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New Year, New Me? How to Make 2018 a Success

new years resolutions 2018

Scene: It’s December 31st, 11:59 p.m. The new year is nearly here, and given that the last one was a bit of a doozy, your head is running hopeful scenarios for the future. With a glass of champagne in hand, you’re waiting for the clock to signal a fresh start, and the bubbles are buoying your sense of optimism. Sure, the whole resolution thing may be hokey, but what’s wrong with having a goal or two in mind? The 2017 version of you may not have been able to implement healthier habits, maintain perfect relationships, or bring about world peace, but the all-new, 2018 model of you? They’re on it.

Ten, nine, eight – yes, 2018 is your time to shine! – seven, six, five – “new year, new me,” as they say! – four, three, two – nothing is going to hold you back! – one!

Fast forward three weeks later. How are you holding up? Did stocking up on bread and milk for the “bomb cyclone” blizzard throw off your juice cleanse? Did you skip the gym in favor of scrolling through Fire and Fury reaction threads on Twitter? Are you now feeling like a failure and just hoping for 2019 to come early so you can get another chance? You’re not alone. More than 40 percent of Americans commit to New Year’s resolutions, but a commonly cited statistic notes that 92 percent of those resolution-makers give up by the end of the year – 80 percent of whom who don’t even make it through February. Still, despite these yearly failings, we continue setting January 1st up as a new beginning.

Why do we have such a hard time committing to these changes, and how can we navigate setbacks? I sat down with Thea Gallagher, PsyD, clinical coordinator at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety, to talk about the “all or nothing” thinking we associate with New Year’s resolutions and how to better strategize for a successful new year.

Q: Given the statistic that only about 8 percent of the people who make resolutions stick to them, do you see any value in placing such emphasis on them?

A: I think it really depends on the person. For some, the idea of making a resolution can be completely overwhelming, while other people may feel like this is the perfect time for a fresh start. I think that sense of hope for a new year and the sort of refreshing feeling that we associate with the first day of the year is definitely embedded in our culture. If you’re reflecting on things that went well over the past year and things that didn’t go so well and you’d like to change, or you’re thinking of trying new things you’ve always wanted to do – those are all good things, but the power we associate with resolutions may be too much for some people.

Q: It seems there’s some power in the language. “Resolution” is very formal and firm, whereas a “goal” sounds more aspirational and more like a journey. Do you think that plays a part in the failure rate?

A: Sure. I think a big issue for many people is that when we go about making a change, we tend to take on too much at once. People often have an idealized self with idealized goals that they hope to achieve, but they don’t necessarily have a lot of evidence to show that they can achieve those goals in the way or in the timeframe that they want. We end up thinking, ‘Oh man, that didn’t happen in a short amount of time, so I failed,’ or ‘Why couldn’t I stick to this huge life change? I failed,’ and that lack of instant gratification that we hoped for can feel really disheartening. If “resolution” is too stressful for you, what you can do is just say, “Well, this is one thing I’d like to implement in my life, and we’ll see how it goes,” without all of the pressure.

Q: The “all or nothing,” “black or white,” “success or failure” mindset seems to create impossible, insurmountable expectations. Why do we leave no room for error when making resolutions?

A: A lot of us fall into “all or nothing” thinking, and a big goal that initially seemed exciting suddenly feels like a huge weight. If we don’t succeed at making perfect progress on that goal – that idealized goal – all the time, we perceive it as failure. But most resolutions aren’t something someone can achieve in a month; they’re typically lifestyle changes that they haven’t succeeded at before. Instead of treating it as a failure, we need to focus on the progress and on the positives, rather than the negatives. Many times, we’re just waiting for that feeling of accomplishment at the finish line, but with long-term goals, there’s not a clear finish line. I encourage patients to think of the best case scenario and the worst case scenario, and then to think more critically about the middle-ground, which is the most likely, realistic outcome.

Q: If someone is hoping to start their year off on the right foot, how should they go about it?

A: Whatever resolution you come up with, simplify it and break it down into granular, manageable steps. It may feel insignificant, but it makes for a better likelihood of success, which will boost your confidence in your abilities. For example, maybe you’d like to start working on mindfulness. Instead of saying, “This year, I’m going to meditate for an hour every day and sign up for ten different yoga classes,” start small. Start with five minutes a day, a few days a week, and then build from there. It’s also really important to integrate it into your routine so the steps are more accessible and you’re not thinking about it all of the time. Just starting the process, developing a plan, and reflecting on what kind of person you are, what your schedule is like, and what motivates you will help you figure out how to make your goals sustainable and realistic.

Q: The top resolutions tend to be related to losing weight, saving money, developing healthier habits, keeping up with friendships, and other big, complex lifestyle changes. Is there anything that you suggest people work on in 2018?

A: Minimizing distractions, especially in our scroll culture, is a great way to regain time. We don’t realize how much time we lose on things that aren’t meaningful to us, so I think separating yourself from those distractions is not only a good thing in itself, but it will help you make progress on your other goals. Meditation can seem somewhat obtuse or opaque, but it’s important to take like five minutes out of the day to just be with yourself – mediate, practice your breathing, or just sit still. I’m halfway through the process of becoming a yoga teacher, and it’s so important to find those spaces of stillness. We're all very busy, but it’s absurd how hard it can be for many of us to just unplug and spend five to ten minutes sitting still, and that’s why it’s so important.

I also think that radical acceptable is really important. If you’re waiting on that finish line I mentioned to love or accept yourself, or if you’re always looking to the future and “waiting for your life to begin,” you’re missing the present that you live in. I think sometimes New Year's resolutions can be problematic if they are, “I'm going to change this part of my personality,” or “I’m going to totally transform, and then I'll be happy.” You can have goals and plans to improve yourself, but it’s vital to accept yourself for who you are right now in the present. You have to get to know who you are, get to recognize and appreciate your strengths, and you can decide to work on your weaknesses without rejecting them – or just accept them as part of your quirky personality! And if the goals you set don’t work out the way you hoped, just accept it as a setback and keep going. Don’t feel like you’ve let yourself down. Time only moves forward.

Q: We can always treat this like a trial period. January 1st provides a new beginning, but so does every day after it.

A: Exactly. Think of it like cleaning your room. Instead of trying to buckle down and overhaul the whole thing in one day, if you put in 10 or 20 minutes of tidying up every day, you’ll be more successful and more motivated.

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