Let me guess—about three weeks ago, you had some pretty grand plans. This was going to be the year that you were going to Do The Thing.
Maybe you’ve tried and failed before, but this year would be different. In just a matter of weeks, friends and strangers would notice you Did The Thing, you would nod wisely (yet modestly), and surely a parade would be planned in your honor.
Another guess? Today, you’re less confident about how to Do The Thing. Maybe it’s more difficult than expected, maybe you’ve been nervous to start, or maybe you’re having difficulty remembering why you even wanted to Do The Thing in the first place.
I say this not because I don’t think you can Do The Thing, but because, time and again, researchers have found New Year’s resolutions to be full of obstacles. By January 21, a third of us have already ditched our New Year’s resolutions. Nearly 90 percent of all resolutions end in failure within a year.
My own resolutions are no exception. Over the years, I have resolved to actually use my gym membership, to watch less television, to throw out everything that didn’t bring me joy, and to get organized. My gym thinks I’m dead, I’m watching “Frasier” reruns as I write this, and I’ll only ditch the pile of crumpled CVS receipts from 2009 once I’m certain I won’t need them.
The stats may be bleak—but the silver lining is that we’re not failing because we’re incapable, but because we often just get tripped up by a few common (totally fixable) blunders along the way. The below experts can help to identify what went wrong, how to move forward from a failed resolution, and how to ensure future success:
Achieving resolutions begins with personal belief. Sounds corny, but hang tight. Many resolutions fail due to cognitive dissonance, explains Mariel Diaz, LCSW, psychotherapist and founder of The Illuminated Flame, a psychological wellness center in Encinitas, Calif. “This occurs when a person has two or more beliefs that contradict each other,” Diaz explains. Cognitive dissonance is much more likely to arise if you take on something huge—so huge, perhaps, that you’re not really sure you can pull it off. “For example, if a person has a belief that they are lazy and they go to exercise, this action of exercise will actually cause anxiety. Because the anxiety is uncomfortable, people will often stop the new behavior.”
Split your large, intimidating goal into smaller ones to reduce any anxiety or tension you might experience when taking action toward your goal, advises Diaz. If your resolution was to lose 50 pounds, for example, turn it into actionable, snowball-like steps like exercising three times a week, then upping from three to five times a week, and eventually combining five days of exercise with clean eating.
If you told a friend about your resolution and they spent the next few weeks texting you, “you’ll never be able to do this”, you might send them a few choice emojis and freeze them out. So why speak to yourself like that? We can be our own worst critics, and the scary part is, we rarely realize we’re doing it.
Catch automatic negative thoughts and flip the script, offers Diaz. “Identify what the situation was that triggered the automatic negative thought,” she says. “Then weigh out the evidence supporting and refuting the thought [and] create a re-balanced thought that is a more realistic appraisal of yourself.” For example, if you’re getting dressed for the gym and catch yourself thinking, “I’m never going to be able to lose weight,” the evidence supporting the thought might be, “I can’t stick to my exercise schedule, I keep eating candy all day long, I crave soda,” Diaz says. “Your evidence refuting the negative thought: ‘I made it to the gym twice last week, I feel a little stronger in my body, I had a healthy lunch today.’ [Your] new, re-balanced thought: ‘I am taking some steps toward losing weight.’”
When it comes time to set a New Year’s resolution, most people choose their toughest issues to overcome—their Achilles heel, says Fran Walfish, Psy.D., family and relationship psychotherapist and author of “The Self-Aware Parent“. When we pick an Achilles-heel challenge, we’re more likely to stumble.
“A plan for when versus if, we fail should be explored and addressed,” says Dr. Walfish. “Most people feel one failure as a total loss, and they give up.” But just as you don’t quit your job when you send an email with a typo, you shouldn’t throw in the towel after one failure—or a few—as you work toward your goal(s). “Know ahead of time how you will deal with falling off the wagon,” she advises. When you have a plan for what you’ll do after you eat an entire apple pie for breakfast, you’ll be more likely to move forward rather than dwell on a misstep. Just don’t mistake self-flagellation for a plan. “Do not implement negative reinforcements or punishments. Falling off the wagon is punitive enough,” says Dr. Walfish. “If you meet with disappointment, give yourself a break for being human.”
A lot of advice for sticking to New Year’s resolutions includes enlisting a buddy—it makes sense, considering that research has shown that you’re more likely to accomplish goals when committing also to a friend. That said, the strategy can also backfire, says Laura L. Ryan, MA, LMFT. “I have had many couples try to quit smoking together only to find that one person is much more committed to quitting smoking than the other person,” the Austin, Texas-based therapist says. “If you want to change a behavior, that is YOUR goal, not your spouse’s. Depending on another person to follow through in order for you to be successful is a road to disaster.”
Own your goal. “Make the commitment to yourself that you are going to continue with or without them,” says Ryan. “If I want to take archery lessons with my friend, I am still going to attend if she gets sick on the day of our lesson.”
Selecting an ill-fitting resolution buddy could derail your efforts, but so too can feeling completely alone. “People don’t have the tools to make the change alone,” says Ryan. “I often say to my clients ‘If you knew how to do this by yourself, you wouldn’t have called me.’” Just as you need to plan to fail, you should also implement plans for success.
Jump back on the wagon—this time with the right tools. “Hire a nutritionist, get a personal trainer, find an organizer, enroll in a course, sign up for hypnotherapy sessions,” says Ryan. “Do whatever it takes to create a solid framework for your goals and find a qualified person to help you get there and keep you accountable.” If you can’t afford to hire a pro to help you along, there’s probably an app for that. [Editor’s Note: if you resolved to start meditating this year, we’ve got you covered.]
The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.