Helping Resolutions Succeed

Most New Year's resolutions fail. Sad but true. As a result people lose faith in making resolutions and themselves. They believe that this means they are failures, weak, or lack self-discipline. People whose resolutions often fail begin to believe that there is no point in making resolutions.

But this unfortunate outcome does not have to happen. Understanding why resolutions fail and how to prevent poor results can make you a resolution champion! Let's look at why good resolutions go bad and how to shift things in favor of progress.

Most New Year's resolutions fail for a long list of reasons:
1. They are too vague.
Resolutions such as “I want to use weight or become more organized” {these are the most common resolutions and will be used as examples throughout this newsletter} must be more specific to succeed.

2. They are not written.
Unwritten resolutions have no force or will behind them and have very little chance of success. Resolutions must be written to generate the energy and drive to do the work that will make them succeed.

3. They have no implementation plan.
The steps by which you will act on your resolutions must be spelled out to support shifting your actions in the desired direction.

4. The resolution is too sweeping, too big or too hard.
Humans are not made for voluntary huge changes. Everything in the way that our brains and bodies are made works against big, quick changes. We have to sneak up on change. Anything that is too hard will simply not be done.

5. Some barrier prevents implementing resolutions.
Every desired behavior that we are not currently doing (and even some we are) has opposing forces that interfere with doing it. These forces could be  “well-worn grooves” in our brains, our physical surroundings (our space is not laid out or organized to make keeping our resolution easy or possible) or social environments (such as others' expectations, social mores, legal and religious requirements, and familial demands), genetic and emotional predispositions, and/or financial constraints. The real reason usually takes digging and honesty to discover it and is often rooted in a barely noticed behavior or thought. Solving each type of barrier requires a solution precisely tailored to that sort of problem. Trying to overcome the difficulty without solving the underlying issue simply does not work.

6. The time to carry out resolutions is not built into our daily schedule.
New behaviors require time to carry them out. Making time for any new behavior may mean giving up, consolidating, or shifting other activities or our schedules, or re-arranging our space.

7. We forget our reasons for making resolutions or these reasons do not seem as important after a period of struggle or frustration.
When we cannot remember why we want to create a new habit or achieve a goal, motivation for making the effort and sacrifices required may be lost in the press of habit, other demands, time and energy needs, and competing urges.

8. Resolutions are not regularly reviewed to monitor progress.
Resolutions do not move forward on their own – they must be reinforced by regular check-ins to ensure that strategies are correct, that implementation is proceeding smoothly, or to add any new strategies you identify.

9. Your stories about who and what you are may need to change.
If your long-standing belief about yourself is that you procrastinate, mess up everything you do, do not keep your resolutions, or hold any other counter-productive belief, naturally, these stories must change before you can succeed.

10. Resolutions are not connected to your other activities or life.
         New activities need to be connected to already-existing behaviors or habits to increase the odds of success.

11. Inconsistent implementation of resolutions will not work
         Becoming consistent with any new behavior is the hardest – but perhaps most essential – part of keeping resolutions.

So what is needed to improve the odds of succeeding with resolutions you make? Each separate reason that resolutions fail offers clues to prevent that interference. Although all examples are on the weight loss and organizing subjects, similar approaches would work for many other issues.

1. vague
Concrete, quantified targets are needed to cure vague resolutions or goals. Defining precisely what you want, such as “I want to lose 15 pounds / stop tossing my clothes on a chair / do my daily tasks every day” increases your chance of success.

Weight loss – resolving to lose 1 pound per week through a combination of diet (i.e., a healthy food plan) and exercise makes implementing your plan and overcoming all other hurdles easier.

Organizing – examples of specific organizing goals might be acting on and putting away all papers within a week of receiving them (ambitious!). Making specific goals may show the barriers that obstruct acting on your resolution (such as not having a filing system).

2. written
Not only should resolutions be written down, writing about them as though you had already accomplished them and how they benefitted your life makes doing them more likely. The more descriptive and detailed this writing is, the more powerfully it will work on your subconscious and help make these changes happen. In addition to writing down your goal, writing down every reason you have for wanting to lose weight is invaluable.

Weight loss – “I am so glad that I consistently followed my food plan and daily exercise program to lose the 50 pounds that I wanted to get rid of for years. Since losing this weight, I have less pain in my back, knees, hips, and feet, so walking and climbing stairs are easier and possible. Having less pain means that I sleep better and feel more refreshed on awakening. Not carrying the extra weight means I have more energy, am more productive, and can keep up with my work and home. Looking better gave me more confidence and helped me be more outgoing and engaged with others. Being lighter helped my posture, so I stand straighter, causing others to treat me with more respect because I radiate more confidence. Losing weight reduced my risk of many diseases, helping my peace of mind and prospects for the future. Sticking to my resolution makes me feel better about myself and feel more confident about making resolutions in the future. I love the strength I feel in my muscles thanks to my exercise program and am eager for more success.” {I wrote this for myself, but you are welcome to use or adapt it.}

