It’s the start of a new year – the perfect time to reflect, take stock, and look ahead with intention. Although of course we can start over any time we want to, there is something about each new year that just feels like a better time to make change or try something different. In the past, I have used this time of year to make a huge list of goals and resolutions that inevitably leave me feeling like a failure before I’ve even made it through the first week of the year.
So this year, I’m trying to do something different. I’ve been talking about this in my yoga classes this week and I thought it would be a good topic to write about since many of us are probably going through some similar experiences right now. I hope it’s helpful to you in some way – please feel free to comment below and share your thoughts and strategies around New Year’s Resolutions!
Trying to change overnight
Unfortunately, New Year’s Resolutions and goals of any kind often get wrapped up in a big ol’ guilt burrito. We get excited about making change, we set goals for ourselves that are nearly impossible to reach, and when we eventually “fail” we get super down on ourselves. We reinforce the idea that we just aren’t good at making change and we return to our old patterns, beliefs, and habits.
Obviously, this is not the most productive use of our time and does nothing for our confidence, and yet so many of us seem trapped in this vortex of goal-setting, failure, and loss of self-esteem. As someone who loves making goals and feeling “productive”, I have been through this cycle more times than I can count and I have finally learned that it just isn’t working for me.
In this culture obsessed with quick fixes and radical makeover stories, achieving large-scale drastic changes in our lives is a very tantalizing idea – why slowly and incrementally work your way towards the person you want to become when you can just fix everything you don’t like all at once?? Sadly, that’s just not how it works.
Think about all the dramatic weight-loss stories you see in the media, complete with skinny, happy looking people holding up their gigantic pants from one year ago. “I lost 100 pounds in 100 days!” We are constantly bombarded with these images and every diet plan imaginable, but how often are these people actually able to sustain that weight loss? If you follow them for several years, you’ll see that many of them end up gaining the weight back and often even going above their initial size.
This is because change that happens all at once is often not sustainable. We are creatures of habit, we are drawn to routine and patterns and the more we do something, the more deeply it lays down pathways in the brain. Trying to overturn a behavior in one day that has been ingrained in us for years, possibly even decades, isn’t very likely to lead to successful, long-lasting outcomes.
Taking small steps
Fortunately, there is more than one way to create change in your life! I have learned that, while the new year is a time where I feel highly motivated, that doesn’t mean I should try to change every little thing in my life that I’m unhappy with all at once. This is a sure way to set myself up to fail, which just isn’t very nice to my future self.
I have found that setting one or two small goals at a time has the potential for much more lasting change than doing a complete overhaul of the system. While setting realistic goals may not be as sexy, when I reach them I feel much more motivated to continue with the changes I am making. Taking one small step at a time may not feel like much, but if you stick with it, they will add up to something bigger over time.
For example, this new year, I knew that I wanted to increase my physical activity and spend less money. Of course, there were also a million other things I would have liked to set goals for: learning Spanish, practicing guitar, reading more often, etc. etc. etc. I could go on forever with a list of things I would like to improve! But fortunately, I have come to understand that keeping a narrow focus is a much more successful strategy.
So, I chose money and fitness. Those are both very broad categories and there are many ways of achieving each goal. While my ideal goal might be to get an hour of exercise every day and save $2,000 by June for another yoga teacher training, I knew that I was pretty unlikely to achieve either of these in the next six months. I think when most of us are goal-setting, we tend to picture our ideal future selves rather than being realistic about where we are at right now.
So instead, I aimed for the simplest, most low-hanging fruit I could think of for each category: I will attend one yoga class each week and I will not spend any money I don’t have. While I certainly want to be a lot more active than simply taking one yoga class a week, I figured that was something I could achieve even on weeks where I feel overwhelmed and super busy.
As for the money thing, although I have no debt and have been good at paying off my credit card, I have found that I have a tendency to spend money I know that I will have soon, but is not yet actually in my bank account. My credit card still gets paid off, but it’s a slippery slope and a habit I would like to change. I’d love to get right to the saving lots of money part, but cutting out spending based on future paychecks is the first step.
Just start over
Here’s the thing: you can always start over. The new year may be a great time to make change, but it is certainly not the only time. Every day, you have the choice to evaluate your habits and figure out what is working for you and what isn’t.
If you’ve been trying to change a habit for years and it hasn’t worked, take a look at how you’ve been trying to change. If you’ve been going for the all-or-nothing and all-at-once approach, you might want to try breaking your goal down into the simplest, smallest steps possible and starting there.
It may feel like it’s going to take forever to get where you’re going, but if you consistently make tiny changes they really will add up over time, I promise. And the changes you make will be more sustainable in the long run because you and your brain will have time to get used to a new behavior rather than feeling like the rug has been pulled out from under you.
And each time you mess up, or take a step back, know that you can always start over. You may not get an entirely blank slate, but you can certainly try again and again until you get it the way you want it.
Who knows, you may even find that the goal you’ve been trying so desperately to reach changes over time and that’s ok too! Ask yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing and consider the motivations behind your intentions. Sometimes digging a little deeper can help us realize that what we thought we wanted has roots in something completely different than we expected.
In the end, what is important is to accept ourselves exactly where we are at right now and work from there. Work with what you’ve got rather than fantasizing about some “ideal” version of yourself and treat yourself with compassion and understanding. You are alive, you are here in this moment, and you will never be younger than you are today, so it’s the perfect time to take that first step in whatever direction it is you’d like to go.