Resolutions Worth Keeping!
Ah! yes, New Year’s resolutions….
How is it that this well-intentioned cultural tradition has become so trivialized that it now primarily functions as a marketing tool and source of an annual round of chuckles and embarrassment?
Even worse: What I’ve discovered in my work as a psychologist is how much unnecessary suffering these “goals” can cause, resulting in self-deprecation and feelings of failure and despair after an exhilarating yet short-lived burst of hope and possibility thinking that the new year can bring.
The good news is that the problem is simply that most of us have not yet learned how to turn our hopes and dreams into reality.
Habit Change is Hard
There is no getting around the reality that changing well-worn habits is one of the most unnatural things for us to do as humans. In many ways, our brain is hardwired for efficiency. The more automated our thoughts and behaviours, the more efficient we have the capacity to be because our thoughts can be directed to doing other things.
The problem is that once the habituated processes are set in place, rewiring our inner landscape, along with our cognitive and behavioural patterns, requires monumental interventions. While such interventions are indeed possible using a few key tools, the insight required to restructure our neural pathways for lifestyle modification is more complex and time-consuming than most people realize.
Many of us have heard the saying that “it takes a month to create a new habit.” Given what we’ve learned the last couple of decades from the neurosciences, this is actually partly true because we’ve discovered that given the right conditions, with synaptogenesis, a stem cell can create a new synaptic pathway in about a month. However, to shift the neural infrastructure more robustly with new brain cells, it takes a stem cell about three to four months to mature. Capitalizing on both of these processes for habit changes is an end proposition that requires persistence. This is probably why so many gyms are packed the first month of the year with the attendance suddenly dropping in February, when members start to feel that they have mastered the changes, not realizing they are only about a third of the way through the process of creating lasting habit change.
Overcoming Resolution Pitfalls
Clarify Your “Why”
Knowing that every cell in your body is accustomed to swimming with the tide, the only way you have any chance of turning against the direction of the tide is if you truly know why it’s worth the Herculean effort required for you to do so.
We have all heard heroic stories of mothers lifting cars to save their babies or of injured soldiers somehow travelling hundreds of miles in order to survive. These examples are wonderful teachers because they remind us that we are capable of far more than we realize when the task before us is something we believe is important.
When we are clear about why we want to do something, we are guided and inspired, even when hurdles make the process uncomfortable or even painful. Ultimately, if the desired change isn’t important enough for us at a core level, we won’t persist in following through with it.
You will be relieved to know that once you have genuinely aligned with your “why,” you are already 80% there. That said, there are a few more things you can do to help you move through the other 20% of the process more successfully.
Shuck the “Shoulds”
The first dangerous vortex that takes many folks down is the temptation to impose what I call “shoulds” on themselves. Of course, there are many other words that masquerade for these stern edicts that can look a lot like a parent or authoritarian boss like “need to,” “have to,” “ought to,” or “gotta,” etc. These “shoulds” take your power away because they distract you from your internal clear focus of “why,” to a stressful psychological process that is more likely to drain your spirit and motivation. The sunflower doesn’t grow and face the sun because it believes it should, but instead it is drawn upward and toward the light because it seeks to be nourished and grow.
The empowering solution to countering the seduction of the “shoulds” is to simply replace your “need to” or ”have to” thoughts and words to “want to” that are consistent with your why. This tiny shift is a literal game-changer, as you will soon discover.
One of the other biggest pitfalls in the resolution process is the focus on goals. Remember when I mentioned earlier about feelings of failure and self-deprecation, well… (and I’m ducking right now as I write this because I know many of you will want to start throwing tomatoes at me when you read what I’m about to say!) it turns out that as innocent as they may seem, I’ve discovered that goal-setting paves an almost sure-fire pathway to disappointment and failure, if not despair at worst. One of the reasons this happens is because of the expectations that are embedded in goals.
When we set goals, we get part of the equation right by visioning what it is we would like to create in our lives, but the mindset it creates is typically riddled with rigidity and judgement—both being discernment, motivation, and effectiveness kill-joys.
A simple alternative mindset that offers the freedom to dream big, while also offering greater flexibility and opportunities to pivot along the way, is shifting to an aspirational mindset.
When you embrace an aspirational mindset for habit change, you free yourself from getting too attached to the outcome, but instead can direct your energy to the processes that will help you move along in the direction of the vision that you’d like to create. Because you are grounded by your why, there’s no need to fear that you will lose your will or general direction. The wounded soldier who runs for their life does not lose the clarity of their vision of staying alive if they end up heading up the hill or down in the valley—they just know they’ve got to keep moving out of harm’s way.
Bundle of Sticks Technique
In the mid-1980s, I used to teach a course called “The Psychology of Personal and Academic Effectiveness” to undergraduate students. As part of the course, there was a textbook called How to Study in College by Dr. Walter Pauk that was filled with terrific hacks for more effective living. Included in his book was one of my favourite techniques to help with completing challenging tasks, called the “Bundle of Sticks Technique,” that is also a wonderful tool when faced with the task of following through with behaviour change.
As you think about your desired lifestyle change, instead of thinking about it in its totality, see if you can break that big oak into much smaller, more achievable “sticks” that each feels less overwhelming. Just as you would not dream of carrying a massive tree but could easily cart up small bundles of sticks up a mountain, parceling out different aspects (the smaller the better) of your new habit to focus on makes the process doable.
Deciding that you would like to honour yourself by changing one of your lifestyle habits can be a powerful and rewarding tool to care for yourself. That said, such a decision is not one to be taken lightly. Following through with New Year’s resolutions requires reflection and clarity about your intentions, foresight, and adequate planning about the process in order to avoid the negative consequences of emotional suffering that all too often results. By following a few key principles, you can relish in the joy of successfully transforming your habits in ways that can potentially serve you for the rest of your life.
Theresa Nicassio, PhD, Psychologist
Theresa is a wellness educator, radio host, and the award-winning author of YUM: Plant‑Based Recipes for a Gluten‑Free Diet.