Turning New Years Resolutions into Healthy Habits that Last with More Ease and Less Willpower
I just had an animated conversation with my 21 year old nephew who is overseas at golf university. He rang me because he is excited about a breathing technique he has been researching and wanted to know if I knew much about it. I said I would research it too and we can have another conversation soon.
We started talking about his determination to improve his golf, his well-being and his success in life. And the challenges he faces on that path. He spoke of how much he loves practicing golf — how he feels “in the zone” and that this feeling alludes him when the time comes to perform in a graded tournament. How he can be looking at the ball and feel like everything starts to fall apart — he said it spirals downwards and he can’t seem to stop it happening. He gets frustrated and asks himself why he did that. He said sometimes it’s like that with his mood off the golf course too. Many of us can relate to that experience!
He talked about his determination to study hard for his exams but how easily distracted he becomes and how readily he — and so many of us — justify the next 45 minutes we spend on Facebook even though we wish we were doing what we set out to do.
This whole conversation reminded me of our love affair with New Year’s Resolutions and that urge we often feel at this time of year to really commit to our goals with enthusiasm — and the disappointment and frustration with ourselves when it all trickles away to nothing.
I get excited for people like my nephew who have such high awareness of what is going on, and a similarly high level of motivation and determination to “make it work this time” because I know that with the right skills and tools in their hands, they will be able to achieve great things and become the master of their own destiny.
So we talked about what he was doing that was already working. What he knew about mindfulness and how developing the ability — the discipline — to control where you place your attention — removing it from something unhelpful like worry and self-critical thoughts and placing it on something helpful like your steady breath, the golf ball and the visceral memory of what flow feels like — is like getting back into the drivers’ seat of your own mind and life and maintaining that flow under pressure.
We talked about many of the things I have written about before that help us succeed with our New Year’s Resolutions and as we were talking I realized I wanted to add more emphasis to some parts of the process I had outlined two years ago. I won’t repeat anything I have said before – but do read it, it still applies. This is just fleshing it out a bit more:
The power of visualization:
Visualization helps us achieve our goals in a number of ways.
I have already described a process for doing this in a gentler, kinder and more accepting way. This is important so that we are not consolidating an aggressive and rejecting relationship with any part of ourselves in the goals that we set. Clarifying our intention
is not something you only do once, when you are deciding what your New Year’s Resolution is going to be. This is something to do every day. I find the best time to do this is upon waking.
My nephew spoke of how easily he resisted junk food now that he was living away from home. When we dug a little deeper, it was at least partially because he valued his health and fitness, did not want to undo the good work he does at the gym and didn’t want to waste money when he could cook at home more affordably. Three values he was very clear about. (It was also about being in an environment that supported this action rather than one where he is surrounded by every unhealthy option you can imagine: so review your environment and make sure it is supporting your intention, not undermining it).
If you can visualize your New Year’s Resolution in terms of how it is living any of your deeply held values you will find it easier to act in accordance with those values and stick to the resolution. As my nephew said — it just feels good. This translates into more ease and less willpower required — you are moving towards your values not away from something you crave, which takes an enormous amount of energy on an ongoing basis. Accomplishing goals often involves sacrificing other things that would distract you from that goal, so being connected to your values is one important way of making sure the sacrifice is worth it.
3: Painting a Picture of Success: Visualize yourself having achieved your goal. Every day. Multiple times a day if possible. For my nephew, he can use the detailed experience of “flow” when he practices to help paint a picture of that happening during tournaments. This is more than the popular notion of “if you dream it, it will come”. This is about using the power of visualization and repetition of that to increase the likelihood that you will accomplish your goal. Every day you show up with clarity and commitment to accomplish to goal. You map out the path to take. You take steps towards that every day.
The power of self compassion:
When my nephew described what happens when he loses his flow on the golf course I was reminded of what I often hear from others — our tendency to respond harshly to ourselves in difficult moments. To reprimand ourselves for not performing well, for making a mistake or for simply not knowing what to do when the important moment arrives.
We know from the work of Kristin Neff that soothing our pain and being supportive towards ourselves makes it far more likely that we will continue to do what it takes to achieve our goal rather than the harsh “tough love” stance we often take towards ourselves. We will be more accepting that mistakes are part of learning and be less thrown into turmoil when they happen along the way. We also know it is associated with lower levels of depressive symptoms, anxiety, rumination, shame, self-criticism, fear of failure, and burnout. Not surprisingly it has also consistently been found to be related to well-being.
Having a “go to” way of soothing ourselves is an important element of any New Year’s Resolution and I recommend the practices I describe here or here as a starting point — putting it into your own words of course.
The power of stable attention and focus:
Like most of us, my nephew feels easily distracted. He WANTS to study but his mind wanders elsewhere. Mindfulness is the best training for regaining choice about where to place your attention because it helps you exercise your attention muscles – and your ability to focus and maintain your focus improves.
Without this ability to attend and focus you are unlikely to accomplish any significant goal. You have to be present to learn things that will help you progress. You have to notice that your attention has wandered so you can gently bring it back.
You can choose to move your attention away from thinking habits like worry, rumination (eg going over past failures) self consciousness ( eg performance anxiety) or self criticism — and place it back on your goal mastery. These thinking habits make us psychologically vulnerable and undermine our best selves. But with training in mindfulness and self compassion, they can be shifted.
The power of gratitude and celebration:
One of the things that often short circuits our New Year’s Resolutions is a feeling of lack. Of scarcity. Our mind has a negativity bias and its’ default state is one where it scans for problems to fix. Noticing the gap between where we are and where we want to be can be depressing! If we dwell on the gap the way our mind naturally does, we can quickly find ourselves feeling dispirited and like it’s all too hard. We might give up.
If, on the other hand, we celebrate each success along the way with gratitude, soaking up the positives of that, we increase the likelihood that we will maintain our motivation towards the intention we have set — because it feels good! Revisiting our intention and the values it brings to life in the same way infuses our whole journey with positivity.
After all, it’s about the journey as well as the destination — so why not make it feel as good as it can along the way, especially as that will help you succeed.
May your New Year’s Resolutions bring out the best in you — with much greater ease.
Edwards, K. (2018). Turning New Years Resolutions into Healthy Habits that Last with More Ease and Less Willpower. Psych Central. Retrieved on April 8, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/turning-new-years-resolutions-into-healthy-habits-that-last-with-more-ease-and-less-willpower/