What’s Missing from New Year’s Resolutions

A Better Path to Change than Resolutions

By Chris Allen

I’m sure some years you’ve made resolutions, while other years, you may have thought “Why bother?” You might have even thought, “I don’t make New Year’s resolutions!”

The new year seems like a time to push the reset button and begin anew with goals — lose weight, stop smoking, write that novel or start a business. However, often our efforts to change may be doomed from the start. This can perpetuate a vicious cycle. We become reluctant to initiate change or set new goals, and ever more entrenched in habits that steal our energy, joy and capacity to grow.

How we usually approach goals

Often, the desire for change stems from being unhappy with something. Let’s use a weight loss goal for example. We resolve to lose weight in the new year, perhaps setting a target weight or number of pounds to lose. Then, we choose a strategy, typically adding in more exercise. We buy healthier foods and plan snacks and meals. We put our workout times on our calendar. These are all excellent strategies for losing weight.

So, why do we so often fail to sustain the behavioral changes we initiate?

Why we fail to change

One reason we give up is that under stress, we tend to fall back on tried-and-true strategies for self-soothing. We have automatic neural connections in the brain, akin to a well-traveled highway. Beginning a new habit is like blazing a new trail in the woods with a scythe. So, instead of meditating or going to the gym when stressed, we have that bowl of ice cream, bag of popcorn or extra glass of wine.

A more profound reason we don’t tend to stick with new behaviors is related to fear. Despite the fact that we’re wired for growth, we’re also wired neurologically for safety. When it comes to change, it’s like we simultaneously have one foot on the gas pedal and one foot on the brakes. This tendency may keep us stuck, but it also keeps us balanced. We’re wired to stay the same because it helps us survive. Our brains are wired to overvalue negative information. We remember mistakes and failures better than successes to protect us from making the same mistakes again. All of this makes change more difficult than we may realize.

A better beginning to change

So, ask yourself the following question: “If I were wildly successful at weight loss (or whatever the goal may be), what would be the worst thing that could happen?” Often, the BBA — “Big Bad Awful” — is something like:
• “If I lost weight, then I might start dating again, and I could be rejected.”
• “If I finished my book, I might be called out as a phony or viewed as a terrible writer.”
• “If I had better work-life balance, I would fail at work and be passed over for promotions.”

When we can successfully identify the BBA, it stops unconsciously working against us and we can examine whether the feared outcome is even partially or wholly accurate. Maybe we’ll get rejected a couple of times, but perhaps we could also find a life partner. Our first manuscript could possibly get rejected, but we could become a better writer and eventually successfully publish something.

Our tendency to stay the same, despite our best efforts to change, is wholly rational; it’s not in the least bit crazy. It doesn’t mean we want to stay stuck. It doesn’t imply we can’t change. Understanding the mechanisms that lead to unsuccessful New Year’s resolutions can help us to design a change process that truly works. SWM

Chris Allen, a workplace psychologist and executive coach, is the president of Insight Business Works. For more information, visit insightbusinessworks.com. Contact Chris at [email protected].