term success, but to do this it has to be well-rested. A study exploring the effects of sleep on the willpower of people who were recovering from drug addiction found that those who received an extra hour of sleep (8 hours compared to 7) were more resistant to relapse. Sleep strengthens willpower for even the toughest of willpower challenges. A lack of sleep, on the other hand, will drain it. 

  6. Mindfulness.

    Practicing mindfulness for 10-20 minutes a day changes the physiology of the brain. The prefrontal cortex is bigger and more dense after a couple of months of daily mindfulness. Research has found that a regular practice of mindfulness increases the gray and white matter in the parts of the brain that are key to attention and self-control. Mindfulness involves attending to what is happening in the present moment without judgement or analysis. As well as building up the brain’s gray and white matter in critical areas, mindfulness strengthens the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the parts of the brain that we want it to influence, namely those parts that would see us give in to the heady lure of an immediate reward.

  7. Exercise

    Regular exercise strengthens the pre-frontal cortex which, as we know, is the mothership of all that keeps us sturdy, strong and on track. 

  8. Willpower is finite, but it can be managed.

    Willpower is limited. None of us have an endless supply. If we say ‘no’ all day to the coffee we’ve been craving since we woke up, as well as to the sugary treats  that we’re trying to kick, as well as trying to find the motivation to stick to a new exercise program, by the end of the day willpower will be so depleted that not only will we be reaching for the coffee, but also something so bad but so delicious, and forget about the workout because that wine is trying too hard for attention. When the well runs dry, all good intentions run dry with it. The more we practice willpower, the stronger it gets, but we have to be careful not to overuse it by doing too much too soon. There are a few ways to manage willpower reserves and replenish the supply:

    •  Start Small.

    There’s no hurry. The aim is long-lasting change, not something fast and fleeting. Start with small changes to help keep willpower reserves strong. Change can happen just as profoundly from a series of small changes as it can with a massive leap. 

    •  Glucose – but not too much.

    The brain needs glucose for energy, but willpower draws on those energy supplies. Glucose refuels the brain and replenishes willpower but the glucose has to be the real deal – the brain can tell the difference between glucose and artificial sweeteners and it won’t buy into the swap. In one study, researchers found that when participants with depleted willpower drank lemonade, their willpower was restored. Drinking sugar-free lemonade made no difference. It is important to be light-handed with glucose intake though. Spikes or plunges in blood sugar will mess with willpower. 

    •  Develop a routine.

    The more decisions you have to make, the greater the willpower drain. Limit the need for decisions by developing a routine around the behaviours you are trying to change. For example, if you’re trying to live healthier, try to have a set time to exercise and sketch up a menu plan at the beginning of the week so you don’t have to think too hard about when to move and what to eat.

  9. No beat-ups today.

    Bad feelings will cause willpower to crumble like stale bread. Guilt, shame, anger, self-blame or any feeling that lacks self-compassion will make it harder to stick to a goal. In one study, people who were trying to eat healthier were asked to eat a donut and drink a full glass of water to amp up the feeling of fullness. They were then asked to take part in a taste test, in which they were encouraged to eat as many lollies as they wanted in order that they could effectively evaluate the taste. Between the donut and the lollies, half the participants were given a message designed to nurture their self-compassion. The other half received no message at all. The message went along the lines of, ‘People sometimes eat unhealthy, sweet foods … I hope you won’t be hard on yourself. Everyone eats unhealthily sometimes … so I don’t think there’s any reason to feel really bad about it.’

    The people who had been given the message to encourage their self-compassion ate less than half as many lollies as the group who didn’t receive the message. These findings are powerful.

    Self-compassion replenishes willpower.

    Giving yourself a hard time when you miss a beat on your way to a goal, will drive more of the behaviour you’re feeling bad about. Instead, when things don’t go to plan, draw on self-talk that encourages self-compassion. Let it contain these three things:

    •  Self-kindness.

    Use the words and tone that you would use to someone you cared about if they slipped up on their new year’s resolution. 

    •  Mindfulness of thoughts and feelings.

