I’ve never liked New Year’s resolutions. Making personal changes in my life that are dictated by the calendar just never made sense to me. And here we are, mid-January, with many people already giving up their resolutions and feeling badly about themselves as a result.
Now don’t get me wrong, I LOVE setting goals.
I love big picture plans, and breaking those bigger goals into smaller steps. Then getting clear on what I need to get done in shorter timeframes to make this larger vision become a reality. On my most effective days I write down what I will achieve that day, and watch as my life is transformed by meaningful action.
Extrinsic vs. Intrinsic
New Year’s resolutions seem misguided because they strike me as extrinsically motivated. No matter where I am in my life, with all of its complexity, does the calendar switching to January 1 mean that I must decide that aspects of my life will be different?
What’s more, often the “different” is fairly predictable and draws from a few key categories, weight loss being the most obvious one that comes to mind. And let’s be honest, after the overindulgence most of us experience starting at Thanksgiving, and carry through the rest of the year, by January the idea of losing weight and feeling cleaner is pretty appealing. However, like any faithful gym-goer knows, for most of us, these promises of making change drop off by early February at the latest. And once we fall off that wagon, we’re often left berating ourselves for failure and feeling badly about our inability to make change. This is the cycle that results from extrinsically motivated goals.
But there is another way! It is a path of personal growth, learning about the self, and making true meaningful change in our lives. It’s about setting goals that are intrinsically motivated… and have nothing to do with the date on the calendar.
What sets intrinsically motivated goals apart from extrinsically motivated ones is having developed the readiness for change. This means getting clear on our process for how we will change, as well as defining the outcome we’re working towards.
Are you Ready?
My favorite way to think about “readiness for change” is through Prochaska and DiClemente’s Stages of Change. Originally developed as a way of thinking about how people break out of addiction, it’s a fantastic framework for thinking about how to change habits in our lives. The basic idea is that there are six stages of creating change:
Stages of Change
“Pre-contemplation” is when you’re not-at-all ready to change. Interestingly, trying to make changes when you’re in this stage can actually lead you to doubt your ability to makes changes overall. You’re simply not ready yet.
During “Contemplation,” you are beginning to think about making a change. You’ve identified that there is a change you’d like to make, and you can see clearly what it is. You’re aware of the benefits of changing, but you’re also aware of the cons.
During “Determination”, you are getting yourself ready. For many who begin weight-loss efforts on January 1st or 2nd, determination is when you’re eating pancakes for breakfast and saying to yourself “One week from now, these pancakes will be replaced by a green smoothie”.
“Action” means you’ve started! You’re doing it! You’re feeling good executing this new habit and motivation is high!
“Maintenance” means you’re fully in the groove now—you can do this regularly and it’s become a part of your lifestyle. You will also feel more likely to break your new habits from time to time than when you started out so strongly in the “Action” phase.
But then—“Relapse.” All of us, no matter how well we do, will fall off the wagon at some point and engage in a behavior that takes us further away from our goal rather than moving us towards it. This is probably my favorite part of the model.
WHAT? I’m saying I LIKE relapse?
Well, not personally. Not when I’m experiencing myself. But as a legitimate phase, one that can be expected and normalized? Yes, I adore it.
Here’s why: When I experience relapse in pursuit of any of my own goals, I have found it easy to then engage in a range of self-defeating behaviors—from black-and-white thinking (“I’ve already f’ed up, so now I may as well go hog wild…”) to generalizing and self-punishment (“I’ll never achieve my goal now…”).
What I love about articulating relapse as a predictable phase is that it allows me to see it as common and acceptable, so when it does happen I can think about it productively...
“Of course I messed up. That’s to be expected and everyone does. Tomorrow, right back on the wagon with the healthy, productive habits I’ve developed... right back towards my goal.”
The Right Time for YOU
So, you can see how when January 1st rolls around, and you’re in the “Pre-contemplation” stage, it’s not quite the right time yet to set a goal. At this point, getting ahead of yourself can predictably lead to failure and result in self-defeating thoughts and behaviors. If you haven’t first gotten very clear on the change you want to create, identified the process you will use to get there, and developed the personal resolve and the will to get there, you will fail. All of the external incentives in the world could be available, as is often the case on January 1st, but if you aren’t there internally, genuinely, and intrinsically, it’s not the right time for you.
So say the new year rolls around and you do want to make a change but you’re not ready yet? There are still things you can do!
Most importantly, it’s time to build up your motivation so that you will be able take action when you are really ready. Read about the positive impacts you will see in your life once you embark upon your goal. Contemplate and research and talk with friends about how much more awful your life will be if you don’t take action. Thinking about both the pros and the cons of making a change will build readiness.
Regardless of the date on the calendar, there are still steps you can take to begin building a new habit that will last.
I have spent much of the past few years reading about goals, thinking about goals, helping others set and achieve goals, and transforming my own life with new goals. In short, I’m a bit obsessed with goal-setting and pretty much adore it.
So when you’re ready, here are a few tips:
1. Write your goals down. You need to be able to see them in your mind AND see them on paper
2. Break bigger goals down into smaller steps and be realistic about what you can achieve in a given period of time. It’s all about incremental change. It’s the only way to get things done (as frustrating as I personally find that reality to be, it’s true.)
3. Keep a list of discrete tasks you need to complete.
The more granular you can get the more helpful it will be
Complete action steps weekly or daily—doing 1-2 small steps every day will let you will see progress being made.
4. Use your brain for thinking, creating, idea generation and problem solving—never for storage. This is why writing things down is so essential—it clears space in your brain and reduces the tension that creeps in from trying to remember tons of important details. Use your brain to wonder and envision- not to keep track of things.
This is an oldie but goodie—my favorite article on reducing overwhelm. Written for business owners, relevant to all of us.
5. Use an organizational tool. Personally, I like ToDoist, but there are many, many of them out there. Find one that works for you and use it consistently.
Finally, to prepare yourself for long-haul change, it’s important to remember that relapse, or failure, is part of the cycle.
Failure is not a reason to give up and abandon your goal completely. Know that it's normal, so expect it. And don’t use it as an opportunity to engage in all-or-nothing thinking and sabotage your grander plans. Get back on the wagon right away and keep working incrementally towards those bigger goals. Over time your successes will far outweigh your failures and you will see significant and meaningful changes in your life.
Enjoy this time—or the time that is right for you—for a fresh start and the hopefulness that accompanies making changes.
Happy goal setting!!!