The new year is here and you know what’s coming. Family members, friends and coworkers will ask, “What are your resolutions this year?” Usually it’s just an idle conversation starter. But sometimes they are seriously interested, which may mean to you that you need to get serious about making one. Or not. The very idea may make you annoyed, anxious or even depressed.
Whatever your reaction, the questions do raise awareness of the yearly ritual. Maybe, just maybe, it’s time to do something to improve your life.
The trouble with those New Years’ resolutions is that they are notoriously hard to keep. In fact, research about the success rate (yes, people do research these things) is pretty grim. About 80% or more of resolutions fail by February; most in the first 48 hours! And yet 45% or more of Americans admit to making them. Even those who don’t actually make them do generally muse about whether they should or could. Sadly, ff we believe the research, those who do are only setting themselves up to fail.
Why then do so many people even bother? It seems to be in our DNA. The ritual of setting new goals for ourselves at New Years goes all the way back to ancient Roman times. January is named for the Roman god, Janus, the god of transitions; beginnings and endings. On ancient Roman vases and statues he has two faces: One that looks forward to the future and one looks back to the past.
On December 31, the Romans are said to have believed that Janus was doing what most of us do — looking back over the prior year and forward to the new one. It was a time for people to forgive others for whatever needed forgiving from the past and to make promises to do better in the new year.
We may not worship Janus, but there is something in human nature that finds the idea that we can start over on just about anything on January 1st compelling. We’ve been doing it for over 2,000 years.
What defeats people’s good intentions? Generally, it’s the very human trait of over-thinking. Over-thinking can make us discouraged about our ability to tackle the very issue we want to tackle. Over-thinking can make us feel terrible about the fact that we have let something go for so long that we need to do something about it. Let’s face it: It feels awful if you haven’t lost that weight or if you haven’t called your friends for months. You may feel guilty or ashamed or even scared if you haven’t stopped drinking or smoking too much.
If all that doesn’t make it difficult enough, over-thinking about making even a positive change can also be anxiety-provoking. Sometimes it feels like it is better not to try than to try and fail. It’s understandable that you might not even want to start.
Even so — just maybe this can be the year when you can be one of the success stories. Just maybe you can take a deep breath and give it a try. After all, 20% of those who make resolutions do stick to them. Maybe you can too. What does research tell us about the difference between those that succeed and those that fail?
When I looked into it, I found many studies that outlined steps that were too numerous or too complicated. I’ve therefore taken the liberty of summarizing what I discovered to keep it as simple as possible.
- Focus on the solution instead of the problem. Ruminating about the problem or telling yourself how hard it would be to change will defeat you before you even start. Focus on the resolution that just might be the solution.
- Set intermediate goals: Forget about setting a goal for a whole year. The pay-off is too far off. Instead, set a goal for the month, the week, or even the next day or two. When success is within reach, it is far easier to stay on track. Experiencing success will give you the boost you need to repeat your plan.
- Keep the goal small and doable: You may want to run a marathon but the idea is daunting. Instead, focus on starting a running program with an easy power walk around the block.
- Make a concrete plan: Vague plans can be put off too easily. Instead of “I’ll go to the gym next week”, say something like, “I’ll go to the gym on Tuesday and Thursday at 5:00 for 1 hour.
- Allow for slips. A slip from the plan is not an indication that you can’t succeed. It is just a bump on a bumpy road. Acknowledge the slip. Review your plan and get back on track.
Yes. It is difficult to change a habit. If it were easy, there wouldn’t be hundreds or articles on the web about how to do it. It is only human to want to avoid an issue that seems discouraging or painful; especially if you tried and failed at it already. But please remember: Since you are alive, you have solved other problems in the course of your life. You do have what it takes to solve this one if you give it honest effort. January 1 is as good a time as any to start. (And if that doesn’t work, there’s always January 2 or 3 or 4 …)