A year may mark the amount of time it takes for the Earth to travel around the sun, but when it begins depends on which calendar you use. If some cultures recognize the New Year in mid-January while others do so in April, and yet others see it as beginning in September, the significance of the day itself is mostly cultural and symbolic. I celebrate “New Year’s Day” on my birthday since that’s when my personal new year starts. I take the time to look back on the past year to help me plan for the year ahead, but I don’t make resolutions, because lasting behavior change needs more than a once-a-year promise to do better. No matter how well-intentioned the resolution, most of us won’t stick with 2017’s New Year’s resolutions beyond the first six months. Less than two out of five of us will even make it to February. My question is: Why spend eleven months feeling like a failure because you made a promise to yourself at a very sentimental time of year? What I offer here are some practices that help you shift your mindset and set yourself up to change for real this time.
Don’t make resolutions, make commitments
Clearly, we make resolutions because we want to change or improve something in our lives, but waiting until the end of the year and resolving to change on January 1 sets up the resolution as a make-or-break proposition instead of what it should be: an ongoing, multistep process that builds in time to practice new behaviors until they stick. Too many people set up New Year’s resolutions such that the first time they falter they feel like a failure and the odds of them picking up the resolution again fall precipitously (hence two of five not making it a month).
Rather than resolving to do something, acknowledge that the behavior change you want to make needs a process to become permanent, and call it a commitment. That may seem merely semantic, but a commitment connotes something that survives minor setbacks. For example, when you commit to calling your parents once a week, and you miss one week, it’s not like you’re never going to call them again. By committing to make the change, it becomes a long-term compact with ourselves. On the surface, this may look like a small shift in mindset, but it has huge implications for actually changing behavior because it factors in the flexibility needed for us to act our way into a new way of being.
A great idea that I recently found takes a similar approach. Instead making these ineffective yearly adjustments, it suggests we “redesign our lives” by first identifying the problem we want to solve not the behavior we want to adopt. Switching that focus frees us to explore multiple options, so we have a better chance of identifying the right solution instead of the first solution since focusing on the only on the result narrows your possibilities. If you’re solving a problem, you automatically take a larger look at your life, its patterns, and how the pieces fit together.
Share Your Behavior Change Goal with a Specific Person
There’s a reason people seek life coaches, personal trainers, spiritual guidance; other people can help you shape and deliver on your commitments to yourself. This person does not have to be professionally trained, however. You can support yourself by simply articulating to someone you trust, someone who has your back, what you are seeking to change (or what problem you want to solve) and how you are seeking to resolve it. Look to those closest to you, be it a friend, partner, co-worker or relative. Someone within your inner circle probably has the same idea as you. By finding that like-minded person, either someone looking to make a similar change or someone who has successfully made the change, you’ve created an accountability buddy to keep you on track over the course of the year.
Say you commit to strengthening your professional relationships and want to host your own meet-ups or dinners. Chances are you have at least one friend or co-worker who feels the same way. By combining your efforts and resources, and agreeing to work together on these events, you’ve not only made a commitment to someone else, that person has committed to you and you’re now accountable to each other. This shared goal lessens the pressure on you to do everything yourself, and you have built in someone to automatically give you feedback on your progress.
Take stock more than once a year
Another reason New Year’s resolutions are set up for failure is because we say to ourselves “This is going to be the year I do X!” And that enormous window, which feels so exhilarating on January 1, actually undermines our goals, because after even a couple of weeks the excitement fades, and we barely notice when we stop keeping to our resolution altogether. Setting intermediate milestones that ensure an evaluation of progress on a more frequent and regular basis allows us to adjust our goals along the way, or, when needed, provide the opportunity reset. Each period can be viewed as a discovery phase, which keeps us engaged and on the hook for our commitment.
Milestones also build in the chance for us to celebrate small wins, which are great motivators, especially if they’re shared with a coach or partner. They also give us a better and more clear-eyed view on what still needs to be done. More than anything else, though, they reduce the big change we want to make at the beginning of the year into manageable development phases to follow. Before we know it, that year will have gone by, dating from whenever you choose to start, and even if you haven’t fully created the behavior change you seek, you’ll be much further along to achieving it—and happy with the progress you’ve made.
Use your personal ‘end-of-year’ to learn from your successes
Regardless of when you choose to mark your “new year,” it’s natural to start reflecting on what’s happened as the last year is ending (for me this starts a few weeks before my birthday). Self-assessment is healthy, but instead of picking over your flaws, use this time to learn from your successes and look for those moments of achievement, especially unexpected ones that led to breakthroughs, to build on them and move into the next year with hope rather than disappointment.
Balance is necessary for growth, so it’s important to appreciate how far you’ve come to avoid feeling like you’re standing still. You’ve used your other check-ins to fine-tune or redefine your commitment; now use the end of the year as a chance to enjoy your successes and reframe what’s left to be done. And if you feel you’ve met your commitment, give yourself a little gift and celebrate before setting a new one. Appreciating the hard work you put in will make accomplishing your next goal easier.
Any purposeful change requires a new mindset before it will become habit, but the human mind is an amazingly malleable tool. By adopting minor shifts in your outlook, you open yourself up to new ways of thinking that can, in turn, show you the path forward for any change you wish to make. Just remember that you can change your focus on any day of the year, so don’t worry about those New Year’s resolutions that already seem ready to fail. Just change the day you think of as your New Year and make a commitment to solving one area of your life that you know could be better or more satisfying or less painful. And give yourself the time and flexibility and support you need to make it happen.
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