Now that we are over a month past the New Year, it is a good time to assess the status of our New Years’ resolutions, if you made any. Although this might be a disappointing moment for those of us who have not been able to sustain the commitments we made, it is still important to look back on them and identify what worked and what did not. This reflection enables us to learn from any mistakes that we made during the process.
First, let us acknowledge that change is hard. There is quite a bit to the process of change that is involved before we even make a commitment to change . We have to recognize that something is a problem, weigh the options of changing or maintaining the status quo, and create a plan that is sufficiently detailed and achievable (more on this later), all before we make our first attempt at a new behavior. Furthermore, once we do take our first steps, we have to monitor for pitfalls and ensure that we can sustain the new behavior long-term.
For the sake of this article, we will take the commitment to a New Years’ Resolution as evidence that you had some kind of plan (or intent) to change, which would indicate that you had already recognized a problem and decided that change was more appealing than the status quo. Some of the most common pitfalls in creating lasting change are that the goal itself is either too vague or too lofty.
Too vague: I want to get fit.
This goal is not specific or meaningful enough to spur organized action. What does being fit mean to you? Being able to run a mile without stopping? Being flexible enough to play with your grandchildren on the floor? Having a specific goal focuses your effort and reduces the chance of feeling overwhelmed by possibilities.
Too lofty: I (never was a runner, and) am going to run a marathon next month.
Lofty goals impose harsh expectations that may ultimately demoralize you, even if they are specific and meaningful. The pride of achieving smaller milestones will provide the motivation to keep moving toward the loftier goal.
As your goals become more specific and achievable, it is important to celebrate milestones as a chance to both feel good about your accomplishments and set the next achievable goal for yourself in that realm.
What if you set small achievable goals that are meaningful to you, yet still find yourself unable to follow through consistently?
Unexamined Root Issue
A lack of sustained change indicates that the status quo might serve a more important function in your life than you have imagined. Say you are a parent of two young children who wants to start a workout regimen in the mornings. If working out every morning means you aren’t able to cook the healthiest, warmest breakfast for your children, guilt may be keeping you from changing. In essence, you value providing for your children in a specific way more than you value the personal fitness changes. For another example, what if you resolved to stick to a reasonable budget each month by reducing frivolous spending? Inflation and price hikes aside, perhaps you have not identified that shopping gives you a sense of freedom – a compelling reason NOT to stick to a budget where that sense of freedom is limited.
Whether it is guilt, feeling restricted, or some other emotional issue, it is often difficult for people to identify and tackle these issues alone. Friends and family are a good place to start the conversation about some of these root issues, because sometimes close associates can see our blind spots – personal qualities or circumstances we are unaware of but that are visible to others. Talking about our goals with others also helps us rehearse our belief in their importance. Licensed mental health professionals can help us look deeper into the emotional issues that may be holding us back, and can also help us develop more specific, achievable goals that keep us motivated in the long-run. They can also help brainstorm new ways of meeting formerly unacknowledged needs in ways that do not interfere with the changes or resolutions that you are trying to make.
The blog written by Breathing Room special guest contributor Alex Chan, Mental and Behavioral Health Specialist with University of Maryland Extension.