New Year’s resolutions have gotten a bad name. That’s probably because, according to Statistic Brain, only 8% of people who make resolutions keep them. What this statistic doesn’t explain however, is why so many resolutions fail. Psychology, and the experience of highly-successful people, suggest that changes in thinking may be more effective than outward action when it comes to keeping your resolutions.
New Year’s resolutions aren’t new
People have been making resolutions for at least 4,000 years. The Babylonians were said to mark the beginning of annual planting seasons by promising to repay debts. The Roman calendar, closer to the one much of the world relies on today, was actually hard-wired for resolutions. January is named for Janus, the god with two faces who looked into both the past and future. Romans kicked off the month of January by resolving to behave well in the coming year.
If resolutions have persisted this long, there must be something to them. Where resolutions have been successful, the resolver most likely approached his or her goal from the right frame of mind, followed by a smart way of planning out the details. The following information is to help you not just stick to your resolutions but help you create positive and attainable resolutions that will help you begin your year with a sense of accomplishment and change for the better.
1. Think and talk about your goal as if you already have it
There’s a difference between saying to yourself, “I want to run a 5K sometime” and “I’m already well on my way to running a 5K.” May McCarthy, author of The Path to Wealth suggests the secret to success involves describing your goal as if you already have it. Your natural response after your first day of training could be to think, “that was awful, this is impossible.” Instead you can try thinking, “even in just one day I’ve started to build muscle and get my heart in shape.” This is just one way to create an environment inside of your brain that is more optimal for success.
2. Cultivate a sense of gratitude
Another way to change the climate of your thoughts is through gratitude. In her book, McCarthy cites research suggesting that gratitude lights up a different part of the brain, recruiting more of your thoughts to help you in your goal. When you think about your goal as if you already have it, you can also make a list of other goals you’ve achieved or are achieving, and all of the positive circumstances outside of your control that worked together to make these good things happen. You can extend this list into a general one detailing the good things in your life.
3. Recruit a friend or supporter
The reasoning behind this one is pretty easy. When two of you are working at something you can encourage each other and share tips. When someone is pursuing the goal with you, you feel less alone, and that leads to a more positive attitude. Sharing goals can also be a great bonding opportunity.
4. Smaller steps and single goals are easier to achieve
The American Psychological Association suggests that, when it comes to resolutions, start small. This might mean the difference between committing to 3 workouts a week vs. committing to 7.
It’s also easier to achieve one goal than many. Instead of vowing to cut out all junk food, quit smoking, and start a vigorous exercise routine, pick one and really go after it. The others can follow.
5. Be specific about what you want to achieve
Vowing to simply “get in shape,” with no specific definition and no timeframe, is not an achievable goal. For one thing, it isn’t measurable. If you can measure it, you can change it is a psychological principal that can be applied to New Year’s resolutions and other goals. Examples of specific (and measurable) goals might be:
- Increase the amount I can bench press by 20 pounds
- Reduce my waist measurement by 1 inch
- Run an 8-minute mile
This approach is supported by the idea of SMART goals. Creating goals that are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timebound is a well-established practice, in the business world and elsewhere.
A note about fitness goals. Do a lot of research before setting target weight loss or strength and endurance gains.
Doing research will keep you from overdoing it and harming your body, and from getting discouraged by unrealistic goals. The best sources to consult are articles backed by solid research, as opposed to opinions or product advertisements disguised as health claims.
6. Use the 5-second rule to retrain your brain
When you feel tempted by an old habit, it’s helpful to re-route your thinking process down a different neural pathway of the brain. This doesn’t require brain surgery. Counting down from 5 to 1 activates a different part of the brain, effectively bypassing the brain’s habit center.
7. Start where you are
Mindfulness is an ancient practice that, in the past few years, has been increasingly validated by the field of psychology. Found in different forms of sitting and moving meditation, or simply applied to everyday life, mindfulness is about bringing your awareness back to the present moment.
From the moment’s perspective it’s easier to see our thoughts as “just thoughts,” rather than solid realities. Smoking, drinking too much, or eating junk food are not inevitabilities. They’re often the result of temporary cravings that, like all thoughts, are separate from the core “you” and will pass.
“The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but thought about it. Be aware of the thoughts you are thinking. Separate them from the situation, which is always neutral. It is as it is.”
― Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now
8. Be nice to yourself.
If keeping New Year’s resolutions is mostly the result of thoughts and attitude, perhaps the most important way of thinking is kindness—to yourself. Self-kindness will keep you from setting rigid goals and judging yourself too harshly for faltering. Self-kindness lets you be your own coach when you most need it.
The best thing for achieving success with New Year’s resolutions is experiencing success. Setting realistic and positive goals makes those goals achievable, and once you achieve those goals, it boosts your sense of gratitude and optimism. Now, when you describe that goal as if you already have it (#1 above), you’re making a true statement of success.