Many of us will soon make New Year’s Resolutions. This entry is designed to increase your odds of success. I’ll review four planning steps and ten strategies for promoting effective outcomes.
The first step in the planning phase is to visualize what you like about yourself. I’m skeptical that your self-improvement project can survive and thrive if you do not know and enjoy your strengths, not only at the start, but consistently throughout. I like a prayer that British psychologist Robert Holden recommends in one of his books: “Oh God, help me to believe the truth about myself, no matter how beautiful it is. Amen.”
The second step is to picture yourself as the most fulfilled version of you. What is different about that person? What changes, that are under your control today, would help to get you there? (If any of us drove a car as reliable as willpower, we’d soon scrap it. Yet, many of us continue to rely upon will power as if it could be consistently counted upon.)
Third, list the obstacles you’ll experience in taking this voyage. This is a step worthy of your most honest and thorough consideration (many of these obstacles are authored by the person in the mirror).
Fourth, what steps can you take to reduce the obstacles and lessen your reliance on will power?
A problem that many of us run into is called “present bias.” The person who we are when we make a resolution–present me–is steely eyed and filled with gritty resolve. However, present me may also be inclined to be harsh (“okay, you really need to stop being so weak!”), excessively ambitious (“I’m going to never yell again!”) or inclined to invest in ways that aren’t always helpful (e.g., purchasing expensive equipment the like of which has never been used before). The problem is that present me is not the same person who will be doing the heavy lifting; that person is future me. If present me doesn’t adequately understand future me’s strengths and vulnerabilities, then present me is destined for disappointment.
Each of us are like snowflakes, completely unique. Thus, a strategy that helps another person make substantive changes could be a horrible idea for you. Use your world’s leading expert knowledge of yourself to develop a plan that is supportive of future you. Use her strengths. Establish support for his vulnerabilities. Some of the following ten tips may help:
1. Set daily goals. Avoid goals like “I’m going to lose 30 pounds.” Instead, try “today I’m going to eat a balanced diet and get 45 minutes of physical activity.” (Goals like this are very nice if you mess up as tomorrow is a new day!)
2. Keep a daily log of those behaviors that are most important to your goal(s). Many self-destructive behaviors occur when we disassociate from ourselves (i.e., only partially notice what we’re doing). Writing stuff down combats disassociation and increases the odds that you will remain self-aware and in the moment.
3. Join with others. Two things characterize those who are successful in setting aside entrenched and self-limiting patterns: they work on themselves and they surround themselves with people who are striving towards the same goal(s). Relying on others could involve partnering with friends, starting counseling, or attending support group meetings. (To find a therapist near you click here.)
3a. Ask your partners for help. Many people are willing to help your future self reach your present self’s goals. All you need do is share your vulnerabilities and ask for ideas and/or assistance. For example, I know one pair of friends who committed to playing a rotating aerobic game before work each day (e.g., basketball, racquetball, etc.). They rotated the role of cheerleader for those days when one or both of them was tempted to cancel.
4. Establish rewards for yourself. For instance, so many days of doing as you vow earns you a treat. Also, give yourself hefty mental pats on the back for success along the way.
5. Take lapses as opportunities to learn more about your vulnerabilities and how present you can do a better job of supporting future you. Avoid being cruel and harsh with yourself as this risks putting your goals further out of reach (i.e., don’t tolerate bullying!). I’ll sometimes ask clients, who are parents, to react to themselves as they would react to their child if their child showed a similar lapse (sometimes this involves projecting forward in time and imagining their child at their age, having fallen prey to the same vulnerability).
6. Use music if that motivates you.
7. Focus your mind on the positive behaviors you want to do rather than the negative behaviors you want to avoid. It’s better to focus on what healthy breakfast you want to eat rather than trying to use white-knuckle willpower to resist the unhealthy version. A great book I recently discovered that does this well is The Happiness Diet, by Graham and Ramsey
8. Have present you write encouraging and positive messages for future you that you put in your electronic calendar.
9. Make a plan to remove as much temptation as possible from the eye line of future you (remember: will power is unreliable).
10. If you are a spiritual person, lean on that part of your life as much as you can.
Good luck! And, remember, high road life is less about outcomes and more about being in the right fights 😉