Strategies for Staying on Track with New Year Resolutions

 Binoculars by Dr Kate Lemerle, PhD

Founder & Senior Psychologist, Institute for Applied Positive Psychology

Here you are, into the second month of the year and already wondering who’s responsible for speeding up time (maybe something to do with the Particle Accelerator?). You’re back at work, you’ve ploughed through the holiday backlog…and life is back to its humdrum routine. Sure there’s still a tiny warm inner glow remaining from your holidays, but by now it’s barely a spark as the pressure of the whole year ahead becomes a reality.

Is this the moment you sigh deeply and try desperately to refocus on the day’s demands? Or are you very much on-track with implementing those New Year Resolutions you made barely a month ago and can sit back smugly watching those around you slowly begin unravelling?

It’s funny, isn’t it, that every year we make ourselves these incredibly sensible promises that we’ll do it differently, that this will be the year we reach our goals and accomplish everything calmly and efficiently. We head into the new year with clarity about what is really most important to us, determination and confidence to make it happen, maybe even well-considered plans. Then old habits kick in…

So here are some practical strategies for making New Year Resolutions that are more likely to have a happy ending:

Start with an audit of last year’s resolutions. Which of last year’s resolutions did you start, and what was the motivation then to kick off with those goals? Reflect on the differences between those didn’t even see the light of day compared to those that you started but they languished, and those that you completed. The purpose of this strategy is to gain insight into the techniques or tools you use to achieve goals that actually work for you. For example, are you more likely to achieve your goals if you write them down, schedule time in your diary dedicated to each goal, engage a buddy to share the journey, or do you structure in rewards for progress? This is an important first step because doing this audit really helps you discover what drives you. Once you know this, rather than wildly making the same mistakes every year, you can harness the insights you’ve gained to be much more targeted with the tools you use this year.

Define the outcomes you want unambiguously. New Year Resolutions are typically vague motherhood statements, such as “I’m going to exercise more this year” or “My goal is to travel within the next 12 months”. Change Theory suggests that motherhood statements give us a broad vision for the direction we want to take, but real change depends on setting explicit goals and mapping out the activities that are necessary preconditions for getting to the desired outcome. We call theses SMART goals – they’re specific (you’ve stated exactly what you will accomplish), they’re measurable (that is, they clearly state how much, how often, for how much time); they’re achievable or realistic given your circumstances (and here the emphasis is on realistic – no point setting goals that are impossible); they’re relevant or they fit well into your lifestyle and responsibilities; and finally, they’re time-bound (that is, each goal has a “complete by” date). So now, for each outcome you say you want, assess it within the context of the Stages of Change Model to ensure you’re working on goals that are ripe for action. Is it just a wishful dream, or are you ready to prepare a roadmap for making each goal happen? Then write them out as SMART goals.

Once you have your SMART goals, use a planning worksheet to map out the path you’ll take to achieve each goal. Therapists know that if we worked with our clients in the absence of a “treatment plan” there would be little if any progress. Likewise, when setting our own plans for change and personal improvement, a structured approach involving step-by-step details for getting to the outcome we want is essential for success. Start with defining clearly the end point (Stephen Covey refers to this as “Begin with the end in mind”). Pause for a moment and consider, if this was your last year here, what would you want to be celebrating on the final day? What would be the accomplishments you’d be proudest of leaving behind? Try separating these into categories related to the people most important to you, and the various aspects of your life, such as Work, Partner, Children, Community Involvement. Set yourself one goal only for each. Then work backwards from the end point, breaking it down into chunks such as a 5-year plan, a 12-month plan, a monthly plan, weekly, and daily. If you take one action every day that is a step closer to your goal, you’ll make good headway!

Develop your planning worksheet into a calendar format. The most critical ingredient necessary to ensure your goals are met is time. Now here’s where we get to the hard part! Unless you literally set up a diary to manage the time you are investing into achieving your resolutions, they won’t happen. It’s no different to managing your money – money in versus money out determines whether you pay your bills. Likewise, hours in (deposits) versus hours out (deductions) determines the success of bringing your goals into reality. So if you have decided that you want to spend 3 hours per week catching up with friends then put these hours into your diary and stick to it. For each of the three hours, work out how you will “spend” that hour – will it be a phone call, time on Facebook, or meeting someone for lunch? At the end of each week, tote up your weekly balance – did you invest more, or less, hours to this activity, that is, the activity of maintaining friendships? If you spent more than you planned, then you’ve withdrawn from your “waking hours’ bank account” for the sub-goal and this means that something else (such as walking the dog for half an hour every day) has been undermined and is now short. The withdrawal needs to be paid back…so commit to this and make it happen!

Know your signature strengths and use these wisely to stay on track. There are a few basics when it comes to applying strengths that are essential for achieving our dreams. Obviously self-regulation is a critical one, as are persistence, prudence, hope, and open-mindedness. Others that might be helpful include humour, forgiveness (self-forgiveness when we fall off the wagon momentarily!), appreciation (of daily success), social intelligence (being comfortable letting others know why we are saying “no”), creativity (finding new and interesting ways to move forward on our goals), and vitality (taking care of the basic needs of our bodies and minds). If you haven’t done so already, go to the VIAME website and complete the free online assessment of your strengths and integrate ways you can use these more effectively.

So here you have a framework we hope will bolster your New Year Resolutions and give you the kick start needed to make 2016 your most successful yet in getting what you really want from the year. Remember that having a personal life coach or mentor can be the difference between successful self-change and another ho-hum year. So if you are keen to really throw yourself into this year’s plans and feel that having an “expert companion” steering you along the path to success would be helpful, you can call us today.