The intention of getting fitter is on most people’s mind this time of the year. We promise ourselves to join the gym as soon as we’ve waved goodbye to the festive season with all its treats and indulges. Yet, most of us will break our new year’s resolution by February. Why is it then, that this popular resolution is the most commonly broken one too? Is there a better way to start the new year than setting out on resolutions that we probably doubt or fear from the start?
What’s NOT working?
Regular exercise is the best thing we can do for our body and mind. Beyond the obvious benefits, it also improves cell health (including brain cells), boosts the brain’s natural anti-aging drug, and strengthens the aging brain. Exercise is now the number one recommended strategy to delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. Even moderate physical activity increases serotonin levels, lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes and decreases blood pressure, just to name a few of the less known positive effects it has on us.
Haven’t we heard all the above accolades about exercise? Yet knowing what’s right doesn’t necessarily make us do it or stick to it for a long period of time.
Let’s examine another popular resolution: giving up a bad habit. Understanding fully the harmful effects of smoking, for instance, doesn’t seem to deter many from lighting up in a moment of weakness.
Research shows that cognition about what is good for us doesn’t help us remain persistent. This is exactly why, sooner or later, most new year’s resolutions are broken. Information doesn’t translate to a sustained motivation for the majority of us. There are those of us with stronger than average will-power, who will soldier on and succeed. But they are the admired minority.
Why don’t new year’s resolutions work for most of us?
Our first example involved adopting a new behaviour: exercise. It’s likely to be a discomforting or even painful adjustment. The second example was the opposite, it’s about depriving ourselves of something that previously gave us pleasure. Does it also sound like an uphill battle? Our brain seeks comfort, pleasure and reward in our daily activities. What it tries is to avoid discomfort, pain and suffering. This is a fundamental human condition. How could we make ourselves stick to activities that we find hard to do, or give up those that we’ve found pleasurable?
Desire vs. ability to change
It sounds obvious that the more we want to change something the more motivated we become towards turning it into reality. However, this is not the case! In fact, the direct opposite is true. The stronger the desire to change, the weaker our ability to act upon it. Why? It’s to do with our feelings. When listening to the self-doubting, highly critical voice in our head telling us that we are a failure to have ended up here, we rob ourselves the courage and energy to do anything about it.
“Self-critical individuals engage in harsh self-scrutiny, evaluation and fear of being disapproved, criticized or lose the approval and acceptance of others. Self-compassion (on the other hand) involves treating oneself with care and concern when confronted with personal inadequacies, mistakes, failures, and painful life situations” (1). Feeling bad about ourselves and being desperate to be different doesn’t engulf us with the energy required to make change happen. In fact, it limits our ability by serving up a string of excuses for not showing up (e.g. in the gym) because of the fear of being judged.
A much more helpful attitude instead of self-criticism is self-forgiveness. To acknowledge and accept what we don’t have yet. Being imperfect is being human. Cherish the opportunity to grow. Those who can engage in self-forgiveness are more likely to take the crucial steps in order to achieve their goals. People with shame and guilt fuelled self-criticism tend to give up or not even start working towards positive change.
Take stock of what you have
We’ve covered so far that:
– our brain tends to avoid discomfort. Therefore we are likely to give up resolutions that involve any form of discomfort.
– the energy we waste on highly self-critical desire to change weakens our strength and ability to facilitate change.
Can we turn this process around?
A more strength-based and perhaps more effective approach is to review the positive things that have happened during the past 12 months? It was not all bad. Good things happened too. Think about something that you are proud of. Something that meant a lot to you. Even the smallest achievement for which you can give yourself a tap on the shoulder.
Taking stock of what you have achieved in the old year, will flush your brain with some feel-good hormones. This puts you in a good spot by having activated the part of your brain where calmness, executive functions and creativity come from. Instead of allowing the ‘I should’ve’ self-critical statements to activate the brain area that switches on stress and defensiveness.
No doubt you have dreams and ambitions to further better yourself. But it makes sense to pause and list your successes. To realise the things on your list you’ve utilised your strengths. Explore how to put your strengths into good use again to help achieve some of your new goals? Then ask yourself the question of how your life would look if those personality traits, those assets of your character were to play a bigger role next year?
In the next post, I’m going to share a step by step guide on how to make a Solution Focused Stocktake at the end of the year. Or any time.
What’s your attitude towards new year’s resolutions? Please leave a comment.
(1) Risk and Resilience, Warrens, Smeets, Neff (in Self-criticism and Self-compassion 2016/12)