The end of one year and the start of the next is often a prompt to take stock and reflect on the year just gone, and to think about our hopes for the year to come. Many of us will use this opportunity to draw up New Year’s resolutions. If that’s you, then read on…
1. Think about the changes you want to make, rather than the changes you feel you should make
We are far more likely to stick to goals when they are in line with what we want to do, rather than what we imagine we should be doing. If your aim is to get fit, why put your name down for a 10k if you hate running? You will be more likely to stick to your resolution and achieve your aim if you set a goal around an activity you actually enjoy. After all, a year of regular gentle walking is better than 1 week of vigorous running in January followed by 51 weeks on the sofa…
2. Remember the “why” behind your resolution
It’s easy to get hung up on goals without thinking about the values which underlie them. It’s worth taking the time to consider what is important to you – your life values – before you develop any resolutions. This perspective can help us get more fulfilment from working on our resolutions, instead of focussing on “success” or “failure. For example, if your life value is around continual growth or learning about a subject you have a passion for, a specific goal or resolution might be taking a course in that subject. Keeping your focus on enjoying the content of the course, and the process of studying, will be more fulfilling – and more in line with your life value – than stressing about your marks.
3. Avoid “all or nothing” thinking
Humans have a tendency to see things as “all or nothing”, or “black or white”. This can affect both the goals we set ourselves, and how we rate our performance towards those goals. It’s more realistic and helpful to view lapses as an inevitable part of change.
Beware setting goals which are too extreme (“I am never going to eat chocolate again”), as these can set us up for failure. For example, evidence shows that if people embark on a diet which is too strict, then a minor lapse is more likely to turn into a major binge compared to if people are on a more moderate diet. In fact, psychologists have crafted a special scientific term for this – the “what the hell!” effect…
If your goals are too extreme, you are also more likely to see your progress in black or white terms: success or failure, rather than gradual progress towards the positive. So, in the example above, one chocolate may lead to the whole box (…”what the hell…”), and then into quitting trying to eat a healthier diet altogether. A more useful goal may have been simply to reduce the amount of chocolate eaten from, say, twice a day to twice a week.
4. Be kind to yourself
It can be easy for our critical inner voice to start berating us for not meeting some internal standard (which is often very high). Be aware if a resolution starts to become an excuse to beat yourself up or be self-critical – and watch out for that “all or nothing thinking”!
If it feels like you aren’t where you want to be with a resolution, don’t give up, remember your values (the “whys” behind your resolutions), take a deep breath and plough back in.
5. Use your imagination to overcome barriers to success
Ever promised yourself before you go out that you’ll skip dessert, only to find yourself indulging in that sticky toffee pudding? Or told yourself that this time you really WILL get up at 6am to go for a run, then found the lure of the duvet in the morning just too tempting? If so, you are not alone.
When we are being rational, or “cold”, it’s hard for us to imagine what it’s like when we are in the heat of the moment, or “hot”. Psychologists call this the “hot/cold” empathy gap. Mentally rehearsing difficult situations in our head, by imagining coping with them better and better each time, can be a really effective way to identify barriers and help us develop new ways to overcome them.
Think of a “target situation” where you’d like to behave differently; for example, in the restaurant with your friends. Close your eyes and take a moment to imagine that situation; turn it into a little movie in your head, with a start (in this example, maybe the moment someone asks, “are we having pudding?”), middle (making the decision whether to have dessert or not) and end (successfully resisting dessert). Take time to consider all the things which make it harder to behave the way you’d like (like when your friend says, “go on, I will if you will”). Once you have the start, middle and end clear in your mind, move on to Step 2.
Now, imagine the situation again, this time taking a little time to really put yourself there, vividly imagining all the details, as if it’s happening now. Imagine that are coping with that situation in a more confident, relaxed manner – maybe not perfect yet, but better than before. Perhaps there are some useful things you can say to yourself (e.g., “I don’t need dessert today” or “I can do this!”). Notice how you are behaving differently – what specific things are you doing to help you deal with the situation? What do you say to yourself that helps? When you get to the end of your movie, let the scene fade from your mind and relax for a moment.
Repeat Step 2 a couple of times, imagining yourself coping with the situation more confidently each time. Repeat until you feel confident that you can deal with the situation in the way that you would like
This technique can be even more effective when used with hypnosis (either hypnotherapy with a therapist, or self-hypnosis).
Other tips to help you stick to your goals include objectively recording your progress (for example, using a diary), making a public commitment, and getting support from friends or family.
6. You don’t have to start on New Year’s Day
Finally, if you are feeling tired or the worse for wear on 1st Jan, be kind to yourself and give yourself a few days to recover from the stresses of the festive period before you start. There is nothing magical about the first day of the year.
But DO set yourself a date – perhaps for later in that first week – to start living the life you want to live.