As we ring in the new year, resolutions are abound. I’m a big believer in fresh starts – a chance to wipe the slate clean and carry forward with the burden of our past disappointments and failures behind us. However, despite our best intentions, 92% of New Year’s Resolutions are abandoned by mid-February. If you’re a regular at the gym or a yoga studio, you are well aware of this phenomenon: the surge of newcomers January 1st, and the subsequent drop off within mere weeks. How can we make sure that these high hopes aren’t set in vain and that our goals will stick for longer than a few weeks?
There are many hypotheses for this discouraging statistic, from setting goals too high to a lack of specificity in planning how exactly the goal will be achieved. I believe that a lack of success begins all way at the beginning, and that we are not setting the right goals and intentions to set ourselves up for success.
Who’s goal are we setting?
In the modern age of social media, “life hacks”, and the booming self-help industry, we are constantly bombarded with suggestions for how we could be doing better. It can be overwhelming and disheartening to wade through the thousands of “experts” and anecdotal stories telling us how to eat, which vices to quit, and how we should be parenting our children.
Many many of us truly want to change our life situation, eating habits, exercise regimen, or financial status, but we don’t actually want to do the behaviours it will take to get there (who enjoys eating nothing but grapefruits for weeks on end?).
What if, instead, we actually enjoyed how we spent our time, healthful behaviours and otherwise?
Do I really want this?
In a busy, stressful world, sometimes it feels easier to follow someone else’s plan than to have to think for ourselves. But when the novelty wears off and our will power runs dry, we begin to lose sight of why we started this in the first place, and our goals end up going out the window.
Why? Because these goals are not your own. They’re what you think you’re supposed to be doing, not what you want to be doing.
I implore you to live your life, not based on external expectations of what you think you should do, but based on kindness to your self, stemming from your personal values and concern for your own well-being.
Even if you are doing what you think you want to be doing – you believe you will be happy once your body changes or once your lungs heal from quitting smoking – this timeline is far too abstract for our brain to derive motivation from it.
When a donut looks pretty darn good after a long, tiring day at work, and the body of your dreams is several months out, it’s a no-brainer which temptation will win.
Doubt-filled thoughts flood in (Do I have to? Says who? This isn’t worth it. I’ll start tomorrow). We begin to resent our former self for setting this goal and, unfortunately, this leads to a mental battle with ourselves…Not a great recipe for our success or well-being!
Goals that resonate with your values
When we take a closer look, what is our end goal, really? More than likely, it’s not actually our body or behaviour, but how it will make us feel. When it boils down to it, we all just want to be happy and feel good.
Let’s break down a goal to see how it plays out: Several times a day, we will make food choices. We then expect that these food choices will add up to change how our body looks. We then expect improved self confidence. And finally, we expect this self-confidence to lead to happiness. This kind of complex, multi-step, extrinsic motivation can be hard to internalise on a regular basis… Instead, how about a short circuit straight to happiness?
As an alternative, look for intrinsic motivation for working toward your goals. Intrinsic motivation for behaviour means it is naturally satisfying to you, right here, right now.
Option #1: I want lasagna for lunch, but I should really eat a salad because I read an article in the Huffington Post about the benefits vitamin K, and look at this belly!
Option #2: I would like to feel at my best this afternoon at work, and I know that eating pasta will make me feel sluggish, so I want to eat a salad.
How do you think these two options compare in terms of how they make me feel? Option #1 requires will-power, white-knuckling to force myself to do something I don’t really want to do. At the end of Day 1, my self-control is depleted, and I feel deprived and exhausted. As Daniel Kahneman puts it in Thinking, Fast and Slow, ego depletion occurs when we’ve used up our slotted quota of mental effort for the day, and lazy autopilot takes over.
On the other hand, option #2 stems from a place of self-care, knowing that I am making decisions with my best interest in mind. At the end of Day 2, I feel confident that I can trust myself, I feel proud for honouring my intentions, and I feel like I did exactly what I wanted and needed that day.
On the outside, the behaviours are the same – eating a salad – but one is much more productive and sustainable than the other. We can choose to end our day filled with frustration and stress or self-compassion and pride. That choice is yours.
Consider your future self
Most of us can foresee with quite some clarity how our current actions will affect how we feel in the future. For example, as I consume a whole bag of Twizzlers, I am quite confident that in a few hours my belly will be sore, that I won’t sleep very well tonight, and that I will be sluggish and regretful come morning. So why don’t we act in ways we know will make us happy?
My challenge to you is to pause, take a deep breath, and ask yourself: What do I really want right now? How does my behaviour affect that outcome? What will make me feel good a few hours from now? Tomorrow? Next week?
Your instinct may be to gravitate toward the tempting dopamine hit of a sugar-filled treat or mindlessly scrolling through internet feeds. Don’t get me wrong, in some situations, this is exactly what we need (when I reflect back on tonight’s dinner with friends, I will feel disappointed and disconnected,if I don’t fully enjoy the delicious offerings on the menu), but the intention to connect with friends is completely different than wanting to numb out. If you slow down enough, the voice of your internal compass will begin to shine through. One part of our brain may be screaming yes, but often there is a much subtler voice saying please don’t.
“How you live today is how you live your life.” – Tara Brach
If we are being truly honest with ourselves, we know what will make us happy for few seconds versus what will make us happy longer term. If you have a hard time hearing this voice, it may be time to slow down, ease off on the rat race, and set aside some time for meditation, yoga, or a hot bath.
As we slow down and tune into our mental and physical processes, we begin to tap into our deeper needs and our true values. When there is cognitive dissonance, that is, when we hold contradictory beliefs, when our actions do not align with our true selves, and our past/present/future selves are all at war with one another, we end our days feeling confused and defeated. When we behave in ways we actually want to, and begin to live in line with our true values, there no better feeling, and no better recipe for success.