Happy New Year! Is it time for New Year’s Resolutions?
According to one commonly cited statistic, only 8% of people actually keep their New Year's resolutions. If we think about resolutions as being promises we make to ourselves, that represents 92% broken promises. That many broken promises would certainly be hard on any relationship, and they are equally damaging to our relationship with (the way we feel about) ourselves. How can we learn to better keep our promises to ourselves?
Go to any website about resolutions, and you will hear about SMART goals, that is goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely (or Time bound). That seems like a good start. Some recommend SMARTER goals which include Evaluation and Refinement. That’s even better.
And, it is also recommended that we write goals or resolutions down or create vision boards to make our ideas more concrete. This helps too.
But these recommendations have been available for a long time, and we still experience this miserable 8% success rate. In fact, most of us enter the process of making New Year’s resolutions with an underlying assumption that they won’t last, and there are endless jokes and memes about that.
It seems as though a big piece of the problem is that we make these commitments lightly. Going back to the metaphor of relationships with others, if we met someone on New Year’s Eve who, on the fly, professed that they loved us and wanted us to spend the rest of our lives together, we might enjoy that, but we wouldn’t necessarily expect the relationship to last past February. That is the fate of most New Year’s resolutions. Maybe we need to think a little harder at the front-end before we enter these commitments.
Some of the principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) are very helpful here. When we think about moving towards something that we want, it is useful to consider different levels of importance/significance.
At the top are Values; these are our overarching, relatively stable desires regarding who we want to be in our lives and how we want to live. We never “achieve” our values. We move toward them. They are ongoing and always serve as beacons to guide us.
Values-based questions about a resolution might include: What is truly important to me about this? Or, Do I really care about this? Why? Whatever specific, tangible goal we select as a resolution is probably embedded in a larger desire to feel confident and capable that we can make positive changes in our lives in general. We want to build our certainty that we can see clearly what is important to us and take the steps necessary to achieve it.
Examining our values helps us to create goals, which are more specific than values. We can achieve a goal, and know when we’ve achieved it. Underneath our goals, are discrete action items, specific steps that will help move us towards the goal. These are even easier to mark as achieved or not. Most resolutions fall somewhere in the space that includes goals and action items. So, our New Year’s resolutions should be guided by our values, in the service of a goal, and contain specific action items. The action items may change over the course of time, and maybe the goal will get developed and revised as well. The value will probably remain consistent, but our sense of being congruent with it may rise and fall.
Willingness is also a basic component of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy. These things that we say we want to achieve almost always come with some component of discomfort or difficulty, otherwise they wouldn’t be on our list of resolutions. It is a big advantage to know that and be prepared for it going in. (Maybe this also parallels relationships. Just because you love each other and have made a good decision, doesn’t mean that there won’t be plenty of work involved in making it a success.) If we regard the difficulty that we encounter as potentially being an indicator that we are truly working at it, that helps to sustain us through the effort.
It also helps to spend a few minutes each day reminding ourselves of our intentions, assessing how we feel about our process, and revising our approach if necessary. First thing in the morning and last thing at night work well for this. It also really helps to bring some compassion toward ourselves as we engage in that process and to give ourselves some credit for the process itself when we are really engaging.
There are likely to be reversals – know this. Perfectionism undoes many of the 92% resolution failures. Planning for how to maintain our intentions, and for relapse response is what may ultimately determine how successful we are.
So ... as you enter this resolution process, take your time choosing and planning, consider the values/goals/action items continuum, plan to check in with yourself often regarding how you are doing, revise as necessary. If you can’t make a good choice by New Year’s Day let the process take longer. It’s better to make a wise choice than just to come up with something. Be fully committed but not perfectionistic. And be kind to yourself.