Failing to follow through on a New Year’s resolution may be a near universal experience.
Who among us hasn’t set some lofty goal on January 1st only to find that we have slipped into our old habits by mid-March? Apparently, all the cute gym clothes and good intentions in the world aren’t enough to transform us from someone who hits the snooze button seven times each morning into someone who leaps out of bed and hits the gym daily.
So what does work? How can you set and meet goals that will bring you better health happiness?
I’ve got good news. You absolutely can set and meet your goals. I’ve done it, and I’ve helped my clients do it. It isn’t magic, but it does require understanding how you brain works, a deeper exploration of your motivations, and a recognition of the barriers between you and change. It also requires re-writing old stories about what success and failure look like and mean.
So before you set that New Year’s resolution, let’s walk through some steps that can put you on the road to success.
1. Identify and Understand the Barriers
If you’ve struggled to make changes in the past, there are likely good reasons. Your habits are not only deeply ingrained; they have historically served you somehow, even if they no longer do. The barriers that stand between our best intentions and actually sustaining change are often linked to deep, often unconscious, stories about our actual survival. Until you understand those stories and approach them with some compassion, change is really, really hard.
For example, maybe you goal for the year is to go the gym more often. You’ve tried it in the past and didn’t end up going more than a handful of times. Because you “gave up” or didn’t meet the expectation you created for yourself, you called that effort a failure. Maybe you’ve had the same “false starts” a dozen times in your life. As a result, you started telling a story in your mind (and likely to anyone who would listen) about what a waste of energy and money the whole thing was, how you effed up again and shouldn’t even bother trying – apparently you’re just not a person who can ever get healthy and that you’re pretty much doomed. You decide to burn the whole thing down.
As you stand in the cold staring at the embers of the building formerly known as Mike’s Gym, thinking about what a terrible, useless failure you are, your brain has linked going to the gym with abject defeat and doom. This makes a lot of evolutionary sense.
Our brains are constantly trying to keep us from death or injury by identifying patterns of potential danger. Our brains have a structure called the habenula that is designed to help us remember our failures so we don’t repeat them. The habenula was super handy when we were gathering nuts and berries and needed to remember which ones were poisonous, or when we needed to remember exactly where the lions lived (because they want to have you for a snack), but it’s less helpful when that fight, flight or doom mechanism is activated in moments that are not truly dangerous.
One of the first steps to making change is to identify and understand the barriers you’ll face in trying to achieve your goal–before attempting to actually achieve that goal. If you don’t have a kettle or coffee pot, it’s hard to make coffee. So one barrier to that morning cup is buying a kettle. Don’t have coffee beans? Another barrier on the list. Easily surmountable barriers, but only if you think of these things ahead of time: 6:30 am is no time to try to make coffee without a kettle or coffee pot or actual coffee beans. Someone could get hurt.
And of course, many barriers aren’t so simple. Maybe you were body shamed growing up, and worry about someone judging you. Maybe you think going to the gym is frivolous or self-indulgent. Maybe you’re worried that you won’t do it right or that you’ll look silly. Spend some time thinking about and writing down all the messages in your brain about why you think you can’t do the thing. Sometimes identifying these stories on your own is hard, and you may want the help of a trained specialist. Much of the work I do is centered around inviting my clients to lovingly, compassionately accept the possibility that all of our our stories, and the barriers that they create, really can be re-written.
2. Identify a Sustainable (and Self-Affirming) Motivation for Change
Once you’ve identified the barriers between you and a goal or change, it’s time to figure out your true motivation for wanting to change. People try to make changes for all sorts of reasons. Taking our gym example, the desire to go the gym more often could be rooted in wanting to look better, wanting to please a partner or spouse, or wanting to improve health.
Getting really clear about your motivation is key, and wanting to change for an externally focused reason can actually be a barrier: if your desire for change is rooted in trying to win someone else’s approval or in your own self-loathing, it’s going to be hard to sustain. I know it sounds trite, but change that is grounded in self-love and self-compassion is far more likely to succeed than change grounded in anything else. Think about it, how can going to the gym everyday because you hate your body ever be sustainable? And if you’re doing because you’re trying to win the approval of someone else, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment, and to burn down Mike’s Gym all over again.
Tying your self worth to the achievement of goals and/or to other people’s approval is unlikely to get you the lasting sustainable change you want and need. If you feel like your self worth is tied to how often you go the gym or how much weight you lose or whether your date thinks you’re buff enough, that makes the whole endeavor pretty loaded and terrifying. No wonder it’s so hard to face. What if you do all that work and said date still wants to break up? Are you going to stop working out? Stop taking care of yourself? What if you lose weight to finally please your judgmental parent? Will that person actually finally stop judging you and your body, or will they find something else to judge about? And why does that person’s judgement of you matter at all? Other people’s thoughts and judgements are not things you have control over, so consider focusing your energy on your own wellness, your own happiness, your own joy. That’s sustainable change.
See if you can set aside those expectations you have for yourself, and that others have for you, and locate the motivation for change in a place of self-love. Don’t change to become worthy; change because you are already worthy. If you can find that place within yourself that says “I am worthy of care and love and health,” that’s the grounds for a lifetime of nurturing yourself however you best can in any given moment.
That’s the foundation for lasting change. Some of you are probably wondering “well, how do I love myself?” There are lots of ways to answer that question. But one way is to think about self-love as a practice. I get it; you can’t always just sit around and conjure up feelings of self-love, but you can always treat yourself in a loving and kind manner. And over time, the more you treat yourself as someone deserving of love, the more self-loves grows. It’s a mutually reinforcing system. For example, when I exercise because it is a loving thing to do for my body and spirit, I begin to feel like I am worthy of that love and attention – working out becomes a way of reaffirming that love. And the endorphins make me feel Amazing.
