Why Your New Year’s Resolutions Are Doomed to Fail
New year, new you? Not likely. We asked life coaches why most of us abandon our resolutions, and if there's anything you can do about it.
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You know the drill: it's 12.01 AM on the first of January, and you're at an underwhelming party. All of a sudden you realize it's customary in modern society to reinvent yourself at the beginning of every year and you find yourself vowing to lose weight, get fit, or learn bee-keeping and Portuguese by April. There's something about arriving at the end of an orbit round the sun that makes us crazy for self-improvement.
But for all our enthusiasm, we're generally rubbish at setting New Year's resolutions. We get high on the promise of 365 new days ahead and start pledging to lose half our body weight, marry royalty, start a new highly specialized career or quit the one vice that keeps us tied to this mortal existence.
Daisy and her husband promised to watch two films every week: one at home and one at their local cinema. For the entire duration of that year, they watched a sum total of three films and, several times, cheated by visiting the cinema bar for a drink. Stand-up comedian Lucy set that notorious goal of "getting fit," only to start a cheeky habit of driving to the gym, sitting in her car for an hour and reading a book so she could technically say she'd "been to the gym." Alex bet his mates $1,500 he could lose 20 kilos in a year—he did it, before piling it all back on before Christmas. That's what happens when you gamble with lard and self-discipline.
To find out why we set ourselves impossible resolutions and what we could do better, I spoke to several life coaches. Dr. Perpetua Neo listed the most common resolutions we set: "Losing that 20 percent body weight that bugs us, finally quitting that soul-sucking job for a sabbatical where we travel and/or discover who we really are, waking up an hour earlier to meditate or exercise, stop drinking, get rich, get happy or fall in love with our dream lover. They're only really impossible in so much as we don't have a plan to actually do them, we're in a toxic environment or relationship, or we over-complicate things."
Neo's advice? Don't go for a superficial goal; get serious and go for something that might actually enrich your life. She tells her clients that they need to reframe their desires; she insists that they make resolutions out of love and hope, not fear. "How I like to help my clients or myself structure NY resolutions is to change the questions we ask ourselves. Ask these instead: How do I want to feel? Stronger, happier, braver? How do I want to treat myself next year? How can I love myself or respect myself better next year? Or, for people who think those are narcissistic questions, what kind of world do I want to leave for my children, nieces, nephews, or godchildren? Once we get clear on these, no resolution is really impossible."
Psychologist and inner wisdom coach Jackie Fletcher has noticed the same trend: people setting grand, vague goals like "find love" or "be healthy." "It's become a social norm for us to set New Year's resolutions but we tend to use them to chastise or judge ourselves," she says. "We're very good at 'should-ing' ourselves: I should lose weight, I should get fit, I should give up this give up that. If you're setting goals out of fear, because you think you should or because you're looking for external motivation, you will fail."
Fletcher's most practical advice is to be very specific with your resolutions. She tells her clients to choose something lovely and attainable: "Let's work with the most common one: losing weight. Rather than 'I must lose weight,' I would look for a goal that was more like 'I want to look fabulous again in my little black dress.' I might say to get that dress out and hang it on the door, imagine wearing it, imagine zipping it up easily, smoothing it over your hips. That's a positive thing to visualize rather than taunting ourselves with a negative voice that says, 'You tried this last year, you'll never do it.'"
You have a psychological desire not to let your coach or your friend down.
This might have helped Lucy or Alex with their goals. Had Lucy said "I will do a dance class I actually like" rather than "get fit," perhaps she'd have spent less time in her car. Had Alex replaced his 20 kilo bet with a promise to sit down for a healthy meal with his wife five times a week instead of getting takeaway, perhaps he'd have lost weight in a sustainable way. And that brings us to our next secret to success: Get people you love to back you up on your goal-setting.
Coach Suzy Phillips, from the Life Coach Directory, says it's all about surrounding yourself with people who will support you. "Choose your allies when you've got goals to achieve," she says. That means sharing your goal with people you respect—not your undermining work colleague or pessimistic friend. "That might be a mix of professional and personal support, so a life coach or therapist as well as good friends or family. Having them on board, knowing what you're doing, can make all the difference. We are all different though; we're introverts or extroverts and we seek support in different ways. Introverts might research their goals a lot, where extroverts might talk to lots of people about it. Either way is fine, just make sure you have moral support."
Elite life coach Michael Sewra has a rather harsher take on the whole thing. When Sewra's clients hire him to turn their resolutions into reality, they get tough love in the form of curt text messages to check in on your activities and a very specific plan of action to stick to.
"The solution is to get someone who holds us accountable," Sewra says. "It makes so much difference, committing to a stranger. Or committing to a partner or a friend. In any good team you don't want to let your teammate down and that's what should keep you motivated. You have a psychological desire not to let your coach or your friend down."
In Sewra's opinion, there's no substitute for one-to-one accountability; someone to text you after every run you've promised to go on and make sure you've done it. But that's a big ask. He has other options: "The second option is group accountability. Join a group and hold each other accountable. Maybe it's at work, maybe it's group fitness. Or, the third option, if you have social media, which everyone has, you could do this... Put a picture up and say 'This is a picture of me today, by this date I will weigh this much, I will post a picture of my progress every two weeks and I want you all to hold me accountable.' That way you'd have this global accountability, with hundreds or thousands of people holding you to it. It's more difficult to fail that way." If publicly shaming yourself into weight loss sounds horrendous, that's because it is. Sewra insists it's effective, but not for the faint-hearted or normal.
So there you have it. If you want to set an achievable New Year's resolution for 2017, it's all about emotional honesty, specificity, support, and accountability. Go forth and resolve, my friends.