For many people, the New Year feels like a fresh start. With the slate wiped clean, it’s an ideal time to spruce up our lives. So we make resolutions to lose weight, to play the piano daily, to learn Mandarin. These vows are an ancient practice: The Babylonians and the Romans also made solemn promises to their gods at New Year’s, though they may have been no better at fulfilling their resolutions than we are now.
We typically throw ourselves into life-changing pursuits with unbridled enthusiasm — for about a week or two. Then we find ourselves halfway through a dinner-plate-size cookie at the coffee shop or lounging in front of the TV, having “forgotten” the scheduled language class or the workout. After this comes the self-reproach: Why do I even try?
Fewer than one in 10 of us actually keeps resolutions, according to University of Scranton research. The reasons have less to do with a failure of character or consistency than with unrealistic resolution-making and inadequate resolution-keeping techniques, says Zen teacher and author Cheri Huber. Her insights can help make your New Year’s vows more achievable, less stressful, and even more fun.
Challenges to Overcome
- Holiday guilt. One of the biggest problems with New Year’s resolutions is that they come at the end of a season when you tend to yield to your cravings. “During the holidays, your overindulgence has broken the structures that support you in being the person you want to be, so you feel guilty and are hard on yourself,” Huber says. “Now’s the time, you think, to really clean up your act.”
- The rebellious negative. We’re inclined to assert our autonomy by breaking rules — even ones we set for ourselves. “Often, ‘I don’t want to’ or ‘I don’t feel like it’ is much stronger in people than ‘I want to,’ ” she explains. “It’s our ego talking us into doing things that we are going to feel bad about later.”
- Unrealistic expectations. Resolving to finish a marathon after training for two weeks is unmistakably impractical. But self-deception can also sneak into our most pragmatic intentions: “We have a problem if we make resolutions that are completely counter to our day-to-day choices,” Huber asserts. “If I have an ingrained habit of drinking a Frappuccino every morning and then vow to stop drinking anything sweet in the morning altogether, I’m going to rebel, and then the power of the negative is going to kick in.”
- Magical thinking. “We hope that making a resolution at New Year’s will have a magical effect,” she says, “and that magic will somehow overcome our resistance.” But overcoming habits almost always requires a series of carefully considered steps.
- Forgetting. “At our meditation center, we regularly check in with people on the vows and decisions they’ve made,” Huber notes, “and it’s amazing how often they say, ‘Uh, what did I decide?’” She adds that the more far-fetched a resolution is, the more likely it is to simply slip our minds.
- Feeling better. You feel good after practicing guitar every day for a week, then you lose focus. Or after dropping some weight, you reward yourself — with a doughnut. The moment we’re no longer motivated by misery, says Huber, is often the moment we’re in danger of forgetting our resolve.
Strategies for Success
- Make small resolutions. “Don’t let the voices in your head talk you into something extreme that is just going to set up another failure,” says Huber. Instead of vowing to lose 20 pounds, commit to 5. Instead of resolving to give up all sugar, start by replacing your daily pastry with a banana and almond butter. “Wholesale change almost never works,” she says. “But incremental changes do — and then you build on them.”
- Celebrate little successes. If you vow to lose 5 pounds or practice yoga five days in a row, Huber believes that’s five chances to praise yourself. “Celebrate each lost pound — or each day you stay on your training regimen,” she recommends. These celebrations don’t have to be a big deal. You could listen to a podcast you’ve been saving, or treat yourself to a box of fancy tea.
- Enjoy the process. Huber suggests that if you’re having fun during the first five days, you’re more likely to say to yourself, Hey, I might really enjoy practicing yoga these next five days, too.
- Be accountable to someone. “Finding somebody outside of yourself who can keep you on track can really help,” Huber advises. Join a class, get a coach, or partner with a friend. Accountability can make all the difference.
- Listen to yourself. Make a recording of yourself stating your goals, and listen to it every morning, she suggests. You can also write your resolution down on a daily calendar as a memory prompt.
- Go for positive change. If you’re discouraged by past resolutions gone wrong, try simply setting some good intentions: Write down things you’re grateful for once a week. Make a list of friends you’ve missed and contact them to make dinner plans. These changes will have plenty of positive impacts on your life while steering you clear of the achievement conundrum — because you can’t fail at them.
- Cultivate self-kindness. “All change is easier if we are kind to ourselves,” Huber says, because self-kindness isn’t the same as self-indulgence — that’s more ego-driven and rebellious. “Kindness to ourselves is doing those things we know we will never regret.”