Think back to a month ago. It’s the start of a new year and if you’re like hundreds of millions of other people, you’ve very likely decided to make some changes and improvements in your life.
Yes, making a New Year’s resolution is a very popular activity. And now that we’re a month into the new year, how do you feel your resolution is coming along?
If you’ve stuck to your goal, then well done you. Whatever you’re doing, keep at it. The satisfaction can be even greater if the goal you set out to achieve involved overcoming something particularly difficult, whether it was physically demanding, or an ongoing challenge that required mental stamina and commitment.
But what if you haven’t stuck to your New Year’s resolution? What if you’re not feeling the same motivation any more, and it all got a bit much?
Well, you know what? That’s actually very normal human behaviour. In fact, according to one report, January 12 is the day that most New Year’s resolutions fall over.
Which means, if you haven’t followed through with a New Year’s resolution then you’re just like hundreds of millions of other people.
That’s because New Year’s resolutions are fundamentally about changing something in ourselves that we may have struggled with until now. If those changes were easy to make, so many of us wouldn’t be making a special commitment.
So, breaking a New Year’s resolution is entirely understandable.
But there’s good news. Namely…
It’s never too late to try again
Changing things that feel like they have slipped out of our control is inherently challenging (remember, if it was easy to change, you probably wouldn’t be making a New Year’s resolution). But that’s no reason to give up.
If you’ve stopped going to the gym, then there’s nothing to stop you going again. If you started smoking again, then you can always try quitting again. And if you still haven’t gotten around to spending more time with certain people, then you can always make another effort.
Don’t let what might feel like “failure” hold you back. A momentary failure in itself isn’t the reason to stop. Instead, think of it as something to be learned from.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that change isn’t hard. In fact, it may be terribly confronting, emotionally draining, and physically difficult. With enough perseverance and the right mindset, though, you can still give it another shot.
If you found it tough to stick to those goals, here are some pointers to get you back on track.
Did you set specific goals?
“I want to get fitter” and “I need to lose weight” or “I’m going to get healthier” are probably the most common of all resolutions. However, while they’re great goals, they’re not at all specific.
A New Year’s resolution is about achieving a goal. For that goal to be attained, it needs to be clearly defined. If it’s too vague, how will you feel or know how close you are to it?
It’s part of human nature for so many of us to feel discouraged by what seem like impossible aims. A goal that isn’t defined can seem out of reach — and this can make it feel unattainable.
Getting back on track: Instead of thinking “I will eat healthier” figure out what it involves. “I will eat veggies four times a week” and “I will eat fruit instead of snacks” are easier to work towards than “I will eat less junk food”. The same goes for the gym. “I’m going to get fit and lose weight” could mean a lot of things. “I will join the gym, build up my fitness over three months according to a plan so that I can run a certain distance and do a certain bench press, with the aim of losing five kilos over six months” is far more specific.
Were your goals realistic?
It may sound obvious, but the same discouragement that can occur when trying to attain an ill-defined goal can also apply to a goal that is unrealistic.
Gyms make a ton of money from people who sign on (usually with lock-in contracts) but rarely show up. In fact, for many gyms, peak season for new sign-ups is at the start of the year.
There are many reasons for this, but most often it has to do with expectations. Someone who pledges to visit the gym four times a week but who hasn’t been to one in years is more likely to drop out than someone who already goes to the gym, but wants to go more often.
The reason? Gym activity is physically demanding and also requires a significant mental and emotional commitment. When we realise how challenging that is, it can feel discouraging.
It is a basic fact of human psychology that change is more likely to occur if our expectations are realistic.
Getting back on track: Readjust your goals if they’re too steep for now. Instead of immediately going four times a week, go once or twice a week, and then build it up over time. Don’t try to push yourself to your absolute limit from the very beginning. Instead, start gradually.
Not only will it be easier to stick to a goal that is realistically attainable — a tougher goal (like going four times a week) will actually be easier to achieve once you’re halfway there.
Did you approach change in a manageable way?
You intend to do more exercise, save money, read more books, watch less TV, spend less time glued to social media, quit smoking, drink less alcohol, socialise more, brush up your resume, sort out the back yard, fix the roof, paint the spare room, be a better person…
These are all worthy goals. They’re also attainable — provided each receives the necessary time and mental energy.
Trying to change too many things at the same time can not only take up huge slabs of time and commitment — after all, it’s hard to socialise more when you’re also spending many tiring days painting a room — it can also be emotionally taxing.
For example, smoking is for millions of people a way (albeit a very unhealthy one) of dealing with stressful situations. It’s not just the physical addiction and habit that makes quitting smoking so hard; there is very often an emotional layer adding to the difficulty, such as cigarettes being the short-term fix for dealing with anxiety. Imagine trying to deal with all those unpleasant and highly stressful feelings and then trying to do more life-changing and probably stressful and tiring things.
Getting back on track: Take one thing at a time. Having too many things on your plate can be just as overwhelming as setting goals that are hard to reach. Individual goals should be realistic and so should the sum of their parts.
Instead of thinking “I am going to make all these changes” think “I am going to try and change this specific thing first”. Instead of thinking “I’m going to change everything” think “I am going to focus on this one thing or couple of things before attempting these other things”.
Did you ask for help?
Breaking an old habit is hard enough. Doing it on your own without external help is even harder. So be prepared to ask friends and family for support.
Did you find it hard to resist raiding the chocolate supply in the pantry? Then why not ask your spouse or that family member to not buy chocolate in the first instance. Do some social settings trigger your urge to smoke? Consider making arrangements beforehand to avoid those situations altogether, such as asking for the café booking to be away from the outdoors smoking area.
Getting back on track: Talking about your concerns in overcoming a difficult or confronting situation is a great way to work towards getting on top it. That includes trying to change a long-running habit you want to break — you may find that talking about the challenges, or how you struggle to change, in itself helps overcome those challenges.
So ask your family or a close friend to be understanding and encouraging, while not being judgemental. Even better, if you and a friend or family member both want to change something, (like eating better or losing weight), see if they want to make that change with you.
Did you reward yourself for the right reasons?
You can reinforce your new habit by rewarding yourself each time you reach a milestone or successfully stick to your new habit.
A reward can be small and inexpensive, such as a takeaway coffee or a small online purchase. However, the best reward is something you don’t usually do. Importantly, don’t make your reward the very thing you’re trying to change (e.g. chocolate if you’re trying to lose weight, or “just one” cigarette if you’re trying to quit). The temptation to have one more (and then another… and another) once you start can become overwhelming.
Getting back on track: Ask yourself how you’ll feel afterwards if you find you keep rewarding yourself with things you regret later. If it keeps happening (and if it’s realistic), consider removing the possibility of being tempted. For example, having no junk food or alcohol in your house is one way to avoid the temptation altogether.
Remind yourself also that the longer you stick with your new habit, the more likely it will become a normal part of everyday life. The more you do something, the easier it gets — and that includes resisting temptation.
If you are struggling and want to speak to a professional counsellor, SuicideLine Victoria is available 24/7. Call us on 1300 651 251.
If it is an emergency, call 000.