    Notice thoughts and feelings and own them so you are less likely to distract yourself by falling into old habits. It’s very normal to turn to familiar habits as a way to step out of bad feelings, but awareness and tolerance of bad feelings will avoid the need for distraction.

    •  Reminder of our common humanity.

    Willpower will fail when we feel as though we are broken in some way. None of us are perfect and sometimes we need to remind ourselves of this. A willpower fail is part of the process, not a sign that there is something about us that is faulty. Relapse, procrastination, slip-ups – they’re all a normal part of the way we humans trek towards a goal.

  10. Know your future self.

    The more disconnected we feel from our future self, the less likely we are to preserve the health and happiness of that future self. Those who are closer to their future selves will have a greater capacity to delay gratification and consider the long-term consequences of their decisions. To solidify the commitment to a new year’s resolution (or any resolution), connect with your future self by writing a letter to him or her from the present self. Talk about who you are and what you are doing. Talk about the struggle you’re having and then write a letter from your future self to your present self, thanking you for doing what you’re doing. It might sound odd, but research has proven that works. Sometimes you just have to go with it. 

  11. Be realistic about failure.

    Optimism is a great thing, but too much of it can sabotage a resolution by making setbacks a bigger deal than they need to be. The more you are able to predict the things that will get in your way, the more you can plan for the setbacks and work around them. A powerful way to do this is to keep track of failure. Here’s how to do that:

    •  Identify the goal.

    •  Name the most positive outcome.

    •  Decide on the steps you’re going to take to reach this goal.

    •  What might be the biggest obstacle to reaching your goal?

    •  When, where and why is this obstacle likely to happen?

    •  Is there anything you can do in advance to prevent the obstacle?

    •  When the setback happens, exactly what will you do to get things back on track?

  12. Reward yourself.

    There’s nothing wrong with having a little something special waiting for you when you do something that moves you towards your goal. If you’re new year’s resolution is to say ‘no’ more often, it will take a while before any ‘no’ feels comfortable. It might never feel great, but it will become more familiar and more okay. In the meantime, rather than make it easier for yourself to do what you need to do. As well as this, the results might take a while to show up. Have little moments of feel good with little rewards. It’s always okay to encourage the good with the good.        

  13. Get to know ‘what is’.

    People don’t stay in bad situations because they’re weak, and flying that kind of talk will only kill the motivation to change. Nobody wants to be seen as weak, pathetic or unmotivated, and accusing anyone of this (including yourself) is more likely to fuel the scramble to find the justifications for not changing. It’s human nature to become defensive when we’re attacked, whether that attack is from ourselves or another.

    The antidote to this is a gentle acceptance of ‘what is’. It’s paradoxical, but the more we can accept what is and live in that fully, the greater the frustration around that situation or behaviour. When the frustration becomes unbearable enough, which it will, there will be a fierce readiness to change. The only way to feel the power of that frustration is to be fully present with what you are doing. For example, let’s say you’re unhappy in your relationship but aren’t sure whether you should leave or stay. Commit to a full embrace of where you are for a certain period, and really feel what it means for you to be in that relationship. Resist fantasising or wishing it was different and instead be fully there. Feel what it’s like to settle in to your relationship as though you’re never going to leave. Feel what it’s like to really come home to that person, to say ‘I love you’, to hear it back. Be attentive, loving and nurturing and let the full experience of that soak into you. Either it will shift things in a positive, loving way and strengthen your connection or it will strengthen your resolve to leave. Either way, the greater the acceptance or the greater the frustration the more settled or ready for change you will be. 

And finally …

There is nothing straightforward about being human. We are a complicated, beautiful, messy mix of wants, needs, loves, disappointments and frustrations, and we are steered by the desire to be the best we can be. The version of ourselves that fits us best will look different for everyone but whatever it is, it will always be open to change. The movement towards change can be terrifying and exciting but it is also unavoidable. We are constantly evolving, and changing whether we like it or not but the more deliberate we can be and the more we can be to imperfection and stumbles, the greater our capacity for full, rich living.

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