New Year’s resolutions can bring on a sense of failure. Life Coach Tal Fagin applauds any effort to be intentional about yourself and offers ideas for sticking to a new game plan.
January tends to be a busy time of year in my business. After the distractions of the holidays—that season of excess and indulgence—everyone comes in looking to “get back on track.” I hear about new regimes and severe plans, everything from Juiceless January to spending freezes, new workout protocols and lots of swearing off of everything from carbohydrates to social media.
In short, resolutions are rampant.
People start off incredibly hopeful and energized, but somewhere in the midst of February, I start to hear a lot about “feeling like a slacker” and “slipping back into old routines.” Usually, it goes a little something like this…
The year has barely begun and already I am failing.
I was off to a very good start, but then I started reverting to type.
I am trying not to beat myself up, but I just can’t understand why I have such a hard time sticking with a plan of my own design and in my own best interests.
Can you help?
Personally, I am not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions. Something about them always seems to guarantee disappointment and a sense of failure. I am, however, all for setting goals, and I will always applaud any effort to be intentional about your life—to identify priorities and work hard to honor them.
Whether your aim is to become a morning person or learn a new language, whether you hope to write a best seller, land a promotion or Marie Kondo your way to meticulous, joy-sparking closets, there are certain strategies I tend to favor.
None of them involve berating or shaming yourself. Rather, each involves self-awareness and attention, curiosity and care. A little creativity, open-mindedness, and compassion don’t hurt, either.
With that in mind, if you are struggling to stick with a new regime or plan of your own, I would invite you to try the following:
Be SMART. Regardless of the goal at hand, you want to be SMART about it. SMART goals are objectives that are S-specific, M-measurable, A-achievable, R-realistic, and T-time-bound. This is a beloved and well-established tenet of the corporate world, but it’s equally valuable for more personal aspirations. Go through each criterion, applying them to your identified goals—not just the overall aim, but the smaller steps required to get there. Make sure the SMART criteria are met, or in the alternative, consider whether some clarifications or adjustments may be in order.
Clarify Your Goals. We tend to internalize certain ubiquitous, culturally approved messages, but then we never stop to question their value in our own lives. Imagine you want to become a morning exerciser, with the goal of rising at dawn to hit the home gym every day before work. Society praises early risers (The early bird gets the worm) and routine exercisers (Just Do It), but you struggle nonetheless. This is an opportunity to go deeper, to clarify your Why?
Why the need to force yourself out of bed and straight to the treadmill? Perhaps it feels great and always leads to a better day. How so? Probing further, you notice you feel more energized and capable when you honor the plan, disappointed and irritable when you don’t. This would imply that having more energy and feeling more capable are your true goals, not necessarily rising with the sun to don spandex.
Regardless of the goals you set, taking a little time to clarify them—namely, focusing on how you want to feel—can help in two different ways. You might discover more personally authentic means to achieve the same feeling state, other avenues which feel equally rewarding but far less burdensome. On the other hand, should you decide to stick with your plan, focusing on how it makes you feel (as opposed to what you must do) can help fortify your resolve and make it much less painful to execute.
Design Wisely. Just as you might map out a road trip, then make adjustments for foul weather or expected traffic delays, you can adopt a similar strategy for any journey—goal achievement included. Think about what tends to get in your way. Identify the roadblocks that typically derail you, and make a plan to deal with them. At the same time, consider simple fixes to make your experience as pleasant and painless as possible.
One client wants to finish a screenplay but finds herself getting sucked into a domestic black hole every time she tries to write. Together, we devised a strategy—obvious but effective—involving a snazzy new bag to hold all of her materials, a realistic schedule where blocks of writing time are marked as appointments on the calendar, and ditching the home office for the local library. At our last check-in, she proudly beamed about the reams of new pages she had written.
My wannabe morning guy has a tendency to hit the snooze button. In his case, I suggested he put his alarm clock across the room, forcing him to get up and out of bed to turn it off, and leaving his workout gear right beside it. We also discussed other obstacles—internal and external—he could identify and accommodate, such as getting enough sleep and making sure the room was not too dark or cold in the morning, which was making it extra dreadful to climb out from under the covers. In terms of simple fixes, I asked whether a nudge from another member of his household might help, or if he might enlist support from a friend or colleague who shares his early riser ambition. This led to a whole new plan—a little friendly office competition—that seems to be helping him get over the pre-dawn hump.
What are your goals, and what blocks you on your way to achieving them? How can you plan accordingly or incentivize yourself differently to make attainment more of a snap?
Consider Alternatives. All too often, we have ideas about how we should be, some ideal version of ourselves that doesn’t align with who we really are. We try to force and squeeze ourselves into molds that simply don’t fit. This is not an invitation to despair, and it’s not a subtle hint that you raise the white flag in surrender. Sometimes, however, there are viable alternatives for achieving our true aims.
I love the endorphin rush of an intense, sweaty workout. For years, this was my go-to form of release. Sprinting, jumping, lunging, leaping—even burpees—were my happy place. Then my body developed other ideas. It whispered at first, in the form of tiny aches and pains, which I ignored defiantly. I adopted a power through approach, determined to force my perpetually aching body into submission. I lost. The little injuries started piling up and one ultimately forced me to relent. I turned my coaching tools on myself, looking beneath my love of a super-charged workout to the true goal. That feeling of accomplishment and overcoming challenges were a thrill, but underneath that was a desire to be healthy and happy, to simply feel good.
Much to my surprise, I can get all of that and more from myriad alternatives, whether yoga, meditation, a hike in Steep Rock or a long walk with my dog. No injuries required.
Be Quick to Forgive. The more intent you are on self-improvement, the more likely it is you live with a little whip-cracker on your shoulder—always there to push you to new heights, and reliably quick to scold you when you fall short. It is the ugly-little-secret of perpetual achievers everywhere. Their inner dictators are relentless.
The bad news is, you may never be completely rid of this demanding presence. The good news is, you can tame it.
Instead of equating set-backs with being a slacker, try cutting yourself a little slack. Instead of berating yourself for eating that slice of cake, then polishing off the whole thing in rebellious self-sabotage, take a moment to pause and forgive yourself. Drop the all or nothing attitude and find success where you can. Remind yourself of the moments that have gone according to plan, of the recent successes that felt fantastic. Take a deep breath as you bask in the accomplishment. Linger there. Take another deep breath, then consider what you might say to a beloved friend in a similar moment. Try extending that same tender compassion to yourself.
Establish the Habit. Lest you think I am far too gentle, and if you listen to me, you will accomplish nothing at all, please think again. Resolutions often fail because people are too extreme in their expectations, too rigid in their approach. If your goal is to change a lifetime pattern or establish a new habit, this will take time. Habits can be broken, modified or newly established, but not without effort and patience. Expect it to be difficult at first, remain determined, but be forgiving. Repetition and practice—combined with compassion—just may be your new best friends.
Good luck, and Happy New Year!