By the time December hits, I’m feeling overweight, overscheduled, and overdrawn. So each December I make myself feel better by settling on a set of life-changing resolutions and promises to change for the better—or at least to stop overdosing on gingerbread cookies and spending money that I don’t have. My intentions are always genuine and I’m always dead serious about sticking with them. Problem is, each December also marks another year’s good intentions long forgotten.
I’ve heard all the usual advice on how to stick to resolutions (planning, setting mini-goals, yeah, yeah), but maybe it’s more than that—maybe the way I go about resolving is what’s setting me up for failure. I decided to look a little deeper into the art of the New Year’s resolution. Who keeps them and who doesn’t? And is there something special about the ones that do get kept? Turns out, there is. I found enough information to change my approach come January 1.
1. Resolve to Reflect
Danielle Milonas, a San Diego-based life coach, says the resolutions we make are often negative and constricting. She suggested revamping my resolution style to tackle those old same goals, but with more positive, overarching life alterations. “Saying that you’ll set aside some time each week to think about what’s making you happy and what isn’t will ensure that you’re progressing toward the life you want for yourself,” she says.
Lauri Davis spent five years as a television news reporter and even took time off to earn a master’s degree in journalism before deciding it wasn’t the right career for her. “Every year I’d look back and wish I had more time to do the things I wanted to do—travel, visit family, learn Spanish—but my career was all-consuming and it was wearing me down,” she says. After taking time to reflect, Davis decided the overarching problem was that her job was sabotaging all her other plans and goals. After realizing this, she transitioned to public relations, a career that fit more with her goals and interests.
“I’d never just taken the time to really reflect on what I wanted out of life and what was stopping me from getting it,” she says. “As soon as I did, I knew it was my job that was standing in the way.”
Whether reflecting on the ups and downs of ’08 helps you realize that you’re in need of a giant overhaul, like Davis, or that you just need to make some tweaks, taking an hour—in your head, on paper, or out loud—will clarify what to incorporate, or not incorporate, into ’09.
2. Resolve to Think Positively
“I know I need more exercise, but I hate the gym, “says Mia Beemiller, a speech pathologist. “Yet I always try to meet my weight-loss goals by throwing a ton of money at a gym membership and personal trainer.” Continually trying to meet a goal by doing things we don’t enjoy sets us up for failure. Instead, says Milonas, think about your goal in terms of what you like. “After reflecting on what you enjoy, use this knowledge to find activities that will lead you to a healthier mind and body, whether it’s a weekly hike with your dog or a tennis session with a friend.” Recognizing the power of our natural inclinations, and coming to terms with the idea that past attempts just won’t work, will help build a plan for meeting goals in a sustainable way.
“People who build plans based on positive emotions, like happiness and satisfaction, stick to them,” says Milonas. “Focus on the positive emotions you’ll get from having more money or calling your sister once each week, and you’ll be inspired to do it.”
So in my quest to be more responsible with my money, I’ll focus on feeling good over feeling bad. When I’m tempted to overspend, I’ll think of the stressed out feeling I get from money problems versus the happy feeling I get from a cushy savings account. Milonas advises taking this positive spin down to the very phrasing of the resolution: Instead of, “I’m not going to spend money,” I’ll resolve to regularly add to my savings account.
3. Resolve to Connect
We often think that making changes is something we have to do alone. However, having support and camaraderie can be the difference between sticking with it or forgetting about it one week in. “Utilize family and friends to hold you accountable,” Milonas says. “That’s what they’re there for.”
Cutting out the late night desserts? Tell people. Not only will they be more encouraging if they feel you’ve enlisted their support, but they’ll be less likely to tempt you with that ooey-gooey chocolate brownie you just can’t say no to.
“I wanted to get a better job, and I told friends that I was working on sending out resumes,” says Fiona Masterson, a recent MBA-grad. “The next day one of my friends sent me a Craigslist ad. I applied for it, and it turned out to be exactly what I was looking for.”
4. Resolve to Energize
My biggest goal zapper is lack of energy. After a day of work and responsibility, all I’m thinking about at 6:30 p.m. is watching some mindless TV and crawling between the sheets. “It’s a common excuse for not making life changes,” says Milonas. “But time is not the element to beat, energy is. Most people run out of energy far before they run out of time.”
So whether we want to exercise, try more restaurants, or earn that promotion, more energy could be the key.
“The right diet and exercise will improve energy and alertness throughout the day,” Milonas says. “But also think about other factors that could be draining you.”
Days full of irritations and unexpected frustrations often cause us to feel exhausted early. “I used to spend probably an extra hour throughout the day searching for papers, phone numbers, and appointments,” says Olivia Goldman, a law student. “But I created a filing system and streamlined all my appointments in my computer, and have spent the last year feeling much more prepared and able to accomplish what I set out to do every day.” Taking a little extra time to eliminate energy zappers can result in more time and energy to try new things.
5. Resolve to Be Brave
It’s scary to move out of our comfort zone. If I’m trying to save money, how do I keep saying no to happy hours and shopping dates with friends?
“Breaking a goal down into little, gradual steps is the way to overcome this,” says Milonas.
Instead of totally quitting social get-togethers, I’ll start by planning for one a month, and going somewhere that isn’t too costly. Or I’ll make predetermined budgets for outings, and bring only that much in cash, so I have to stick with it.
“Change is scary,” says Milonas. “But being stuck in the same rut for the rest of your life is a whole lot scarier.”
6. Resolve to Make It Happen
Looks like the problem with most of my resolutions comes down to a failure to plan realistically. Along with many of the people I chatted with, my planning is often as lofty and unattainable as the original goal. By looking at my resolutions as a chance to enrich my daily life, I’m changing it to a process that fits into who I already am.
So all right, I’ll give the reflecting and connecting a try this year. Will it work better than setting a more specific goal? I figure it doesn’t hurt to try. And whether it works or not, I already feel less stressed by focusing on intentions over those old-fashioned resolutions—choosing inspiration rather than pressure and guilt. Now I just have to let all those tasks and goals fall into place. Here’s to making it to February!
Updated December 27, 2010