New Year’s Resolutions: Proven Ways to Keep Them

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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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