By Erik Heninger
Welcome to the New Year! If you’re like me, you’ve taken a moment to reflect on the past twelve months and, if you’re an optimist, settle on “two or three manageable New Year’s resolutions.” Usually, this is where the creativity sets in – to eat healthier, be more frugal or achieve more of a work-life balance. But, if I’ve had the same three resolutions for the past decade, clearly I’ve not resolved anything. By the time you read this, there is a high probability I have settled back into my normal routine having abandoned those resolutions . . . again.
This expected recurrence begs these questions: (1) Are New Year resolutions a waste of time, and, if not, (2) How can we articulate goals that are achievable?
At the heart of making resolutions is our desire to improve some aspect of our lives. A New Year’s resolution is nothing more than a stated or written goal. From my perspective and experience, setting goals to improve the quality of our lives is always a good thing.
The timing of these new commitments can be important as well. Rationally speaking, the first day of a new year does not differ from any other day for setting goals of improvement. However, research suggests there are many good reasons to begin a new approach on the first day of a new year. And by understanding and capitalizing on those mechanisms, we can all increase our chances of sticking to our new goals.
Clues about timing come from the way the brain organizes its memories. Psychologists have found that, rather than seeing our life as a continuum, we tend to craft a narrative, divided into separate “chapters” that mark the different stages of our life. “People tend to think about life as if they’re characters in a book,” says Katy Milkman, a psychology professor at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of the book How to Change.
Those chapters may characterize major life events – such as arriving at college, getting married or the birth of your first child. But your mind can also split those major chapters into smaller sections so that the start of a new year can represent a break in the narrative. “Any time you have a moment that feels like a division of time, your mind does a special thing where it creates a sense that you have a fresh start,” says Milkman. “You’re turning the page, you have a clean slate, it’s a new beginning.”
Being conscious of our goals is the beginning of change, and any opportunity that motivates us to make them explicit provides a chance of success, be it January 1st or any other day.
If goals for improvement are good and the timing feels right, why do so many resolutions fail? For many of us, our purported goals are too ambitious or not specific enough. If our resolution is for a better work-life balance, how do we measure success? Is it number of hours worked? Is it number of added hours spent on “life” activities? Can the success or failure be reduced to units of time? With such a vague and ambitious goal, the definition of success is elusive.
Rather than dusting off last year’s resolutions for the tenth year in a row, we should strive to be more intentional and set goals that are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Related. Our resolutions need to be specific and measurable. The “I want to lose weight” resolution becomes “I want to lose two pounds a month.” Specific and measurable. This slight change has the added benefit of being time-related. We’ve defined the time to measure whether we’ve succeeded. Last, the goal needs to be achievable. Be realistic.
Some other suggestions for resolution success are:
Set daily/weekly/monthly (not annual) goals. Goals must be manageable to be repeatable. Repetition then becomes a habit. Setting time-related goals allows for more repetition.
Be patient. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” (Lao Tzu). Focus on the first 24-hour cycle, then the next, then the one after that.
Applaud effort not just the outcome. Here’s where achievability comes in again. Progress and improvement is the underlying goal. If we make progress but don’t fully meet or exceed our goal, that’s still progress. We need to allow ourselves some grace.
Be kind to yourself. We are our own worst critics. No wonder we struggle! The things we say to ourselves most of us would not dream of saying to others. Encourage yourself and tell yourself what you would say to others striving to work harder and be better.
Forgive yourself for lapses. I know my personal inner critic is at its worst having taken inventory of the day’s activities and my inevitable shortcomings. Forgiveness reminds me I am human and fallible, which also makes me relatable to others carrying on with their own struggles.
Any journey worth pursuing will include a few bumps along the way – but by understanding these aspects of personal change, we can increase our chances of reaching our goal.