Organizing – “Washing the dishes and clearing and cleaning surfaces every day made such a big difference in my life. I feel better about myself when I wake up and see a clean kitchen. Being able to reach in the cabinet to grab what I need without having to take it out of the sink and wash it first is great. Feeling that someone could drop in on me at any time without being embarrassed is great too. This habit helped being able to keep other areas of my home clean and did wonders for my self-esteem.” {I used this many years ago – it worked!}

3. implementation plan
Every resolution needs a thorough, written implementation plan so that impractical or unrealistic ideas can be found and corrected, and the precise steps to make your resolution succeed are spelled out. A good implementation plan accounts for the likeliest potential reasons why a resolution might fail and develops a strategy to prevent each issue from becoming a problem.

Weight loss – “Reducing sugars, carbs, and fats and making vegetables the greatest part of my diet worked for losing weight, as was using varied daily exercise including walking, pool exercise, and sitting exercise while at my desk and watching TV.” {These are mine – yours may be different.}

Organizing – “Processing papers faster has been helped by not opening my Internet browser until my main tasks for the day were done.”

4. too sweeping, too big, or too hard
Resolutions need to be big enough to stir and inspire, but not so big that they intimidate or discourage. Splitting them into the tiniest starting tasks that will ensure compliance also helps immensely.

Weight loss – Saying “I want to lose 20 pounds this month,” is not a healthy or effective goal. But if you say “I will eliminate sugar and most starches from my diet and do daily aerobic and strengthening exercise” then your resolutions are reasonable, measurable, and likely more effective.
Similarly, going from being a couch critter to a gym rat in one sweep is unlikely to work. You would probably wind up sore, unable to exercise, and turned off on exercise. Gradually increasing the amount, intensity, and length of time you exercise, will be more effective. Try starting with just one rep of each exercise you want to do.

Organizing – Going from piles everywhere to a home that could be featured in “House Beautiful” is not a realistic goal. Instead, gradually increasing the kind and amount of neatness you achieve, such as by neatening the edges of piles and perhaps removing one item each time you go by it. Focusing on one type of item or clearing one room each day (such as papers on Monday, clothes on Tuesday, etc., or living room on Monday, bedroom on Tuesday, etc.) might be doable and helpful goals that would make you substantially more organized by the end of the year.

5. barriers
The solution to every barrier is contained in its nature, often revealed by flipping the barrier around. Sean Achor’s story from his book, “The Happiness Advantage,” illustrates this: he wanted to learn to play guitar but never practiced. Studying the problem revealed that, when it was time to practice, the guitar was in his bedroom closet but he was on the living room couch and getting up seemed too hard; now he keeps the guitar by the couch and has been practicing ever since. Discovering the real reason that something does or does not happen is the key. If he had just stopped at “I’m too lazy” (this is only name-calling that does not solve anything), he might not have discovered that removing the barrier (the need to get up) would enable him to overcome his inertia.
         Most other resolution-keeping problems are like this: there is something we want to do but must remove an obstacle or two to be able to do it.

Weight loss – “Journaling helped overcome temptation to overeat or eat when not really needed. I used time-tracking to find more opportunities for exercise.”

Organizing – “When I could not overcome a particular behavior, I looked for resources (other people, books, magazines, or classes) for help. I noted the tasks needed to complete it on a sticky note, checked off each sub-task, and posted each small bit of the task on my daily to-do list until the entire task was done.”

6. time
         Designating a specific time for activities connected to your resolution can be the hardest part of change, especially if we must give up other activities we enjoy, feel pressed to or must do, or that conflict with time for other resolutions.

Weight loss – “Starting my day with wake-up stretches helped me stick with my exercise program and feel less stiff and achy.”

Organizing – “Taking a few minutes after each task to clear away anything used to do it helped me become more organized.” {early, very effective resolution}

7. forget reasons
         Resolutions require us to act differently than we are accustomed to, but existing habits make any change difficult. So we need FREQUENT reminders for why a change is wanted, important, and beneficial. Sticky notes, digital reminders, signs, mutual efforts with friends (such as going to the gym together), or any method that effectively reminds you to follow your resolution is worthwhile.

Weight loss – my reasons were listed in point #2 but you likely have others

Organizing – “Hunting for things wastes time so organizing my apartment to make needing to hunt rare made me calmer and saves time.”

8. regular monitoring
         A regular review of resolutions is invaluable for steady progress. A daily review is best, but weekly or monthly works too. Every time you slip, forget, or blow off your resolution means a review is needed: “How can I prevent this from happening again?” “How can I make slips less likely?”  “How can I keep myself on my plan better tomorrow?” Slips should never cause berating yourself, only study and adjustment. Remember: every morning and hour is a new start.

