One of the many lessons learned in 2020:
Things Do Not Go As Planned.
This started like any other year; with promises that we made to ourselves to lose weight, to be a better friend, to get that promotion, to travel more, or to become free of debt.
As the year comes to a close, it is certain to say that this year is ending unlike any other. However, as the new year approaches, I am sure that many of us will attempt to start 2021 the way we began 2020: with our New Year's resolutions.
BUT studies show that 80% of resolutions made for the
new year. fail within one month, by February.
So if we try resolutions every year and seem to fail every year, even on goals which we deem personally significant and important, then why do we continue to try and make them? What should we do instead?
A study in Psychology by Kaitlin Woolley from Cornell University and Ayelet Fishbach from the University of Chicago found that importance of a goal was not a determinant of whether one would be successful at achieving the desired goal; rather, enjoyment of the activities to reach the goal was a direct indicator of whether the goal would be achieved or abandoned. This is to say, that if you hate exercising, then setting a resolution to lose weight and gain muscle will almost certainly end in failure even if you truly believe that achieving this goal is important for your health.
It's fair to assume that if we ever want to truly improve our lives and make changes to become the best possible versions of ourselves, we will have to engage in activities that we do not necessarily enjoy. So how do we bridge the gap from being the person we are to becoming the person that we want to be?
A simple, yet effective way that I help my clients overcome plateaus, achieve goals, and even decide which goals to set is to...
Swap Out Resolutions For "Themes"
So, what is a theme, how is it different from a resolution, and how do I implement it in order to finally accomplish the recurring goal that I can't cross off my list year after year?
Think of a resolution as a single fishing line and a theme as a large fishing net. Which methodology will yield you the most fish in the fastest way for the least effort?
Creating a specific intention is essential to goal setting, however, when we become too focused on a hyper-specific destination, we can lose the process of accomplishing that goal into our peripheral vision. When setting a goal, most of us say, I want to accomplish "X goal" by "Y date". In my experience as someone who professionally helps people achieve goals, this gives too much focus on the end goal without considering all of the hard work and overhaul that will get you to that destination. This is why a theme can be very helpful as it allows you multiple avenues of attacking "X goal" and allows you to choose which avenues are most successful as you're on the journey so that your goal evolves as you do, and visa versa. Setting the intention to get to your goal and making small sustainable changes in various aspects of your life acts a net to yield a higher return than picking one hyper-focused goal and thinking you will adapt your entire lifestyle to accommodate that goal.
According to the study cited above, 55.2% of all resolutions are exercise or health related. We all know that eating better, moving more, and mitigating stress is very important, so where is the disconnect between what we know we should do and what we actually do? As stated earlier, enjoyment outweighs importance. Exercise is hard. Eating well can be hard. Generally, making any long term changes for your health can be hard because it requires a lot of effort and involves challenging, confronting, and modifying a lifetime of previous behavioural patterns and beliefs.
So stating, "I will lose 20lbs by June via exercising four days a week and going on a diet," is a very specific goal with great intentions but you're steepening the mountain you have to climb by taking on a lot of change very rapidly, which will make accomplishing the goal harder. This is especially true if you have not exercised in fifteen years, eat mostly take-out food and, as does roughly half of the U.S. adult population, have one or more chronic health conditions.
As I would tell any new client coming to see me who presented to me this goal under these circumstances, this is not the way we set ourselves up for success. Rather, this is a formula that involves a lot of varying factors that can become overwhelming and prolong our sense of instant gratification (which has been found as an essential step in creating new habits). Nothing is more discouraging than making a lot of hard changes and feeling as if you're not seeing results. If you want to loose weight, you will have to participate in challenging exercise, you will have to change how you eat, and you will most likely have to make other sacrifices such as cutting back on alcohol consumption or social time and adjusting your sleep schedule. These are facts. Even if you can maintain these massive changes long enough to see the weight loss you expect, more than 80% of all diets fail and the weight loss is not maintained.
A better strategy is to set the goal as a theme, ergo Health, give the theme a time frame, ergo three to six months (you can use seasons as a reference point as our bodies naturally cycle according to seasonal changes) and you then give yourself multiple avenues of entry towards working on your theme by aligning your methodology with things that you already enjoy. This will increase adherence to the goal, increase the frequency of instant gratification, increase the impact of the goal on your entire life and decrease the feelings of frustration or failure. Setting a theme could look something like this:
Health and Weight Loss
January 2021 -- May 2021
Go to bed one hour earlier
Wake up one hour earlier
Take an additional fitness class each week
Aim for 10,000 steps a day
I like playing Tennis, so I will play an extra game a week or hire a Tennis coach to expand my skills
Try new healthier recipes by cooking twice a week with my children and making it a family bonding experience
I enjoy making new friends, so I will join new Facebook or social groups that focus on my theme so I can get new ideas and find accountability partners
I know that I have a hard time keeping myself accountable so I will hire a fitness coach to help provide me with support
I really enjoy reading so I will read two new books on fitness and health before the end of my theme time frame
There are no "rights" and "wrongs" when it comes to brainstorming your theme methodologies or picking your theme. The more personally meaningful you make the journey towards accomplishing your goals, the more you will adhere to those goals, the more you will enjoy the process and the more sustainable the changes will become. If you reinforce new behaviours through a large net of life factors, you will create long lasting change and elevate yourself to a place where something that once seemed very scary or overwhelming, now seems more manageable because you have internalised feelings of success, enjoyment, and positive growth. If you expand your net of support, by naturally incorporating your loved ones into your theme by doing things together that you already enjoy or by trying something new together as a bonding experience, then you incorporating your theme into your life rather than trying to force your entire lifestyle to change to suit one goal.
And at the end of the day, that is really the difference between resolutions and themes. A resolution is a platitude that will require you to make a lot of really hard changes to accommodate accomplishing the goal while a theme is an enhancement of the things that already make you special, that already bring you enjoyment, and with a more focused intention will bridge the gap between where you are and where you want to be.
So as this week comes to a close, don't set a New Year's resolution to wake up on January 1, 2021 as someone else entirely. Instead, consider a theme, think about what it is that you really want and then brainstorm relevant and unique ways of addressing that theme that enhance your life, creates adherence to making small changes, and provides continual positive reinforcement through feelings of joy, success, and gratification.
This year can be the year that you finally succeed in checking off that resolution that always seemed out of reach because you changed your strategy and made your lifestyle work for you rather than against you.
Happy New Year!