We’re less than a week into 2018, but by now, most of us have already veered off the straight-and-narrow. In other words, we jotted down a list of resolutions, but can’t seem to stay on track. It’s an inevitable challenge tons of people face every January. Our goals and resolutions are backed with plenty of confidence, but follow-through is when the problems come. Yet we still subject ourselves to this vicious cycle year after year. Could it be that we’ve evolved past a traditional list of to-dos and need to put in a little more work?
Why We Fail
According to Molly Mahar, a writer and founder of the self-help website Stratejoy, the answer is, well, duh! “I see three things happening frequently that contribute to failure to achieve resolutions,” she says. “We aren’t clear on why we set a specific goal for ourselves, so we have nothing grounding us when the initial New Year’s goal-setting high has worn off. If our goals aren’t rooted or connected to a deep desire, it makes it nearly impossible for us to stay consistent and dedicated to them over time. Just ‘getting in shape’ or ‘being more patient’ or ‘earning a promotion’ won’t motivate you when things get hard—you need to know why you want it.”
Just ‘getting in shape’ or ‘earning a promotion’ won’t motivate you when things get hard—you need to know why you want it.
It’s also pretty hard to make changes by simply declaring them. Setting up resolutions without a proper support system, be it friends of otherwise, is another trap we typically fall into. And perhaps the biggest mistake we repeatedly make is settling on goals that simply aren’t authentic in one way or another.
“Just because your gal pal is doing Whole30 or your partner is starting a freelance business doesn’t mean it’s the right goal for you,” says Mahar. “And society has a whole lot of advice about would make your life better—being thinner, richer, more zen, more glamorous—but until you run it through your own lens and life, it’s not going to work.”
How We Can Fix It
If you’re hell-bent on checking things off your resolution list but aren’t sure how to effectively create change (other than knowing why you want that change in the first place), there are a few concrete things you can do. Start by removing your attention from naysayers and devoting more of it to studying the mentors and role models who have already accomplished what you hope to.
Mahar also recommends setting up an accountability system. Brainstorm a list of ways in which you’ll be able to track your goals. Can you set up weekly or monthly date with yourself to check in on your progress and evaluate your next steps forward? Do you need to join a group or hire help? Whose support and witnessing can you seek? Answer these questions before you decide to start and remember not to be so hard on yourself.
You’re human—you will fuck up. Give yourself a little grace for the inevitable mistakes and keep your focus on the long game.
“Give yourself some slack. Try dialing back the all-or-nothing mindset,” says Mahar. “You’re human—you will fuck up—but the more that one slip-up means failure, the harder it will be to get back on the wagon. Give yourself a little grace for the inevitable mistakes you’ll make and keep your focus on the long game.”
There are also alternatives to the traditional resolution list, such as a vision board that illustrates what you’re working toward or a support group (even if its membership is one person: you!). “Record a voice memo on your phone giving yourself a pep talk about why your goals matter and how you’re totally capable of reaching them—listen daily!” says Mahar. “Post your goals somewhere that you’ll see frequently—on your phone background, your bathroom mirror, or your fridge.”
Choose a Theme
Before you can take action, it can also help to adjust your mindset in a more abstract, big-picture way. Mahar suggests preparing for your resolutions by choosing a theme word that describes your ideal year. “Let your goals be born from those guides,” she says. “My theme word acts as my anchor during goal-setting and throughout the year. It’s one word I can return to and focus on when I feel like I’m drifting from my goals or feeling overwhelmed. Theme words I’ve used in the past have been ‘Revel,’ ‘Essential,’ ‘Pleasure,’ ‘Evolve’ and this year I’m going with ‘Free.’”
And as cliché as it may be, simply believing in your own ability to change can ultimately set you up for success and make you less susceptible to self-sabotage. “Luckily, you alone control your internal belief system and can shift it with enough self-awareness, courage, and work,” says Mahar. “You may need to find mentors who believe in you. You may need to practice doing things that scare you. You may need own up to the ways you’re holding yourself back. You may need to extend your deadline by six months or by two years.”
You alone control your internal belief system and can shift it with enough self-awareness, courage, and work.
The most common (and unhelpful) side effects of an unhealthy belief system tend to be critical self-talk and punishment as motivation. Both of these are fueled by fear, and admittedly, they may appear to have short-term benefits, but ultimately, they’re the antithesis of true transformation.
“True transformation means engaging in change to become more ourselves, to shine more vibrantly, to engage in our own life with more meaning, purpose, or joy,” says Mahar. “The whip can provide enough scary consequence and guilt to make change, but fear-based motivation isn’t sustainable in the long run. Change born from clenched fists and shame spirals will never blossom into transformation because it’s not in your best interest to align with fear.”
The whip can provide enough scary consequence and guilt to make change, but fear-based motivation isn’t sustainable.
This is where self-care comes in, and not just the kind that involves a weekly bubble bath or the occasional night out. Start by giving yourself a little more self-compassion; in other words, room to mess up, which “gives you permission to keep moving forward, no matter what failure, distraction, or road block occurs.” And yes—road blocks and mistakes are inevitable on the path to change, so we all might as well accept it now (otherwise we’d get so discouraged we’d never want to leave the house, let alone set an ambitious goal).
“I believe that basic self-care and self-kindness must be a priority no matter what you’re working on,” says Mahar. “Get enough sleep, drink water, move your body, connect with others, practice gratitude, and prioritize pleasure. It’s the easiest way to set yourself up for sustainable success.” Noted!