Weight loss – more important than any number on the scale is your evaluation of how well your plan works, how confident you feel in it, and how comfortable you are following it (uncomfortable plans always fail in the long run). Does it make you feel cared for or deprived? What would make living on your plan easier or more comfortable? What are the difficult areas? Does the plan need adjusting? Does your program feel like it is working? {I had a recent experience of thinking I was hungry all the time. Eventually I realized that what I was feeling was my body burning calories from all the exercise I am doing. My plan is working! Now I correctly interpret the sensations and don’t feel as hungry.}

Organizing – Is your plan working? What would make it work better? What barriers do you encounter?

9. stories
         We all tell ourselves stories about who we are and what we do: “I’ve always been and always will be fat.” “I have no organizing ability or inclination.” “Having things in piles is normal for me.” Occasionally our stories are positive but more often they are negative and limiting. Our stories may not be told in loud voices, are often unnoticed by us (though others may perceive them) until something challenges them, and are often not accurate, but still powerfully impact how we feel and act. Tracking down and editing our stories to make them more accurate, realistic, kinder, and opportunity-creating will improve our ability to keep our resolutions. Journaling is often the best way to find and re-write our stories. Watch for judgmental words, absolute (all, never, always) or black-and-white categories (something is either one extreme or another, with no in-betweens), or statements you would consider mean if said about someone else.
        Stories that others tell about us may need to change as well to prevent them from blocking our growth and change. If others refuse to modify the pigeonhole they put us in, we may have to limit our interactions with them.

Weight loss – “Just because nearly all of the women in my family for generations have been morbidly obese does not mean that I have to be. I will do whatever it takes to prevent ending up like them.”

Organizing – People often believe that they never have the energy for cleaning and they just want to collapse in front of the TV. Re-writing your story to say that  watching TV is a great time to exercise, to sort and organize, or to plan activities for later when you are refreshed will make you much more productive.

10. connected
         New behaviors are more likely to be incorporated into daily life if we connect the new behavior to solidly established ones. This aids remembering the new behavior, raises the likelihood that it will be included and feel normal, and eases the awkwardness often felt with new actions.

Weight loss – losing weight is not one single behavior but many habits that must identified and change to be successful. Snacking while watching TV? – perhaps snacking on healthy foods or exercising instead. Sitting for hours and hours at the computer or in the car? – core and many other sitting exercises will help ward off weight gain.

Organizing – Making a DAILY to-do list will help to show opportunities to connect organizing tasks to other things you are doing.

11. Consistent
         Consistency is essential for keeping resolutions because new habits are so fragile and hard to develop, and even a single lapse in the early days can often mean starting over (and that’s if you can fend off discouragement). Following your resolution every time you planned to helps to build forward momentum and feel better about yourself. New habits are easily derailed by:

You need a solution for each hazard that applies to your resolution.

Weight loss – “To maintain consistency for my goal to lose and keep off excess weight, I took these steps:
- inertia – “I posted all potential exercises and food plan in my planner each day.”
- old habits – “Weighed and measured my food to avoid over-eating.”
- other demands – “Many reminders helped to remember that keeping my resolution is more important than anything else I am doing.”
- preferences – “Being thin feels much better than cake or sweets taste.”
- negative emotions – “Seeing a number that isn’t what I expected on the scale is discouraging so I only weighed myself once a month.”
- memory lapses – “Big red signs on the fridge and food cabinets reminded me to record all food before eating or to write in my journal before eating anything not on my plan.”
- social pressure – “I avoided events where the focus would be on eating.”

- inertia – “On every planner page I listed: “Surf: K, L, B, Bth, H {Surfaces: Kitchen, Living room, Bedroom, Bathroom, Hall} and enjoyed checking off each one. Checking off the item is allowed for any effort at all, not just completing the room clean-up. Progress is what counts.”
- old habits – “Putting away items when finished using them for an activity rather than clearing at the end helped create less mess.”
- other demands – “I rejected the idea that other activities are more important than keeping my things and life together.”
- preferences – “Zipping around getting things put away and organized during commercials, and sorting while watching TV made getting a lot more done easy.”
- negative emotions – “Organizing does not need to be fun to be important.”
- memory lapses – “Notes on my daily to-do list worked wonders for staying on top of housekeeping.”
- social pressure – “Going out with friends is not be more important than organizing if the mess causes avoiding inviting people over.”

A note about struggle: many people hate wrestling with their habits. Resisting behaviors we want to do can cause feelings of inadequacy, distress, and weakness. But that’s just programming. We can train ourselves to enjoy the struggle, to realize that times of struggle are when we are most fully alive, when we wake up our potential, and we master the wiliest foes of all, our demons. These are the real triumphs in life. Remember that making mistakes is a necessary and perhaps most important part of learning.

Best of luck to everyone struggling to keep a resolution or build new habits! Email me if you need more support or have questions.


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© Gloria Valoris, 2015

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