So some of the most important work around setting a goal or a New Year’s resolution is to understand your motivations, get clear about the barriers, and then work to ground your intention to change in a place of self-love and care. Instead of telling myself the story “I am going to go the gym every day because I’m tired of being fat,” I can tell myself “I’m going to exercise more because movement makes me feel better, and I want to feel better, and all bodies are good and beautiful bodies.”
3. Rewrite the “Failure” Stories
Remember the habenula? It’s no joke. Our fear of failure can really keep us stuck or have us give up on goals too early. In fact, our fear of failure often keeps us from even trying new things and giving ourselves the opportunity to succeed.
Here’s a radical and, I think useful, idea. What if there weren’t any failures? What if you just released the idea that failure is even possible? What if you rewrote all those stories of failure as stories of trying and learning? So you missed a day at the gym. Instead of framing that as a failure, what if you told yourself that you are doing your best on any given day? Approach it as a lesson. Perhaps you learned that when you go to bed past 11pm, going to the gym at 6am is really challenging (especially if you don’t have a coffee pot or any actual coffee). Don’t beat yourself up; just take that information and adjust. Skip the gym on those days you get to sleep late, and walk around the block a few extra times or work out in the evening or at lunch instead, or just let yourself relish the extra sleep and approach your workout the next day with some extra energy.
Focusing on your failures is a choice. You have the power to change your focus. You know how sometimes when you get in an argument or see someone really cute, your brain fixates on that person or that situation? You can think about that all day, turning it over and over in your head. You ruminate about how you ruined everything the same way you ruminate about that cutie that flirted with you at the supermarket. Here’s a truth: you and only you control your thoughts. Chose to focus on the ones that make you feel amazing.
Why not take your energy and focus and concentrate it on not on your colossal mess-up, but on your strength, your creativity, and your capacity for change? Our brains believe what we tell them. So don’t go telling your brain that you are a failure and that’s some kind of knock on your value as a human. Tell yourself that you are the boss of your own brain and body and that you are doing the best you can and that you can and will succeed, because every failure is just an opportunity to tell a new story, learn a new lesson, dust yourself off and keep on keeping on. And isn’t the biggest failure not even trying because you got stuck in fear of failure? I think so.
4. Set “Kitten-Step” Sized Goals
The other key to success is setting realistic achievable goals that lead to incremental change. I call these tiny shifts “kitten steps” because sometimes even a baby step is too big. Because our brains are wired to remember failure, it’s really important to give your brain the chance to experience success. Set a goal you absolutely know you can achieve. If you haven’t been to the gym in ten years, don’t set a goal of going three times a week. Maybe set a goal of doing some gentle stretches in the morning or walking up an extra flight of stairs each day. If you exceed the goal, that’s awesome! Just be realistic and set yourself up for success.
Incremental shifts lead to lasting change. Goal setting is not a one and done. It’s a constant process of setting goals, trying them out, and revisiting them. Give yourself the space to change and grow. If your original goal didn’t work, don’t abandon the whole endeavor — adjust the goal, set a new plan, and move on. Revising a goal isn’t failure; it’s a smart way to personalize your aims, insure incremental and forward motion, and achieve success. Why would you do anything else for your perfect self?
Part of setting achievable goals is to be creative, to let go of expectations about a right and wrong way to do something, and to pick something that works for you. Maybe you’re never going to love going to the gym even though you want to get more exercise. Totally cool. Dance in your living room, go for a walk with friends, take a badminton class, go snowshoeing, borrow a friend’s dog to walk. Create your own rules and be willing to rewrite them.
Do not try and change everything at once! Pick One thing to work on, and focus on it. When our brains have a thousand options, or even 3, we can feel overwhelmed, distracted and lost. Pick just one thing, make a plan, and stick to it. Tweak as needed, and get to work. Once that new habit is solidly established, then and only then should you pick a new and exciting goal to work towards. Don’t give your brain any excuse to spin in overwhelm and indecision. Be decisive and write out the small, doable steps you need to take to get where you want to go.
5. Believe in Your Own Power and Ask For Support!
I talk a lot about rewriting your story. The stories we tell ourselves shape our feelings which then shape our actions. As long as you allow yourself to spin in stories of negativity and failure, change is going to be mighty hard and probably pretty unpleasant because you’re fighting against a raft of negative feelings.
Set yourself up to win. Set realistic goals and then focus on your successes. Write down three successes or victories each week. What did you do well? How were you kind to yourself? What went right? What went horrifically wrong and can be a lesson for you? Even if you had a really tough week, you can find at least three things to celebrate and remind yourself of your own success. Listen carefully to the stories you are telling yourself and make sure they are ones that serve you and your goals.
To recap, a successful effort to change requires a few steps before you jump into action.
- Understand the stories you are currently telling yourself and what the barriers are to achieving your goal or making change.
- Uncover your real motivation for change and try to ground your goals in a place of self-love and compassion.
- Throw out those ideas about failure and learn to reframe them as part of the process of learning and adjusting.
- Set realistic, achievable goals and take small steps to move towards them, allowing yourself and your brain to experience success.
- Tell yourself a story of success, and adjust your goals as you achieve them, moving yourself to continued success and increased awesomeness in life.
- You got this!
Sometimes it’s hard to know what your thoughts are, and how you want to shift them. That’s where it’s useful and supportive to have a professional on your side. If you want more guidance in understanding your thoughts and the barriers between yourself and change, click here to set up a free 20-minute consultation with me to talk about my coaching practice and to see if we’re a good fit.