Set yourself a goal for 2021? This is how to not give up on it.
Around 80% of New Year’s resolutions fail. It’s a stat that is often used to prove that change is hard, and why should you bother when you probably won’t stick with it anyway? Well, what if you were told that you could be part of the magic 20% who smash their resolutions? Even better, what if the problem that caused you to ditch your grand plans by February wasn’t actually your fault after all?
“People like to see January as a fresh start, and there’s lots of advertising surrounding that with messaging that promises a quick fix. We are sold a bit of a dream that something’s not right and you could change your life in a month,” says counselling psychologist Dr Ritika Suk Birah. Not only does that leave a discrepancy between your goals and the time in which you achieve them, trying to do that in January of all months is a very big problem.
“We often go through quite an enjoyable period in December where we let our schedules and discipline go because we’re having so much fun, or perhaps it is actually quite a difficult time with family tension or loneliness, particularly this year. And then January comes with life’s regular expectations, dark weather and perhaps poor finances,” says Dr Birah. “You’re already going to find that difficult, and then you’re putting extra pressure on yourself to achieve something.”
While you might think that there’s nothing more motivating than some extra pressure, the science would disagree. A 2011 study found that those who had more self-compassion were more motivated to continue with a task, even after failure. Beating yourself up for not achieving something just doesn’t work, unfortunately. “That’s what we call unrelenting high standards,” says Dr Birah. “In order to not feel like a failure, they push, push, push and push to get their goals met. They have momentum initially, but then, as the pressure increases, the energy expenditure increases as well, and they burn themselves out and have to give up entirely.”
The way around this starts in the goal-setting. Think about what you have told yourself your resolution will be – is it to run a 10K, to do three pull-ups, or even to get promoted or to buy a house? Not matter how measurable or achievable these goals feel, if they aren’t based on something you value, then you probably won’t stick with them, says Dr Birah.
“Goals are signposts that are based on success, and that we measure them to see if we are on the right path. You can come to the end of January and have either met that goal or not,” she explains. “However, values are a direction. We can work towards the values that are important to us but they’re less rigid, meaning that they’re easier to follow.”
Dr Birah gives the example of doing more exercise. You can quite easily fail at meeting the goal of going to the gym three times a week. However, if you tell yourself that you value moving, you can find myriads of ways to do that, making it much harder to fail.
“For those who have set themselves New Year’s resolutions, I think they should ask themselves what the purpose of the goal is. Is it rooted in doing something meaningful, and can you extract the value from it and focus on that instead? Living a life in which you become goal-oriented or fixated often ends up causing more harm than good,” she says.
But even when you have those values rooted in your mind, it is never a perfectly clear path – particularly right now, as we work through confusing restrictions and rules. So how do you make sure you are keeping your values at the forefront?
“We need to reflect and check in with ourselves more regularly,” says Dr Birah. “Even if it’s week to week or even month to month, checking that you’re living your life in line with your values will help direct your focus. But rather than thinking ‘this is where I have to be by next week’, it’s more of a reflective practice of thinking about where you are now and what the path is in terms of the journey.”
That may sound wishy-washy, and reflecting “can feel scary”, admits Dr Birah. But make it more positive by asking what’s gone well for you, what you’ve learnt from things that haven’t gone well and thinking about what things you’re going to do for yourself that are in line with your values.
For example, if you’re someone that’s really creative, then think about the times you felt creatively fulfilled, whether it was doing a painting class with a friend or working on a specific project at work. Then think about when you haven’t felt very creative, if you could have done something to make it a more enjoyable task or if there’s a way you can structure that task to make it more enjoyable in future. Then work out what you’re going to do in the following week or at the weekend that allows you to indulge that creative part of yourself.
Essentially, this practice is about making sure that the thing you are actually working on the things that you want to achieve. So often people get bogged down by what they need to do or think they should do that they forget to prioritise the things they care about.
Most importantly though, we need to remember that we can’t rewire our entire brain come January, particularly if the value you want to work on is something that feels a little new to you. Forget the idea that it takes 21 days to form a new habit, it’s more like nine months, says Dr Birah.
“That comes from a neuroscientific perspective because we’ve got neuron pathways in our brain which are created by behaviours. When you do practise new behaviours, you’re training your brain to create new neural pathways and they get stronger with repetition until that behaviour is the new normal,” she explains.
So if you do want to make a change in the new year, the most important thing you can do is make sure that it’s something you really believe in. And be kind to yourself while you get the hang of it. It may sound too good to be true, but there’s a reason why people fail.
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