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Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work

Committing to the process of change will be on the top of the list for many people entering the New Year – losing weight, stopping smoking, cutting back on the booze, getting more exercise, getting one’s finances in order will be right up there amongst the more popular of good intentions but good intentions count for little – it’s what we do that matters.

Making the decision to change isn’t, within itself difficult.  Anybody can decide to change – actually knowing how to change and committing to that process is what determines a successful outcome.

Many people will commit to a New Year’s Resolution only to find that they are back to their old way of doing things within a few weeks.  So, what’s the problem here?  Why it so difficult to engage in the process of change and to see it through to a successful conclusion? Are people who struggle to engage successfully with the process of change simply lazy and lacking in motivation or is there something else going on here?

People may appear lazy and lacking in motivation – people can seem as if they lack will power, and are apt to give up without a struggle; but more often than not this is not the case at all.  The majority of people would genuinely like to improve the quality of their lives but they simply don’t know how to do it – they simply don’t know how to engage successfully in the process of setting goals that really matter to them and sticking with them until the job is done.

So, if you want to change an aspect of your life, if you’re going set to yourself a goal to achieve in the New Year this is how to do it:

  1. Make sure you are intrinsically motivated: An intrinsically motivated goal is a goal that you want to achieve for its own sake – you’re not doing it for some external reward you way gain such as a medal, certificate, pay rise, promotion, and so on – you’re doing it because you genuinely want to.  You are far more likely to achieve your goal if you are intrinsically, as opposed to being extrinsically  Committing to a weight loss programme is going to be much easier if the desire to lose weight comes from within you – that the motivation to achieve the goal is driven by the personal satisfaction you will experience when you have achieved the outcome you have set yourself.
  2. Make sure it is your goal and not someone else’s: To be intrinsically motivated also means taking ownership of the goal.  Doing something because someone else wants you to do is unlikely to inspire you in the long run – the goal must be something that you genuinely want to do for yourself.  The goal, in other words, must be congruent with who you really are – it must reflect your beliefs, desires, wants and, most importantly, your values, and not someone else’s.  Your goals need to be in harmony with, and not in conflict with what really matters to you.  You are unlikely to stop smoking, for example, if you secretly enjoy smoking but agreed to stop because your partner wants you to stop.
  3. Be approach, not avoidance orientated: Your far more likely to achieve goals that are beneficial to you if you engage proactively with what you want as opposed to running away from, avoiding or seeking safety from what you don’t want. For example, setting a goal such as “I don’t want to be fat” suggests what you don’t want, i.e. not wanting to be fat.  “I want to be a good weight and size and age” suggests what you want and represents therefore a much more positive and beneficial attitude.  Being specific also helps.  “I want to lose weight” is far too vague.  “I want to lose 2 kg in 12 weeks” is specific.
  4. Choose just one goal at a time but make it interesting and a challenging: a goal which is too difficult to achieve will cause you stress and anxiety, but then again a goal which is too easy will bore you. Either way, you won’t feel like sticking with the process.  Any goal you set for yourself must, therefore grab your attention, stretch you and challenge you.  The goal must however also be realistic – you must able to achieve the goal.  Failing to achieve a goal can knock your confidence, self-esteem and self-belief and could lead to a fear of failure.  It’s important therefore that, not only do you believe you can achieve the goal but you must actually be able to achieve it – the success you experience will give you the self-belief and confidence needed to stay motivated and on target.  An optimistic and hopeful attitude helps in this respect to build the resilience needed to deal successfully with difficult situations, and set-backs.  The ability to keep going when the going gets tough is critically important.  Resilience also enables you to build self-trust – you need to trust in your ability to achieve the goal.  It’s also important to support yourself with positive self-talk throughout.
  5. Have long-term, short-term and immediate goals: Having a big long term goal is good but motivating yourself and keeping on track can be made easier by breaking down the big long term goal into smaller short-term and immediate goals. So, a big, long term such as wanting to lose 2 kg in 12 weeks can be broken down into wanting to lose 1kg in six weeks or a couple of pounds a fortnight.  Tasting success early on in the process is critically important and recognising the small successes while you are on the journey to a major change is one of the best ways of doing this.

Answering the following questions might also help:

  • What is it about the goal that makes it so important to you?
  • When you think about achieving this goal how excited do you feel?
  • What if anything worries you?
  • How confident are you about achieving this goal?
  • What barriers are you facing?
  • What are you able to do to break down these barriers?
  • What inspired you to set yourself this goal in the first place?
  • What can you do you to keep yourself motivated?
  • What personal qualities do you have that you can draw upon?
  • What values of yours underpins the setting of the goal?
  • What values of yours will keep you going until the goal is achieved?
  • What resources do you have and which do you need to acquire?
  • Do you need any support and if so in what form does this come?
  • What will keep you going when the going gets tough?
  • How will you deal with relapses?
  • What are you learning about yourself and the process of goal setting?

We are all goal orientated and motivated by nature.  It’s impossible not to think about the future and what it may hold for us.  It’s also impossible not to be motivated.  The question is, how much agency do you believe you have? How much control do you believe you have over the way your life is developing?  Having a positive, optimistic believe in your ability to make things happens can make all the difference.   All the best for the years to come.


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