With the advent of a new year, we often find ourselves reflecting on the person we have become, the person we would ideally like to be or the person we thought we “should” be by now, always comparing ourselves to some ideal and imaginary standard. This standard is influenced by social media, our family, friends, our own minds, or the social construction of the idealized human or human experience. As we ruminate and rehash the moments where we think we could have or “should” have acted differently, we place judgment on ourselves. We may feel guilty and hope that this judgment and guilt will finally push us to make significant changes in our lives.
Each year, approximately 40% of those living in the United States make New Year’s Resolutions with the hopes of creating lasting change. Of the resolutions made, 80% of us fail to follow-through on our resolutions by the second week in February.
Meanwhile, it is reported that a mere 8% of people actually achieve their resolutions. With success rates falling below 10%, maybe we should examine why 92% of resolutions fail. There are many reasons why the failure rate may be so high. Could it be, at least in part, rooted in the unrealistic expectations we set for ourselves? Instead of making small, incremental changes, we attempt to implement dramatic change without adequately planning or preparing for the impact these changes will have on our lifestyle. When we are confronted with the reality of the goal we set out to achieve, we see that it is actually extremely difficult and therefore rather than maintaining our course, or altering it to be more attainable, we abandon it altogether…and then feel miserable about ourselves. In some cases we may feel depressed or feel anxious that we are not capable.
When it comes to behavior modification, we tend to look at things as either/or, not necessarily with the dynamism of multiple outcomes. Behavior is molded and conditioned, so in using our environment and experiences, we are constantly being conditioned through positive and negative reinforcement. If you are someone who attaches meaning to negative interactions, then you will inevitably latch on to the negative moments you’ve experienced and are more likely to remember the challenging times in your life; and you might therefore avoid cultivating a behavior that involves an instance of negative interaction. ( i.e. Taking long breaks at work leads to reprimand by boss, or ignoring the dishes in the sink leads to roommate conflict— the resulting resolutions might be to take shorter breaks and do the dishes immediately following use… decisions that came from negative reinforcement.) On the other hand, if you are someone who does well when positive behavior is rewarded, you may be more likely to base personal changes on the feedback you get from those around you that is encouraging. (i.e. Developing a regular workout routine begets compliments on appearance, or meeting/exceeding deadlines elicits praise from a boss).
On a regular basis, we condition our minds to respond and process information in a specific way— reacting to stimuli that are either self-generated or externally-generated. And if we only assess this process on an annual basis, the odds of the intended behavior modification becoming a habit is less likely than if it were nurtured on a continual basis. So, the drive to make “New Year’s Resolutions” as a way of tending to our personal needs isn’t always necessarily the most helpful (or lasting)— sure, it allows us to be self-reflective at least once per year, and it makes for good party conversation, but why limit a healthy amount of self-awareness to one occasion each year? Why not challenge ourselves to be our best version in each moment that presents itself? If we can increase our moments of self-awareness and reflection to weekly or monthly, we increase the odds of becoming a better version of ourselves.
Habits that are typically perceived as “bad” do not manifest overnight; they become routine and default over time. This often happens outside of our conscious awareness. If we can intervene earlier, when those behaviors arise and shed light on the behaviors that we do not want to cultivate as habits, then there is a greater chance that we will not develop the habit at all. If it is an existing behavior, there is no magic time to address it— you can set a goal date, or you can start immediately. Easier said than done? Perhaps, but rather than broaching the topic at the culmination of a calendar year when it has become ingrained in our consciousness, we may be able to prevent having such a long list of self-improvement goals when the new year comes around. Additionally, by reducing the length and breadth of the list of resolutions, we are also preemptively preventing resolution fatigue.
It’s important to use the past as a reference point in order to prevent future repeats of tired behavior, but just as we use the past, we can use the present moment as a shaping tool. In order to create change on the go, it is of utmost importance to remain self-aware and choose very small changes so we do not get overwhelmed and give-up. If you want to establish a regular workout routine, do not start by running a 5k, start by walking around your block once per day. Choosing small, easily attainable goals and increasing your self-awareness will assist in the nurturing of positive behavioral change. In practice, what does this look like?
Mindfulness is a good place to start. Rather than relying on ruminations of former mistakes or missteps, look to see where you are now. This may require journaling, meditating, and discussing with another person— whether that is a friend, a family member, or your therapist, that is up to you. Once you assess your current situation, then you can begin to flag the areas of your life on which you want to focus. Initially, this may seem like a daunting task, but once you develop the tools for self-reflection and instant intervention at the onset of what could potentially become a behavior that you don’t want to establish as habit, then each moment that arises will become more simple and straightforward. Listening to that inner-voice will become the standard.
Change doesn’t have to be reserved for annual reviews of ourselves— you can make changes any time you feel you’re ready to do so. Now that it’s almost February, it’s time to assess how your resolutions are going… and if you didn’t set any goals at all, it doesn’t matter, you can start any time. You can start now.
Author: Nathan Tylutki, MA