Raise your hand if you spent a little time at the end of 2015 thoughtfully considering the changes you wanted to make in your life, made a sincere resolution about it, and now, half a month in, can’t quite figure out why you’re faltering.
First of all, you’re not alone: Studies show that a quarter of us have already thrown in the towel, and only eight percent of resolvers will actually follow through on their resolutions successfully. So what do we do with the ever-present impulse to extinguish bad habits, increase good ones, and generally improve our quality of life?
The thing is, there’s nothing wrong with resolutions. Resolutions are fine if there’s an associated mindfulness, discipline or accompanying plan for carrying them out. But even the best-laid plans (accountability groups, new workout gear, appointments with a personal trainer) can still fail. In my work, experience shows that what ultimately gets in the way of resolution success is the self-sabotaging, underlying self-talk and unhealthy coping mechanisms that need to be addressed first. So if you’re already struggling, try this instead:
Notice your self-talk. Thoughts precede action, so changing behavior requires first changing your self-talk. Pay attention to the voice in your head that says, “I want to lose weight by eating healthier and exercising more.” It’s a messenger encouraging you to make positive change in your life. But pay even more attention to the sneakier thoughts inside your head saying things like, “You don’t have time to go to the gym because your family needs you” or “You deserve a pint of ice cream and a Netflix binge at the end of a crappy week at work.” If your self-talk is being driven by guilt, comfort, or other unhelpful, self-sabotaging chatter, you’ll need to notice – and address – those underlying assumptions before new habits will stick.
Put on your own oxygen mask first. Whether we’re speaking about kids, friends, or co-workers, it’s always good to remember it’s OK to take care of yourself. Guilt isn’t a healthy or productive emotion at home or in the workplace. Taking the time away from kids (or work, or other obligations) to exercise (or reconnect with friends, or make art – whatever your resolution may be) requires an internal belief that you are worth it. Give yourself a break from keeping all the plates in the air for everyone else and make your resolution a priority.
Be intentional about replacing negative thoughts with positive actions. For example, if you want to exercise more, preempt guilt-driven thoughts about missing out on family time by intentionally sitting down each week (with your spouse, partner, and/or children) to schedule time for working out into the family calendar. That way, as the week drags on, your find yourself feeling too tired to go to the gym, you can remind yourself that this is your self-talk getting in the way. As your brain begins to make the excuse that “family comes first,” you’ll recognize this for what it likely is: an excuse masking your insecurity about getting into shape, or a fear of failure masquerading as concern for your family. Squash any guilty (i.e. negative) thoughts by reminding yourself that this is part of your family’s weekly schedule now – and motivate yourself with a positive reframe – that if you don’t take good care of yourself, you eventually won’t be as engaged with those you love, or that kids will likely see you as a role model, looking up to you one day for being wise enough to balance all of the important things competing for your time.
Seek support from others. For new habits to succeed, you’ll need allies (co-workers, friends, family members) to support your new behaviors. Remember that people can’t read your mind. If you’re eating healthy but find yourself being coaxed at a dinner party to eat more than you want to, speak up and tell the truth about what’s important to you about the meal (eating healthy, being with people you enjoy) and what you’re avoiding (using food as comfort instead of for fuel).
If your new year is off to a shaky start, resolution wise, try starting fresh – but only after walking through the steps above. Luckily, there’s nothing magical about January 1st when it comes to committing to meaningful change, so it’s never too late to begin again.