I have reflected before on the strange phenomenon of new year resolutions. The majority of people never use goal setting for most of the year. But come 1st January they set themselves unrealistic goals, masquerading as resolutions. Sometime later in January they absentmindedly eat a cake or smoke a cigarette and find they’ve broken their resolution – and return to their pre January habits.
The statistic about resolutions are pretty bleak, quoted in The Happiness Project:-
According to one survey, the top three resolutions made by Americans in 2009 are:
1. Losing weight — 20%
2. Quitting smoking — 16%
3. Spending less — 12%
—About 80% of people who make resolutions stop keeping them by mid-February.
—Two-thirds of dieters gain back any lost weight within a year.
—Many people make and break the same resolution year after year.
Part of me feels I should be encouraging new year’s resolutions – after all I’ve created this blog and written thousands of words on making positive changes. A resolution is a statement of intent to make change. The explosion of “goal setting” around January should be welcomed as a sign that people want to make changes in their life, they’re perhaps just going about it the wrong way. So why does it go wrong – and why is a well intentioned, goal setting activity, seen as a bit of a joke?
Paul Farmer, Chief Executive of UK mental health charity MIND recently argued that resolutions which focus on physical imperfections – such as bids to lose weight – create a negative self image and lead to feelings of hopelessness, low self-esteem and even mild depression. And when those optimistic resolutions fail they can trigger feelings of failure and inadequacy:-
“New year’s resolutions can sometimes focus on our problems or insecurities, such as being overweight, feeling unhappy in our jobs or feeling guilty about not devoting enough time to friends and family. We chastise ourselves for our perceived shortcomings and set unrealistic goals to change our behaviour. It’s not surprising when we fail to keep resolutions, we end up feeling worse than when we started.” (Sunday Times 4.1.09)
The motivation behind the resolution may be a realization that being overweight, unfit, drinking too much alcohol, being frustrated at work, or whatever problem you have, is perpetuating unhappiness. But failing a new year resolution only makes things worse. And the problem remains.
Low self esteem can be the motivation behind many resolutions, such as to lose weight. Whilst wanting to lose weight can be a positive goal for most of us, if driven by low self esteem issues it can be difficult and hard to sustain. As I said in Does it matter what you look like:-
The essence of healthy self esteem is learning to like yourself “warts and all”. Why should excess body fat be an impediment to liking yourself anymore than a speech impediment, or a lack of hair.
People indulge in a once the year goal setting bonanza, but go about it badly, usually in an all or nothing, very unrealistic way. In the UK January is one of our coldest months, and combined with the post Christmas comedown (and credit card bills), isn’t the most inspiring of months. Consequently its probably the worst time of year to start any self improvement. If you want to start losing weight, for example, it would be more logical to start in spring or summer when its easier to adjust to salads and less “comfort foods” – or when its light enough in evening to go outside for exercise.
So here are some things to reflect on:-
- Review your own experiences, not just this year. What resolutions have you set and why? Do you take it seriously? Do you set goals in other ways?
- Have you been addressing the correct problem? Did you problem solve first? Did you really need to lose weight or should you have been looking at issues to do with self esteem?
- Was the solution you attempted the correct one? if you were smoking 20 a day, was stopping completely on January 1st the best way to change?
- How successful have your attempts at change been in all aspects of your life? Does an all or nothing strategy work, or do you respond to small steps?
- How prepared were you? Was your house still full of Christmas chocolate when you started that diet?
- What support did you have? Support can be vital, but others may have their own reasons for you failing. Your drinking buddies may not be too enamored by you quiting alcohol (whatever they say to your face)
- Is this the right time to make changes? If you are not careful, there will never be a right time. If you want to give up smoking there will always be some stressful event on the horizon. Use common sense.
Change is difficult. Our lives are governed (and made easier) by deeply ingrained habits. But even if you don’t succeed first time around, change is possible. But don’t rely on strategies that haven’t worked in the past.
And remember, change doesn’t have to only start on January 1st!