How do I stick to my New Year's Resolutions? Aargh! Read below for some tried and tested techniques.....
How many of us have made new year's resolutions? How many of have stuck to them?
Beyond the first few weeks of course....
I'm pretty sure we've all been there - at the year's end we've reflected on our year, and on our lives, and vowed to become (even) better people the next year - whether that's to stop smoking, lose weight, exercise, or perhaps be nicer to people or to stop swearing. I'd like to say that these resolutions are as varied as there are people, but I don't think that's true - I'm pretty sure our resolutions are very similar - similar to others (hit the gym!) and similar to those resolutions we made last year and the year before.
There are those people, of course, who manage to sustain their resolutions beyond the end of January.
Most people, though - and I've been there! - start off motivated and excited and resolute.
We firmly believe that they will stick to the plan - we deeply want to. I have no doubt of this - that there is a firm resolution. There's an acknowledgement of wanting something to change, and really believing that we can - this time.
However, after a while, that motivation wanes. The enthusiasm slips. Perhaps little justifications creep in 'What does one day matter?'
We become tired and bored.
Why can't we stick to resolutions?
Let's be honest - it's an effort. It takes a huge amount of brain power to plan our days - be they healthy meals or trips to the gym. It takes a large amount of time to stop and think.
It's this 'stopping and thinking' that makes us feel like our days are jolting. It's stop, start, stop, start. Our lives used to flow and be natural - we had routines! But now we have to actually stop and think.
It's a natural human impulse to take the path of least resistance. Many of our behaviours work this way. Think about them as motorways in the brain - the electrical impulses travel down the neurons in our brain down the easiest route possible. If that means chucking some pasta in a pan, rather than stand there chopping vegetables, then our brains want us, naturally, to do the easy thing.
We've all heard the idea that to form a new habit you have to repeat the action over and over again (the number of times you need to do this varies). It's true - you do!
Imagine that, at the side of your neuro-highway in your brain, there is a small track. In order to chop those vegetables, your brain has to travel down that little track, rather than going down the pasta superhighway. You can do it, but it's more difficult.
The thing is - the more you travel down this track, the larger it becomes, and the easier the behaviour.
Imagine making yourself chop vegetables every day for 2 weeks. What you're doing is making that little track into a single-track paved road. Now imagine you chop those veggies for another few weeks - your single track road is now a dual carriageway. Soon, your little track will be its own superhighway. What happens to the original motorway? Sure, sometimes you'll still take the easy route - no one is infallible and perfect. But! The more you make yourself travel down the new track, all the while that it's getting bigger and easier, the original motorway is becoming smaller and more decrepit. One day, you'll be so used to using the new road and chopping veg, you'll look back at your pasta motorway and realise that it's no longer a motorway - it has become a little track itself.
"Yes", you say, "I understand - but how do I stick to my resolution enough to make my track into a highway ?!"
When I'm trying to form a new habit, I employ three techniques - SMART goals, TINY habits and Mindfulness.
It's likely that you'll have heard of these from any appraisals (performance reviews/other names are available) you may have had at work. When setting objectives for the year ahead, it's pretty normal for managers to use SMART goals.
What are they? SMART stands for:
S - Specific - your goal needs to be clearly defined so that you know exactly what you need to do.
M - Measurable - you need to know when you've achieved that goal
A - Achieveable - achieving your goal needs to be within your ability, even if you're challenged
R - Relevant - 'learning Spanish' probably isn't relevant if you work in marketing or banking, for example
T - Timely - you need to have a time goal for your objective, a deadline.
If we use the example of veggies vs pasta. You may have said to yourself 'I'm going to have veggies every night for the next 6 months'. Great - that's a very worthy goal.
BUT! Will you stick to it? Let's test it against the SMART barometer:
Is your goal Specific? Yes, you could argue that - you're going to eat more veggies every night. However, you could refine your goal - which veggies? How many different types? How are you going to cook them?
Is your goal Measurable - yes, again you can argue this - every night for 6 months
Is your goal achievable? - well, here's the difficulty - probably not. Every night? For 6 months? Would it not be more achievable if you said '4 out of 7 nights a week', giving you some room for being human. Another way of saying this is 'Is your goal realistic?'
Is your goal relevant? Well, yes, probably if you're aiming to eat more healthily
Is your goal Timely? Yes, you've given yourself 6 months - but is that deadline achieveable and realistic?
Only you will know what is achievable and realistic. If you struggle to stick to your plans and resolutions, I urge you to consider your goals in light of the SMART questions. Please remember, though, that there will be set backs. That's human and natural. The real test is what you do if, one day, you resort to pasta - will you kick yourself and say 'well there's no point continuing'? Or will you pick yourself up, re-evaluate your goal, make it more realistic and start again the next day?
One of my favourite books on forming new habits is 'Tiny Habits' by BJ Fogg - an eminently readable book with lots of examples of how to start new habits. For me, the essential message that comes from this is 'Start tiny and make it achievable'.
Start tiny - that's ok. Give yourself as much opportunity for success as possible.
Maybe the start is to have prechopped frozen veg in the freezer? Or to build up slowly, such as having veg 1 night in the first week, and then 2 in the second?
Build in as many steps as you think you may need.
Sometimes it's the idea of a vast goal that seems like a huge unscalable mountain that we have to climb that makes us give up our resolutions. By breaking them down into tiny little steps it becomes more of a ladder or a set of stairs.
The important thing is to congratulate yourself after achieving each little step (although congratulating yourself with a huge chocolate bar may not be the answer in this example!)
One of the key principles of mindfulness is awareness - being aware of how you're feeling, and what you're telling yourself. It might be that your self-talk is sabotaging your goals without you even realising it. Perhaps you're unwittingly saying to yourself 'I can't do this' 'I don't know how to cook these' 'I'm too lazy' All this negative self talk has an effect on our motivation.
Becoming aware whenever you're self-sabotaging with your own words is the first step to changing the negative into positive talk. It takes a bit of practice but try noticing what you're saying to yourself when you're thinking about chopping and eating veg. If you notice yourself saying something unhelpful, can you change it? Can you, instead, tell yourself 'I don't know how to cook this, but I can look it up' or 'I'm feeling lazy, but that doesn't mean I can't do it - I'll reassess my goal to make it more achievable'?
It's very easy to want everything right now - today's society is very 'now' driven. Sometimes, however, what we want takes time and effort.
When we do put in the time and effort, our natural reward systems flood us with feelings of achievement and positivity - which gives us the momentum to keep on trying.
So, keep at it. Make sure your goals are realistic. Break them up into small chunks. Be aware of what you're telling yourself.
Make sure you reward yourself for your little wins!
If you still feel that you need a bit of a helping hand, please do contact me. I can help you set your goals, make them realistic and keep you accountable to them. Good luck!