New Year's Resolutions: Myths that Interfere with Action

We all seem to be compelled to set New Year’s resolutions on January 1st.  For many of us, January 1st provides an opportunity to reflect back over the previous year, and to set new intentions for the year ahead.  While nearly half of women making New Year’s Resolutions, remarkably few – only 8% of women – are actually successful in achieving them.

As cognitive-behavioral psychologists, we want to dispel the myth of willpower when it comes to setting and achieving resolutions.  After all, our willpower, or ability to “white knuckle” changing our behaviors with intense focus, may typically last a few weeks (because, let’s be honest, life interferes, we get distracted, and we may not continue to highly prioritize the original goal).  When this happens, we must rely on other mental and behavioral strategies to keep us on track.   We believe that most women are simply not set up for success with the strategies and skills necessary to persevere as they pursue their goals.  If you’re thinking of setting a resolution for yourself in the New Year, below are 7 ideas we encourage you to consider.

1.  Is my goal specific enough? It’s no surprise that driven, motivated women tend to set highly ambitious goals, such as losing weight, increasing their productivity at work, or saving money.  However, one of the most common reasons that these kinds of resolutions tend to remain unmet is that they are actually not specific enough. So, our first task to select one goal and ensure that it is highly specific.  For example, a woman may refine her goal of “losing weight” by deciding that she will lose 5 pounds this year. 

2. Do I really want to commit to this goal? Once we’ve identified a specific goal, it’s critical that we evaluate our readiness to commit.  This process often begins by first acknowledging that not meeting our goal does have advantages.  For example, the woman described above may note that committing to weight loss triggers anxiety or fears of failure (I’ve joined the gym before, only to waste my money).  She may also note that committing to the behaviors of weight loss may result in less time to do other activities that she believes are more enjoyable.  By contrast, in exploring positive ramifications of moving towards her goal, she may recognize that consistent exercise may increase her self-esteem and mood, which, in turn, may serve to increase her motivation towards weight loss.  In therapy, we would work with this client to realistically examine the pros and cons of committing to her goal at this time. 

3. How do I develop a plan? Once we’ve identified our readiness to commit to a goal, we need a detailed action plan.  For example, the woman above interested in losing 5 pounds is now ready to break down that goal into specific actions.  In therapy, we would encourage this woman to step back and consider which specific days, at what specific times, and for how long, she can realistically expect herself to exercise, determine a weight loss plan, purchase and organize food, and so forth.  This longer-term goal can now be activated.  Additionally, we would encourage this woman to consider solutions to potential obstacles prior to implementing her action plan. For example, perhaps this woman walks by a tempting bakery on a daily basis.  One of her actions may be to commit to an alternate route so that she is not so easily triggered.

4.  The all-too-common problem of over-ambition in goal setting:  Ironically, being too ambitious is likely to short-circuit our action plans.  It is our experience as clinicians that setting the bar low enough so that we are experience just enough of a stretch is the key to successful goal-setting in the long runWhy? Because the negative and self-critical thinking that occurs when people inevitably disappoint themselves on occasion is the number one culprit interfering with our ability to stay on task with our goals.  The good news is that over time, we can expand that stretch, as new, helpful habits are formed that are congruent with our goal.

5. How do I stay positive and motivated? The psychology of goal setting is just as important as the behaviors of goal setting. Whenever we try to change our behaviors, we may have negative self-talk that interrupts our process emotionally and behaviorally. In therapy, we teach women strategies to identify their negative thoughts in the moment, so that their thinking isn’t allowed to interfere with the incredible investment they are making in achieving their goals.  We help our clients to replace their “task-interfering” thoughts with beliefs that are more “task-oriented,” positive, and realistic.  For example a client might admit, “I was thinking about how unmotivated I was to go for a run, so I ended up blowing it off that day.”  We might help her reframe those thoughts going forward by saying, “Even though I TOTALLY don’t feel like going for a jog, once I get moving, I will probably have more energy and feel proud that I did it and it will have been worth it.” Reframing our thinking helps us keep on track behaviorally, which in turn, helps us eventually meet our goals.

6. Expect and welcome bumps in the road!  Perhaps our greatest task as cognitive-behavioral psychologists is to help our clients debunk the myth of perfect linear progress in goal setting. We know that challenges and setbacks are to be expected, and that no change happens without a few bumps in the road. In fact, these “bumps” often help us learn more about situations that are particularly challenging, and force us to solve important problems around a specific goal.  So, it’s actually in our best interest to welcome these challenges for the critical information they provide.

7.  Success is not about being good!  Women are so tough on themselves. As clinicians who work exclusively with women, our biggest concern is how often we see clients conflate success in meeting their goal with a type of moral goodness (and therefore, setbacks in goal setting are interpreted as a type of moral badness).  

Please keep in mind that reaching our goals has very little to do with the goodness of our character, and far more to do with our motivation for change, the specificity of our goal, and a thoughtful action plan.  

We wish you Happy Holidays and a Wonderful New Year!