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Lynne S. Gots, Ph.D.
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Why New Year’s Resolutions Don’t Work

By Lynne Gots, posted on January 6th, 2014.

Not even a week into 2014 and already I’ve broken my resolutions. I should have known better.

Most of the promises made on the eve of January 1st are doomed to fail. Yet we continue to make them year after year, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Isn’t that the definition of insanity?

My first resolution didn’t even last through New Year’s Day. Feeling pleased with the meditation practice I’d cultivated over the last year by setting myself the modest goal of sitting and focusing on my breath for at least five minutes daily, I’d decided to raise the bar. I would meditate for thirty minutes every day!

As it turned out, on the first of January I got involved in preparing a complicated meal, puttering around the house, and sharing the fruits of my labor with my family. When I finally remembered I hadn’t yet meditated, it was 11:00 pm, and I was sleepy. Normally I’d put in my five minutes and call it a night. But instead, I set my timer for 20 minutes and struggled to stay awake while I concentrated on my inhalations and exhalations until the bell chimed.

You’d think, having just quadrupled the length of a typical late-night meditation session while managing not to fall asleep during it, I’d congratulate myself. But no. I felt disappointed.

I kept my second resolution until January 3. I’d decided I would accrue 10,000 steps a day on my activity-monitoring wristband. Despite my sedentary job, I often do get in at least 10,000 steps by taking the stairs instead of the elevator to my seventh floor office, walking the dogs for nearly an hour, and catching up with my favorite TV shows on the elliptical trainer instead of the couch.

Usually, in spite of my aversion to the cold, I manage with a Teutonic-like resolve to drag the dogs (both wimps when it comes to weather extremes) and myself out the door every day for a walk. But with the wind chills hovering in the single digits on January 3 and the sidewalks iced over, none of us could endure more than fifteen minutes around the block, giving me a paltry 5700 steps for the day.

Maybe you’re sticking to your resolutions a little longer than I did. But unless you’re endowed with an ironclad will—and, if so, probably not in need of making vows to improve yourself—you’ll abandon them sooner or later.

Why don’t New Year’s resolutions work? In my experience, both personal and professional, most people fail to stick to their resolutions because they set their sights on inflexible goals. Both my resolutions were too rigid and unrealistic, failing to take into account variability in daily responsibilities and interference from outside forces (like the weather).

Before making my resolutions for 2014, I’d already been meditating regularly and getting more active by aiming for consistency over quantity. This tactic motivated me because even one minute of meditation “counted.” And when I increased the length of a practice, I did it out of choice rather than obligation. But as soon as I changed the rules, demanding of myself 100% adherence to an arbitrary numerical standard, I set myself up to fail.

Fortunately, I recognized my distorted thinking right away and have gone back to striving for consistency. I’ll still try to practice longer when I can carve out the time but I accept that it’s not always possible.

Many people get frustrated and give up altogether when they fall short of their goals. If you’re an “all-or-nothing” thinker, you may believe you blew it if you slipped up even just a little. Then, bye bye, resolutions.

One reason making New Year’s resolutions is so appealing, according to social scientists, is “the fresh start effect.” Researchers found an increased interest in dieting, inferred from the frequency of Google searches for the term “diet,” around the beginnings of new weeks, months, years, semesters, birthdays, and holidays.

Viewing change from the perspective of a fresh start mentality can backfire, as anyone who’s fallen off the diet wagon on a Wednesday knows all too well. Your waistline won’t shrink if you tell yourself, “Oh, well. I guess I can eat whatever I want and start the diet again on Monday.”

But if you must give yourself a mental clean slate to recommit to change, there’s a better way. You can take a page from Zen Buddhism and the concept of Shoshin, or “Beginner’s Mind,” where every moment can be a fresh start. Even the same action repeated over and over is different every time.

So forget about the New Year’s resolutions and just begin again—not tomorrow or next week, but right now.

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Posted in Acceptance and Mindfulness, Behavior Change, Motivation, Techniques |

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This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.

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© 2008-2020 Lynne S. Gots, PhD. Photographs by Steven Marks Photography.