Updated: Jan 14, 2019
"I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by." Douglas Adams
New Year’s resolutions are a bit like deadlines: Before we get around to putting them into practice, the year is gone. But there is always next year, right? And so we end up in an annual loop of self-recrimination (for not doing what we set out to do) and hope (that next year will be different) – but chances are, it won’t. Whoosh!
It’s not you – it’s the resolutions
One of the reasons so many New Year’s resolutions get us nowhere are the resolutions themselves. Let me guess: most of your resolutions start with “I really must/should/ought…” And if it’s not that then maybe: “I definitely will/I am determined to…” No pressure in these resolutions (!), but how many of us actually enjoy hearing what we MUST do?
Growing up, we tend to be told a lot what we must (not) do. Parents, teachers and other “grown-ups” usually have our best interest at heart and as we get older, we begrudgingly realise that there maybe was merit, for example in doing our homework first before we went out to play with friends.
We learn that perseverance or grit can be a good thing, too. It helps us become better at what we do and gives us skills that can serve us in life. So we forgo the immediate fun of playing with friends for the sensible longer-term goals. This is called delayed gratification, which was long considered predictive of future positive outcomes, based on the famous Stanford marshmallow experiment.
Your own “grown-up” towering over you
These “grown-up” voices stay with us throughout life, just that now we tell ourselves what would sensibly be a good thing to do (I must do this!). And because we have learnt that perseverance is a good thing, we make this non-negotiable, whether we enjoy doing it or not (I definitely will do this).
As a result we end up with New Year’s resolutions like the classic fitness/weight-loss resolution: I will go to the gym and/or I must lose weight.
We have become our own grown-up, towering over us with heaps of pressure and high expectations. So we forgo the immediate fun, for example having dinner with friends, for the sensible longer-term goals of fitness, fewer kilos and better health. Or as it may be, we don’t – whoosh!
Fun is still an option
A study in 2018 cast some doubt on the Stanford marshmallow findings, suggesting that other factors (e.g. income or education levels of parents) may have a stronger influence. It seems like knowing that – even if we forgo the treat now – it will still be there later, determines our ability to delay gratification. So the certainty that fun isn’t binary, seems to be key.
That opens a lot of options for our New Year’s resolutions. Assuming that our friends are flexible enough to meet us another time for dinner, we now have a choice. At this point the “must” becomes “I choose to do x now and have fun later”. This means we can still go to the gym and meet our friends for dinner another time, for example.
By making our resolution a choice, a lot of the pressure disappears – and fun increases! The chances of meeting our goals have suddenly improved.
With the element of choice also comes the possibility to adapt our resolution so it really suits us. You could ask yourself: “Is this really my choice? Might there be a better way of achieving this?”
Like with goals, it is worth making resolutions SMART (i.e. specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound).
What is it you (really) want? (be honest)
How do you know when you achieved it?
Is it realistic – can you actually achieve it? (be honest)
Is it relevant to what you want to achieve? (Or are there more fun ways to achieve the same thing)
When/how often can you do it?
Before writing down your resolutions, ask yourself these questions. Make your resolution something you actually want to achieve, not something you saw somebody else do or something somebody told you to do. To stick with our example: Whether you go to the gym to become fit (fitness/self-image), or because you are a bit chubby (self-image/preventative health), or because you are diabetic (health), are different things. Understanding what it really is you want to achieve, is an important first step: Why am I doing this?
Once you understand your real goal, you can consider the options to achieve it: Are there better ways to achieve what I really want? For example, going to the gym – because everybody else does – may not be the best choice for you. If you want to become fit but you are an outdoor person, maybe hiking (even gardening) could be much more fun for you and may achieve the same thing. And because you enjoy being outdoors, you are much more likely to see it through.
Once we have our goal in sight, it is natural that we want to get going. But let’s not forget about life: Just because we now have a good goal and a fun way to achieve it, doesn’t mean we will be able to do it. We probably still have jobs, family, commitments etc. So let’s be honest about what we can achieve.
For example, if your job involves a lot of travel or your kids have an activity every evening, it is probably not realistic that you go to the gym regularly after work or go outside gardening in the dark. So let’s think it through and make a plan that actually fits into your life. That includes the decision on when and how often you can do what you intend to do.
A whoosh-free 2019
It is quite possible that after these tweaks the goal has become less ambitious. Maybe we only aim to achieve part of our initial goal this year. But which one will give us a greater sense of achievement: Setting a really ambitious goal, only to hear the whooshing noise at the end of 2019? Or setting a slightly less challenging goal but without the whoosh?
Achieving all of a SMART resolution is likely to be much more fun – throughout the year as well as on 31 December 2019.
And listen – no whooshing noise!