6 Steps to Setting Sustainable New Year’s Resolutions

January is a complicated month. At first blush, it’s like new love. There’s that wonderful, wind-beneath-your-wings feeling, that promise of a fresh start, a whole new you, an open door to the possibility that everything will be different (perfect) this time. But faster than you can say, “I’m going to renew my gym membership and go every single day!” along comes the other side of January: the bully.

This is the part that shows you the failure, the anticipated crash, the thud, the utter disappointment with yourself as all those good intentions that got your engines started in the first place run out of steam in unglorious and predictable ways. It’s the part that says, make a resolution; I dare you. And over the cliff we go.

Fortunately, January is not the problem. It’s us. Well, our perfectionism, to be specific. Our all-or-none thinking frames our life so that if we’re not succeeding every second, we’re failing. Nobody wants that. But nobody can be that “perfect” person either. Many of us decide that because we break most of our resolutions, we will take the hall pass this year and skip any resolution making at all.

But let’s be clear about what we are missing when we don’t set goals. We aren’t preventing ourselves from failing. We’re keeping ourselves from growing. Setting goals raises us up from our ground level vantage point and gives us access to a privileged view of ourselves. Rather than being a passive participant reacting to life on autopilot, by setting goals we can imagine different paths, question if where we are headed is where we want to go, and in general take charge of our lives. This may be big questions about the direction we’re taking or, on a smaller scale, fine-tuning the details, or looking for more balance, fulfillment and health in daily life.

So, set some goals, take the opportunity to run your life instead of having your life run you. But to stay in the game and on your feet, don’t let perfectionism be your referee. You call the shots. Aim for sustainable change, not perfection. Lasting change takes time, and you are worth the investment. Your goals and aspirations are worth your persistence. Perfectionism doesn’t understand this, but you can.

Here are six ideas to give your resolutions more staying power.

1. No job is too small. Lofty are we when making New Years’ resolutions — the bigger, the better. We want the big-splash resolutions, but those life-altering plans are often impossibly impractical, at least in one go. Think smaller. Do you want to have one more meal each week with your family? Do you want to have a gratitude-sharing with your family each week? Do you want to apologize faster, be more kind to strangers — or people you know? We don’t need the goals that would make our lives discontinuous or unrecognizable to our current selves — we want the actions that will make our lives better.

2. Work with your natural laziness: Set up your supplies in advance. Failure and procrastination happen most often when the supplies we need to get the job done require us to actually stand up and do something (think about how we’ll suffer through a bad movie because the remote is across the room). Improve your chances of success by making things easier on yourself: Get your supplies ready in advance (e.g., grab the remote before you sit down). Prevent that last-minute avoidance/apathy phenomenon from getting in your way. Want to start going to the gym in the next couple of weeks? Get your bag together and put it in your car. Want to start bringing lunch to work? Make it the night before. Want to save money each month? Set up auto-withdrawal.

3. Think short-term. Why don’t you plan your menus for the next 12 months? Or your outfits? So why are we planning our other goals for such a big chunk of time and then get upset when we can’t sustain it? Try to make a goal for each month, rather than for the year. This way you can make modifications in response to how you’re actually performing on the goal.

4. Give it time. It takes a good three weeks to establish a new habit or pattern. That’s what researchers tell us. So, especially in the early weeks of a goal, expect that your adherence will experience some ups and downs. Hang in. Habit strength awaits you on the other side of that first launching phase. Build in room for slips, hiccups, and setbacks. If you expect that this is part of the process, you won’t misinterpret your slip ups and invent reasons to give up. You’ll think instead: Right, Momma said there’d be days like this; and try again tomorrow.

5. Think community. Me, me, me, me. We all get sick of the focus on ourselves — our appearance, our eating habits, our weight. All good things, but expanding the focus beyond ourselves is likely to garner a much more appreciative audience than we can be for ourselves. Community may mean volunteering your time, but it also may be something that requires no planning — being patient and kind in your interactions at work, challenging yourself to see the best in others, doing something each week “just because.” Imagine if we all resolved to do this at the same time.

6. Raise the barn, together. We are isolated in our desire to change ourselves. And when we fail, resolutions tend to be a source of private humiliation. Hey if we’re all in the same boat, let’s support each other in staying afloat. You can find a gym buddy or a job-hunting buddy if someone is going through similar challenges, but you don’t have to be working toward the same goal. Find a buddy who you’ll write to each week to update on your progress, and they’ll do the same. This will also be the person who will give you the pep talk when you slip up and say no big deal, keep going. (We all need that person).

One last thought. This year, as you approach the question of resolutions, rather than feeling like you’re starting from scratch and that you’re nothing without those changes, see that the better you that you’re looking for is already there. Make the bold move to see resolutions not so much as ways to overhaul your life, but rather as opportunities to free yourself up to locate the best version of who you already are. Cheers to overcoming the obstacles that get in the way of seeing and being that best self. Happy New Year, all!

Copyright Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., author of Freeing Yourself from Anxiety (DaCapo, 2012).

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