If you're already giving up on your New Year's resolutions, here's how to make them work

Many people tend to quit their resolutions after just one week

By Anu Prabhakar

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Published: Fri 5 Jan 2024, 6:46 PM

Last updated: Fri 5 Jan 2024, 6:49 PM

By the end of every December, hilarious memes and Instagram reels poking fun at the irrelevance of New Year’s resolutions begin to make their way to our social media pages. Jokes on overcrowded gyms are repeated every year and yet, they never fail to amuse. And as we all laughed, we also couldn’t help but wonder: do New Year’s resolutions work at all?

Decoding New Year’s resolutions

According to research studies, maybe not. A Business Insider article, which reported the findings of a study conducted by the University of Scranton, said that ‘23 per cent of people quit their resolutions after just one week’ and that ‘only 19 per cent of individuals are actually able to stick to their goals long term…’

And yet, people set these resolutions every year, undeterred. Psychodynamic psychotherapist Jennifer von Baudissin, who is also clinical director at The Psychiatry and Therapy Centre, says that the beginning of a new year is one of the busiest times as patients want to bring change into their lives with the help of a therapist.

So what explains its enduring popularity?

People look at it as a time to start afresh, and reinvent themselves. Danielle Smith, leadership and life coach, also points out that people have been doing it for so long that it could also just be ‘an old tradition that people stick to’. Interestingly, she has also noticed that people have begun to shift away from materialistic goals and opt to have goals that are more personal in nature. “I had a client who wanted to be his authentic self,” she says. “Many people also talk about setting more boundaries in terms of who they spend their time with and spending quality time with themselves, their closest friends and families. So it’s more about slowing down and taking more time to focus on what’s really important to them.”

Experts have mixed feelings about setting New Year’s resolutions for themselves. Jennifer, for instance, doesn’t do it at all. “I think it sets you up for failure because often, these resolutions are extremely difficult to keep. When you set tasks like ‘I want to lose weight’, ‘I want to stop drinking’ and ‘I want to be more sociable’, there’s a huge pressure on you to achieve it.” Bettina Koster, mental fitness coach, says she doesn’t wait for the new year to set new targets for herself. Smith, meanwhile, dislikes the word ‘resolutions’ and prefers to use ‘goals’ instead. “Resolutions are really short-term. It’s more important to keep your plan sustainable and to make it into a habit,” she points out, adding that she sets new goals for herself every year and takes stock of her progress every week or month. “I believe in goals or ‘resolutions’, as long as you do it the right way.”

Lessons from New Year’s past

It’s now the second week of January and the euphoria of entering a new year has somewhat died down. But unfortunately, you signed up for a new, expensive gym membership before reality hit and you are now experiencing the first stabs of regret. You also know that you are only days away from full-blown panic because that’s what happened last year. And the year before that.

Experts, however, point out that people tend to forget the simplest rule of New Year’s resolutions: you don’t have to achieve your goal by the end of January. “People begin the new year with the best of intentions but often they slip up after two or three weeks and give up completely by February,” says Smith. Here are the biggest mistakes people make while setting goals for the new year and expert-approved tips to plan them better.

Going for vague instead of specific, realistic goals: Koster says, “Instead of saying ‘I want to get fit’, plan something more specific like, ‘I will go jogging for 30 minutes a day’, if jogging is your thing.” Also, keep them realistic — can you really lose 10kgs in two months?

Not breaking a goal into smaller, doable tasks: Plan your goals well by having a clear strategy in place. “Instead of having a bigger target like ‘I want to speak a language’ which can, sometimes, take years depending on the language, you could begin by practising for 10 to 15 minutes every day. It’s also important to check in weekly and see what has and hasn’t been achieved,” says Koster.

Not leaving room for flexibility: An all-or-nothing approach is not only unsustainable, it can also trap you in a toxic cycle of setting and breaking resolutions.

So if you have decided to give up chocolates, allow some room for occasional, harmless indulgences because they are unlikely to sabotage all the work that you’ve put in so far. “If you are at a birthday party where you’ve had some chocolate, you shouldn’t feel like you’ve completely ruined your New Year’s resolution because actually, allowing that flexibility a little bit is really important to achieve a goal,” explains Jennifer. “But instead, people say, ‘Oh no, now I’m going to have three pieces of cake because I’ve ruined everything’. It could be repeating patterns from your past too and this negative narrative in your mind can create even more mental health problems like self-harm, abuse, binge drinking or binge eating. It also affects your confidence. So I think it’s really important to not let the past dictate the future, and to see it as a fresh start.”

Self-compassion, adds Koster, is important. “Because, not every day is the same. Sometimes you’ll succeed and sometimes you won’t.”

Not aligning your goals with your subconscious mind: Ensure that your goals are aligned with what you want and not what society wants. “Some people may want something because it’s more socially accepted, it looks cool or whatever,” says Koster. “But subconsciously, they don’t really align. For instance, a higher position at work may mean more stress, less time with family and less time for health so actually, on a deeper, subconscious level, people may be okay with having less money if it means getting more time for health and family. Working against your subconscious mind is never a good idea because our subconscious mind is actually in charge and our conscious mind only follows it, although we think it’s the other way round.”

Lack of clarity: Smith emphasises that having clarity plays a huge role in achieving goals. “It’s really important to first clarify where you are at currently, where you want to be and why, because it unfolds the reasoning and motivation behind your goal — you may realise that your goals are actually different from what you think they are.”

Jennifer says she explores the deeper motives behind patients’ New Year’s resolutions. She adds, “Ask yourself: What are you expecting? Why are you doing this in the first place? Why is it so black or white — and why are you not able to say, ‘I can have a drink once in a while when I’m with colleagues or at a party?’ And the reason may give us a real clue as to what’s happening to you. For instance, you may want to stop ordering takeout. Now, if the patient is obese, it can help you understand why they want to give it up for health reasons. But if they’re really slim and worry about getting fat, there might be a body image issue there somewhere… So it really depends on how they present themselves and the problem.”

Indulging in negative self-talk: A positive approach always works better. Smith says, “If you want to lose weight, instead of saying ‘I don’t look good’, say something like, ‘Okay, I have a healthy body. I’d like to lose a couple of kilograms just to feel better in my skin or just to have a bit more energy’. That is a much more positive approach and can be very inspirational and reaffirming.” Also, consider sharing your goals with a friend or someone close to you, using them as a sounding board, and celebrating your achievements with them.

Jennifer also points out that people should stop comparing themselves to friends or those on social media. “Social media is a lie and it feeds us all kinds of delusional fantasies,” she says. “And if your friends have cut out sugar, you don’t have to cut out sugar too – you can just cut out, say, chocolates.” Stick to what you enjoy. “People decide to lift weights because they think that’s what’s good for them. And they hate it. If you hate it, it’s a chore. Don’t do it — do something that you actually enjoy like horse riding, or swimming. If you enjoy something, you’re more likely to stick to it.”

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