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How to Keep Your New Year's Resolutions on Track

by Diana Fraser
January 4, 2018 | Living

It's that time of year again—the first few days of the new year, when articles are circulating about how we should be kinder to one another, be more politically active, try to exercise more or eat better and angle for that promotion at work.

New Year's Resolutions pbs rewire
Source: YouGov

Even if you don't make a formal list, most people have personal and professional goals they want to tackle with the start of a new year. Will you be able to make the changes you're hoping for in 2018?

The American Association for the Advancement of Science published a study in 2017 that showed how a small, deliberate environmental change can inspire new action despite previous behaviors. Unfortunately, neither the study nor the post-NYE social media frenzy provides insight on what to do when your resolve is wavering, or completely evaporated. According to research by the University of Scranton, only 8 percent of goal-setters succeed in accomplishing their New Year’s resolutions. Yikes.

So how can my fellow 92-percenters and I hang in there and keep going when the goal-thwarting doldrums come calling in 2018? Here are six tips to staying motivated daily.

1. Determine what helps you feel successful

Is it flexibility? Scalability? Structure? Multitasking? A buddy system? Quiet time? Having a plan so the plan can change? Once you identify what motivates you in your daily life you can apply similar strategies to your new goals. This could be as simple as starting with a deep-clean of your bathroom tub instead of the whole darn kitchen (see scalability); as complicated as embroidering your grandma’s birthday present while waiting for your oil change to finish while on the phone with your mom (see multitasking); or as straightforward as meditating for five minutes before bed every day (see quiet time).

Personal success is solely about you so it makes sense to build your success strategy around your preferences.

2. Allow yourself to be uncomfortable

Half the battle is your mentality: Remember, there must be allowance for us to fail in order to grow. Most of us want instant gratification and immediate success, even though the goals we set require us to try new things—even, possibly, things we're not very good at. Sitting in discomfort allows us to learn.

A 2006 study revealed that putting yourself in new situations can activate a part of the brain that releases dopamine—in fact, that particular region of the brain is only activated when you see or experience new things. This means we can actually feel happier by continuing to try new things that make us uncomfortable.

Personal example: In July 2015 I had never attended a Crossfit-style class or touched a barbell. I was scared I would make a fool of myself: I was chubby, inexperienced and shy. The first workout was okay; however, I didn’t feel like I belonged. But I told myself I had to go three Wednesdays in a row before I could decide to quit. Two years later I attend almost every Wednesday night workout, have decreased my body fat by 25 percent and have worked my way back from three injuries.

There is room to succeed but you must allow yourself the time, space, and grace to show up, fail, and learn. Not every New Year’s goal can be check-marked and complete after 2 months.

3. Acknowledge your strengths and weaknesses

My high school tennis coach recognized a 16-year-old with my build and severe shin splints would not win a match sprinting across the court for two hours. (There is a special place in heaven reserved for him, I’m certain.) Instead, we worked on making my forehand and backhand as sharp and fast as possible so my opponent had no chance to return my serve. With his help, I graduated to play second singles for my senior season.

New Year's Resolutions pbs rewire
Source: Dominican University of California

Play to your strengths and your circumstances. If your life demands you chauffeur children around after work, go to the gym in the morning before everyone is awake instead of blaming yourself for not going in the evening. If you are terrible at committing to a regular timeline then plan your life one week at a time; alternatively, if you live and breathe via your iCal, build in your resolutions to daily calendar alerts. 

Whatever your new activity, set yourself up for success by acknowledging your gifts and limitations. Business leaders often conduct a SWOT analysis as part of strategic planning, identifying Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. This same tool is easily applied to your personal life and can help bring any obstacles to your success into focus. 

4. Admit when something is not a good fit

If you have set reasonable expectations for yourself and it just isn’t working, get ready to belt the "Frozen" tune and let it go. Forcing yourself to do something you loathe in an unsupportive environment is a recipe for disaster. If your knee aches every time you leave spin class then stop going. Reroute. Make a new goal. Find a different gym or consider doing physical therapy before trying to run that 5K. If you set your sights on a promotion at work but leave the office crying every day, give yourself permission to start looking for a different position at a new company.

According to an Oxford University Press study, building self-esteem is crucial to your mental health. Making yourself miserable in order to check a box on your resolutions list will only make for poorer health and an even worse success rate.

5. If you find something that works, keep doing it!

Half the battle is showing up. If that Saturday morning pottery class energizes you for the rest of the week, sign up for next month’s classes even if your ceramics look like the work of a 5-year-old. If your study buddy is the key to your newfound straight-As then get ready for study dates out the wazoo. If cycling on a stationary bike in your living room while listening to podcasts is your jam, keep it up (and add these to your listening list).

6. Be gentle with yourself

Life gets hard. Friends lose jobs or move away, work demands rise, cars break down, grandparents pass away and breakups come out of nowhere. The world moves on but you may still be experiencing the ripple effects. If you are utterly exhausted and simply cannot imagine going out to dinner with the friend you made plans with, just reschedule and say, “Thank you for understanding.” Be gracious, kind, and patient. Be cognizant of how many times you require that level of self-care and be fair to those asking for your time, but don’t force yourself to the breaking point. Goals are meant to stretch us, not bury us.

Whether your 2018 goals are physical, emotional, mental or task-oriented, consider what small influences would set you up for greater success. What are manageable, incremental and achievable steps---also known as S.M.A.R.T. goals in many a business circle---that will take you from the frustrated 92 percent to that superhuman 8 percent?

Don’t be afraid to change the plan if you are feeling unmotivated or bored. With a bit of resolve, a healthy heaping of realism and a good dose of patience we may just flip that number around by 2019. Cheers to the old you, and the new.

Diana Fraser
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