While new year’s resolutions are seen by some people as a total cliché, if done correctly, it actually requires us to do some self-reflection that is of immense value. It takes courage to be honest with ourselves and carefully assess if our actions line up with the value systems we set for ourselves. Even though this could bring about some uncomfortable feelings, it’s essential for living a fulfilling life, where we constantly strive to be the best version of ourselves.
Have you ever wondered why a lot of people suddenly decide to change different aspects of their lives at the start of each year? Interestingly, a few studies have coined the term “fresh start effect” to refer to the phenomenon of important temporal (relating to time) landmarks, such as the beginning of a new year, that can motivate aspirational behaviors. Needless to say, resolutions are easy to make, but challenging to maintain. Many of us abandon our resolutions by the end of March and return to our old behaviors and patterns.
However, instead of beating ourselves up for not being able to reach our goals and letting our setbacks drive us to abandon our resolutions altogether, we should foster self-compassion. Self-compassion offers a context, where it’s safe to face the negative aspects of yourself and try to work on them, judgment-free. It involves treating yourself with kindness and understanding when you fall off the wagon. While many of us engage in self-criticism when we stray off course, self-compassion, according to research, is more likely to make one believe they can still improve and re-engage with their goals. On the other hand, self-criticism is associated with stress, rumination, and procrastination. None of these are beneficial in motivating individuals to persevere in pursuing a goal.
Self-compassion could be thought of as constructed of three elements: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. When we face a setback, whether it’s eating more than we planned or procrastinating too much, we recognize the common humanity in such behaviors and treat ourselves kindly. Also, we are mindfully aware of our emotions and thoughts, as opposed to avoiding or accentuating them. This is more likely to bring about positive thoughts and emotions that aid in persevering to reach one’s goal. Self-criticism, however, might involve engaging in maladaptive behaviors to cope with our guilt feelings.
One study actually demonstrated that self-compassion lifted some of the shame associated with eating “bad” or “forbidden” food such as ice cream or a pizza, which, for some people, triggered more unhealthy eating as a way of managing the negative emotions. Studies have shown, over and over, that self-compassion promotes healthy behavior by increasing positive emotions, which helps us maintain the needed motivation to pursue our goals. It also helps in emotion regulation and promotes the belief that we are capable of improving and bettering ourselves.
Other research-backed tips that increase your chances of sticking to your yearly resolutions are as follows (this also applies to goal-setting in general):
- Be SMART.
One reason you’re not achieving your goals might have to do with how you set these goals in the first place. SMART is an acronym used to guide goal-setting.
S – Specific (what exactly do I want to accomplish? What resources or limits are involved?)
M – Measurable ( How will I know if I’m making progress? How will I know when it is accomplished?)
A – Achievable (Is this goal attainable? Is it doable? Do I have the needed resources/skills?)
R – Realistic/Relevant (Why is it important to accomplish this goal? How does it relate to a broader goal or value?)
T – Timed (What is the time frame for reaching this goal?)
- Take small, incremental steps.
You might have unrealistic expectations with regards to achieving your goal in a specific period of time. However, we need to be patient with ourselves and understand that working towards a goal or a resolution is a process. It may take longer than you’d like, might include a few setbacks, but it’s worthwhile to keep working towards the commitment you’ve made.
According to research, taking small and gradual steps to change a behavior or a habit is more likely to result in long-term success. For instance, if your goal is to eat healthier. Start first by replacing an unhealthy snack with a more nutritious one. Then, start adding a variety of vegetables or reducing the portion size.
- Get a support system.
This has been said a lot, but for good reason. Having social support is proven to help in staying motivated and accountable. You can share your goal with your close friends or family and ask them for help. You could also join a group that shares the same goal as what you want to achieve.
- Be proactive, rather than reactive.
In the heat of the moment, we can overestimate our ability to ignore temptations to old behaviors and our capacity to have sufficient self-control. Research has demonstrated that goal progress was supported by proactive strategies of self-control. This involves planning how one will deal with urges before they arise, rather than just hoping for the best when we’re already in the situation.
- Stimulus control
One of the most beneficial factors that predict success in keeping up with your resolutions is stimulus control. This involves changing aspects of your environment in a way that supports your new behavior, habit, or lifestyle. For instance, if your goal is to quit smoking, then don’t keep any tobacco products in your surroundings and hang out in places where smoking is not allowed.
One last note:
Be easy on yourself. It’s okay if you didn’t accomplish last year’s resolutions. Every day is another chance to work on your goal. Most importantly, practice self-compassion and try to avoid drowning in guilt feelings and unnecessary self-criticism. Start this new year not only with planning for future goals but also by applauding yourself for any achievement you’ve made this year, no matter how insignificant you think it might be. You’re here, you’re trying and that’s what matters the most! Happy new year!
- Bovend’Eerdt, T. J., Botell, R. E., & Wade, D. T. (2008, November 7). Writing SMART rehabilitation goals and achieving goal attainment scaling: A practical guide. Retrieved from https://journals-sagepub-com.libproxy.aucegypt.edu/doi/pdf/10.1177/0269215508101741
- Cherry, K. (2020, December 21). How to Stick to Your New Year’s Resolutions This Year. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/how-to-keep-your-new-years-resolutions-2795719#citation-10
- Dai H, Milkman KL, Riis J. The fresh start effect: Temporal landmarks motivate aspirational behavior. Management Science. 2014;60(10):2381-2617. doi:10.1287/mnsc.2014.1901
- Hochli B, Brugger A, Messner C. Making New Year’s resolutions that stick: Exploring how superordinate and subordinate goals motivate goal pursuit. Health and Well-Being. 2020;12(1):30-52. doi:10.1111/aphw.12172
- Lally P, van Jaarsveld CHM, Potts HWW, Wardle J. How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology. 2010;40(6):998-1009. doi:10.1002/ejsp.674
- Laverl Z. Williamson, B. M. (n.d.). Nipping Temptation in the Bud: Examining Strategic Self-Control in Daily Life – Laverl Z. Williamson, Benjamin M. Wilkowski, 2020. Retrieved from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0146167219883606
- Long, P. (2018, January 3). Make Self-Compassion One of Your New Year’s Resolutions. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/make_self_compassion_one_of_your_new_years_resolutions
- Making your New Year’s resolution stick. (2019, November 10). Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/behavioral-health/new-year-resolutions
- Norcross, J. C., & Vangarelli, D. J. (1988). The resolution solution: Longitudinal examination of New Year’s change attempts. Journal of Substance Abuse, 1(2), 127–134. doi:10.1016/s0899-3289(88)80016-6
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