It’s that time of year again: when resolutions meet their traditional, unsatisfying end. When it comes down to it, these ambitions are as associated with failure as they are with the New Year. “There’s some kind of fantasy a lot of people have about ‘I’m going to stick with this and I’m just going to carry it out forever!’ And then they get discouraged when they can’t and then they forget about it and never start again,” says Will Meek, counseling psychologist in Vancouver, WA, and Portland, OR. “That’s pretty much the standard course of goals.” But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are a number of traits of people that tend to set themselves up for failure. Read on — and learn from their mistakes.
Five is a pleasant number, so is eight, but people who made this many resolutions probably set themselves up for a rough time. “If you’re working on five different goals, some of those are inevitably not going to go,” says Meek. “It’s just extremely rare that someone could get that number of things to connect at any given time.” He says that two is a good number of ambitions to pursue, three maximum.
Grand intentions can be invigorating — generally because they are too challenging. If you want to get serious about changing for the better, be realistic. Don’t convince yourself that the key to getting fit is going to the gym at 5 a.m. everyday when you haven’t been at all in the last year. Instead, aim to get off the bus earlier in your commute and squeeze thirty extra minutes of walking into your day.
Beware depending on lists of brief motivations such as, “eat healthier” or “relax more.” Neither of these is a good resolution. “Without getting more concrete about it or more specific, it’s hard to know if what you’re doing is following your goal,” says Meek. These vague hopes aren’t a bad place to start, but people are better off focusing on smaller goals that relate to the bigger picture, such as filling half of each plate with veggies every meal or trying out breathing exercises.
Just because something is good for someone, doesn’t mean it’s a good resolution. “People will pick stuff that maybe they should be doing but maybe it isn’t really meaningful to them,” says Meek. If someone doesn’t have their heart set on changing — even if they understand it’d be for the better, like quitting smoking — they aren’t likely to succeed. Combating this goal-setting issue requires brutally honest assessment. When people find their improvement isn’t something they truly want, they can still move in the right direction by thinking smaller. For example, someone who should quit smoking could spend half an hour reading about the best reasons to quit.
Resolution lists that were slapped together on December 28 are less likely to be checked off than those that were given more time. This is because thoughtful processing makes a difference. “People, when they’re going from nothing to action, it’s a setup for failure because they haven’t gone through these steps of: Okay, I really want to do this, and here’s how I’m going to do it, now I’m going to go for it,” says Meek.
Meek says experts are split when it comes to recommending short-term goals, long-term ones, or a mix of both. What is fairly clear is that tracking progress along the way can make a difference. “Tracking something helps you stay with it and thinking about it,” says Meeks.
Support can be enormously helpful in accomplishing goals. Alcoholics Anonymous, for example, can supply people with access to others who understand a complex and difficult situation. But not all support is supportive. “If you just want to tell somebody that you don’t think you can really go if stuff’s tough, or is going to hold you accountable in a way that doesn’t feel very good, I think it’s better to do it on your own,” says Meek. When it comes to enlisting help for your resolutions, choose wisely.
The Sore Loser
You are going to fail at your resolutions. That is practically inevitable. It’s also not a problem, so long as you don’t let it defeat you. “If we’re able to keep our head right about it, then that’s a major win,” says Meek. In his own life, Meek says he was maintaining an incredible diet over the summer but a fantastic, indulgent wedding feast derailed it. It knocked him out for four months — but now he’s back to it. Working through a resolution can mean dealing with many obstacles. Use the setbacks as cautionary tales.