Not a Freudian Slip: Stop Declaring New Year’s Resolutions!

Contributor: Connie Mester, MPH
To learn more about Connie, click here.


image003.jpgIf you set a New Year’s resolution, you are not alone.  Over half of the population admits to declaring a fresh start on the horizon of the New Year. 1 The “Fresh Start Effect,” as Dai describes could be a new year, birthday, or holiday, which establishes a new mental time period.  These time landmarks signal the beginning of a new cycle and can “induce people to take a big-picture view of their lives, and thus motivate aspirational behaviors.” 2 Further evidence reveals that life changes and goal-directed behaviors are directly correlated to new beginning time periods.3

It makes perfect sense that fresh beginnings coincide with the New Year.  Maybe that’s why there is a surge of traffic on dating sites the first week of January and a 26-38% increase in registrations.4 Or why January is considered “divorce month,” as the number of divorce filings is one-third more than normal, as unhappy couples, who are reluctant to break up the family during the holidays, hold out until January to file. 5 Or why self-improvement and dieting books sales increase.6  However, even with the new time effect that initiates changes, evidence also shows that less than 10% of resolutions are achieved.7  Why? 

For one, as holiday festivities come to an end, the financial impact of holiday spending begins to set in as bills are mailed, making it a difficult time for millions of Americans.  The third Monday of January, Blue Monday, is considered the most depressing day of the year.8 The combination of colder and darker days, financial obligations, and the thought of failing to meet New Year’s resolutions can pile up to make this time of year more stressful than normal. Secondly, the focus on short term resolutions and goals misses the bigger picture.  Short term goal attainment, versus working toward purposeful fulfillment, brings short term change, if any at all. 

Focus on Purpose, Not Goals
Many confuse goal setting with fulfilling their purpose.  A goal might be to lose weight; however, your purpose might be to be a woman whose dedication to family, friends, and community is an inspiration to others.  Achieving an exercise goal that helps you get to a healthy weight does positively impact your life and longevity, but what is the purpose behind wanting to maintain a healthy weight in the first place?  To be able to live the purpose you identified, maintaining a healthy weight is one of the specific things you will need to focus on along your journey, but not the complete purpose. 

Shifting focus from goals and resolutions to your greater purpose clarifies the vision for your life as a whole.  Defined by your true self, not external circumstances, a purpose influences the choices you make and the behaviors you change or adopt.  With this frame of mind, choices that may take you off your path won’t stop you in your tracks, as long as you readjust and remain committed to reaching your overall purpose.  This differs from goal setting, which is many times halted once a weekly measure is missed.

If the purpose, the reason why, is missing from the goal setting exercise, you are likely to fail.  Taking this a step further, If the reason why, albeit worthy, is not tied in some way to your broader life purpose, achieving success will be challenging, set backs will seem insurmountable, and your intrinsic motivation will be low.  Working towards a short term goal can include mundane activities that require you to do things that you don't necessarily enjoy. If you focus on the measurable goal of losing twenty pounds in two months, it's much harder to stay committed and disciplined in making a new routine. When you set out to reach your purpose, the perspective is different, the range of focus is bigger, and the intention of your actions becomes more meaningful. The action is no longer something you should do or should impose on yourself. Now with a deeper understanding of yourself, the actions you take become more purposefully aligned.

graph.jpgPause and Discover Your Purpose
Many people hold off until January or other fresh start moments to make life changes as revealed above.  However, taking a purposeful pause to understand what matters most to you, what core values define you, and what you are truly passionate about doesn’t have to wait for a landmark date.  Taking a pause to open up and step outside of your comfort zone to reveal truths allows you to purposefully move forward instead of blindly pushing ahead to please others or letting the fear of change or failure paralyze you.  The silence inside the pause allows you to mindfully listen to your heart, drown out the external noise, and set your sights ahead, not just on the near term.

  1. Purposeful Alignment
  2. Realistic Planning
  3. Mindful Choices
  4. Intentional Actions

Plan Your Steps and Prepare a Solid Foundation
Working towards new behaviors takes more than deciding on a goal or future state to work towards. Being knowledgeable and aware of the direction you are headed and the steps you need to take to get there will bring you closer to your life’s purpose.  Defining these steps also helps to clarify which action to take first when there are competing priorities. Having one focus simplifies your journey towards a specific outcome, as too many competing priorities become distracting.  Many people can be overwhelmed by detailed goals every few months that become challenging to grasp.

Further, realistically planning for the knowns and unknowns can mean all the difference.  Building a strong foundation and a supportive network in an environment that reinforces positive behaviors influences success.  Research shows that a person’s environment plays a large role in the behaviors theydisplay.9 So set yourself up for success and enable making positive behaviors easy by identifying things in your surroundings that could get in the way of your pursuit or could be more practical to incorporate into your every day.

Also remember that the influencing power of your social network, friends, family, coworkers, etc., plays a large role in the choices you make.10  Partner with people in your network who support and reinforce you, and stay clear of others whose influence may be more damaging than positive.

Lastly, preparing for the ‘what ifs’ helps you consider ahead of time how you will conquer the many obstacles, temptations, and distractions along the way.  “What if” thinking helps you anticipate challenges and problem solve around them or remove them all together.

Pursue Your Purpose with Positive Intention
A person’s mindset is one of the greatest predictors of success.  Just by focusing on what you want to be or new behaviors you want to manifest improves your chances of success.11  Pessimistic negativity draws attention to what you want to stop and brings doubt and self-sabotaging thinking, whereas optimistic positive intention frames your outlook and can boost self-confidence and self-compassion when you are discouraged by setbacks.

In addition, being mindful of your thoughts and intentional in your actions can foster well-being and result in numerous health benefits.12  Mindfulness is positively associated with psychological health,13 reducing distress,14, 15 and even predicting relationship satisfaction.16, 17 Specific capacities such as calmness, clarity, and concentration18 have been observed in individuals who practice mindfulness, thus strengthening cognitive flexibility19 and ability to adapt to stressful or negative situations.20, 21  Improving one’s ability to focus, sustain attention, and suppress distracting information22 is critical as one pursues behavior change.

Reaching Success and Fulfilling Purpose
As organizations look to influence healthy behaviors, offering programs that get to the core of the individual’s purpose will ignite sustained motivation and produce true change.  For individuals in the middle of a New Year’s resolution quest, pausing to discover their greater purpose will ensure the focus is meaningful and likely more successful.  Align your day-to-day actions with your purpose, and let your values anchor you when you get off track.  And don’t forget, planning helps to ensure that your energy is focused on mindful actions that move you closer to fulfilling your purpose.


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