So You Set a New Year’s Resolution. Now What?
David B. Feldman
If you’re like most people, you were happy to see 2020 draw to a close. Given how painful the past several months have been, most of us are yearning for a better 2021. Besides hoping for a better world and a swift end to the COVID pandemic, many of us may also be considering more personal changes we’d like to make in our lives.
According to a recent survey of people living in the United States, roughly 74 percent of us will set a New Year’s resolution this year. Perhaps not surprisingly, topping the charts are exercising more and eating healthier. Also in the Top 10 are spending more time with friends and family, spending less time on social media, and quitting smoking.
Although most people initially think they’ll succeed, research shows something we all suspect: Most of us give up. In fact, according to research using the Strava app to track over 98 million fitness goals and activities inputted by users, the fateful day when people tend to give up on their goals is January 19.
It’s something that doesn’t surprise psychologist Judith Beck, president of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy and author of many books, including The Beck Diet Solution and The Diet Trap Solution. “People often set the same resolutions year after year after year, because they’ve never mastered them,” she told me during an interview on KPFA Radio’s ‘About Health’ program.
According to Beck, it’s not a lack of commitment or willpower that usually leads people to give up on their resolutions. Instead, we tend to fall into traps in the way we think about our goals. Here are four common traps and how to avoid them.
Trap #1: We set resolutions that overwhelm us
Given that we’ve waited all year to set our resolutions, we often aim too high. When goals are unrealistic, they can undermine motivation. Although research shows that the most energizing goals are ones that seem difficult, it’s also important that people believe they are actually possible to accomplish.
According to Beck, we don’t need to stop setting big goals, we just have to think about them differently. “Let’s say you have a big goal of moving across the country,” she speculates. “What is the first step you would need to take or what decision would you need to make? Maybe I live in Philadelphia now and I want to move to California. And I don’t know which city I want to live in. So, how am I going to get that information?”
Moving across the country—like so many other big goals—can seem overwhelming. By breaking it down into bite-sized pieces, we avoid becoming demotivated by its sheer size. We can look ahead to the next manageable step and get to our destination a little at a time.
Trap #2: We don’t anticipate obstacles
As we’re working toward our resolutions, it’s likely we’ll encounter obstacles that block our path. This may be especially the case for New Year’s resolutions set this year. Despite the distribution of vaccines, COVID-19 cases continue to be at all-time high levels. Many localities are again issuing lockdown orders that, although limiting the spread of the virus, can also limit people’s abilities to accomplish their goals. For this reason, it’s more important than ever to anticipate what we’ll do if and when our progress is blocked.
“As you’re setting the goal, think about what obstacles are going to crop up, what’s going to get in the way,” Beck advises. “It may arise in the first week after you’re trying to maintain your resolution or it might not happen for a year. But probably it’s going to be someplace in between. So you want to plan in advance for what those obstacles could be and how you’re going to resolve them.”
If we purchase a new gym membership and plan to exercise every day, it’s possible the gym could be closed due to the pandemic. It’s also possible we could grow tired of the gym, they could raise their monthly rate beyond what we can afford, or any number of other obstacles could occur. If we don’t anticipate the possibility of such obstacles, they can easily derail our progress. But, if we do, we may be able to prepare ourselves with alternatives. No matter what our resolutions might we, we should always hope for the best but plan for the worst.
Trap #3: We engage in all-or-nothing thinking
It’s a natural human tendency to think in all-or-nothing terms. Either we finish that marathon or we’re a wimp. Either we get an ‘A’ or we’ve failed. Although many people believe such thoughts will be motivating, they can actually set us up for disappointment. If we get a ‘B’ or manage to complete a half marathon, instead of feeling proud and motivated to keep working, we attack ourselves for not being “good enough” and give up trying.
“One of my resolutions for years was to try to keep my closet neater,” Beck shared with me. “I’d have a big resolution of cleaning out the whole closet at once and keeping it that way. But I realized that when I broke it down and just made my resolution to spend 10 minutes a week keeping it in order, then I was much more successful than this kind of all-or-nothing behavior I was having, which was either to keep it completely neat or let it go completely.”
To overcome all-of-nothing thinking, it’s helpful not to think of our resolutions as rigid objectives that must be achieved. Instead, think in terms of a range of positive outcomes. If you want to lose weight, consider what might be a spectrum of success. Perhaps you’d ultimately like to lose 50 pounds. But, you’d also feel good if you lost 20 pounds. Using this strategy, you’ll get to feel good when you shed your first 20 pounds, something that will likely spur you to keep trying.
Trap #4: When we get off track, we beat ourselves up
You resolve to avoid sweets, but, in a momentary lapse of reason, you eat a bite of chocolate cake. An instant later, you think, “Now I blew it! I’m such an idiot! I’ll never lose weight.” And you take another bite of cake.
Besides being unfair and unnecessarily harsh, such self-critical thinking usually isn’t a recipe for success. If we tell ourselves we’re incompetent, stupid, or have no willpower, it’s a short step to concluding that there’s no use trying.
“If you were driving along and inadvertently went through a stop sign and got a ticket, would you say to yourself, ‘Oh this is so terrible, I can’t believe I ran that stop sign, I might as well keep running stop signs the rest of the day and stop tomorrow?’ There’s no other part of our life where we would compound one mistake with lots more,” Beck said. “But that’s why it’s important to realize in advance that, of course, you’re going to make mistakes, and to learn how to speak compassionately to yourself, so you can get started again.
Luckily, Beck offers a simple yet powerful tip for how to practice greater self-compassion: Consider what you’d say to a friend or loved one who made the same mistake you just did. “Would I be as harsh with that person?” Beck advises asking. “And, is it possible that I’m holding myself to unrealistic standards?”
It’s a profound truth, even if it is clichéd: Nobody is perfect. Whatever New Year’s resolution we set, it’s likely we’ll fall off the wagon at some point. Instead of beating ourselves up, we should understand that we’re human, brush ourselves off, and climb right back on.
New Year’s resolutions aren’t about being perfect. They’re about committing to something we care about—something that might enhance our lives, bring us a little happiness, or otherwise improve our little corner of the world.
Here’s hoping your resolutions for 2021 do just that.
This article was originally published on Jan. 2, 2021, in Psychology Today.
David Feldman is also host of the “Psychology in 10 Minutes” podcast, which can be accessed through any podcast app or at davidfeldmanphd.com.