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Managing “Resolution Fever”

The rolling over of one year into another is both a a tough time and a hopeful time for people — often simultaneously. Never mind the stress of financial and scheduling issues or family obligations around the holidays; where many people struggle the most is with our love-hate relationship with the New Year’s Resolution.

The “hopeful” aspect of resolutions is that the New Year often signals new beginnings, new opportunities, new dedication, and above all, the best of intentions. 365 days is a long time to stick with something, however, and the undisciplined among us — myself included — frequently don’t make it out of the first month (never mind the first quarter) of any new year with those resolutions intact. I learned a long time ago that going to the pool in January is a waste of time because of the Resolutioners crowding out both the aquafit classes and the swim lanes; by the beginning of February, however, everything is largely back to normal. Ergo, when December rolls around and we look back on our successes and failures of the year, a lot of people get really down on themselves for not measuring up to the hopefulness of January, not sticking with the resolutions, and not making the goals we’ve set for ourselves… often year after year after year.

One thing I’ve learned through working with clients throughout the year is that the consistent issues, not just with New Year’s resolutions but ANY kind of goal-oriented process, often revolve around not having a really clear mental image of what the end goal looks like, and not having a realistic scope of what’s involved in reaching that goal. This is where my previous life working in a project-oriented development field comes in extremely handy, because in doing Project Management, if you don’t have a clear eye on the project scope, and realistic milestone goals defined within that project, the project is fairly drastically handicapped from the outset. Sheer stubbornness might get you to the goal regardless of those impediments, but it’s not the most efficient way of getting from A to B, nor of maintaining effective, sustainable self-development practices thereafter.

Articulating goals is a key first step. Almost everyone in western culture understands how to make a New Year’s resolution: for example, “In 2012, I’m going to lose 80lbs” (this may or may not be a real-life resolution; I decline to comment.) Stating intent is a great first step. But then what?

For a lot of people, defining the big goal is a be-all-and-end-all action. In counseling rooms around the country, therapists often face clients who come in with big goal intentions such as, “I want to improve communications with my partner/parent/child/etc.”. At that point, the best tool in my bag is to say to my client, “That’s a really fabulous Big Picture goal; what does that actually *look like* to you?” Often clients haven’t gotten further than articulating that big goal, and this is the point at which both clients and New Year’s Resolutioners often get stymied without help, because they lack clarity in understanding what that goal actually entails.

If the big goal is (coming back to our example) losing weight over the course of the year, a project management approach might look like this:

1. What are my dependencies (the things which will affect or be impacted by my big goal, like familial support, budget requirements, special requirements such as training materials or equipment to meet the goal)?
2. What do I already have on hand that supports this goal?
3. What are the big changes that the goal requires (eating habits, for example; special foods, a gym membership, and the scheduling to fit attending said gym)?
4. What is my support network for this goal?
5. How can I break the big goal down into monthly or weekly milestones I can track for success or mid-course refinement?

Number 5 there is often the best thing for helping people look really closely at the goal to which they’ve just resolved themselves. Weight loss is easier to measure than, say, general fitness improvements. Being as specific in one’s goal-setting is extremely important; it’s difficult to plot the rest of the project plan without knowing *exactly* what it is you’re trying to achieve. And don’t beat yourself up too much if you find you don’t know how to articulate those goals right off the bat. Sometimes we don’t have the language or the clarity to express what we really mean with goals like, “I want more intimacy with my partner.” (Developing that explicit clarity is one place where working with therapists is extremely useful and worth both the time and money.). Get as close as you can to clear expression of your goals, then work on breaking them down into things you can achieve on a smaller, ongoing basis.

Weekly and monthly milestones help you see both your successes and your challenge areas throughout the year, and also provide a structure for developing mindfulness around those goals. If you make a point to check in with yourself on a weekly basis, you may find it becomes easier to keep those goals, and the behavioural changes that support them through the week, at the forefront of your mind. Resolutions of the vague kind are harder to maintain if we don’t check up on them now and then, which is a self-discipline issue for a lot of us. Also, the weekly check-ins allow us to tweak the processes depending on how other variables are affecting our ability to sustain our resolutions from week to week: work or life plans may take priority from time to time and make staying on the resolution track difficult. But if you see this happening over the course of a couple of weeks, it becomes easier to adjust the plan at week 3 or 4 or 5 than if you let things slide unconsciously until Month 8, then panic and try to get your resolutions back on course after ignoring them over the longer term.

Smaller goals are also generally more achievable in the shorter term, and this in turn can lead to a greater sense of accomplishment that carries you from one milestone to the next. Success criteria doesn’t have to be measured in a single year-end Win/Lose binary state; some weeks will be better than others, and if you succeed in your goals three weeks out of four, that starts the next month out on a great success rate. Bear in mind, those smaller milestones need to be as realistic as your big goals; losing 80lbs in a year is realistic. Losing 10-15lbs in a week is not.

Once you know what the milestones are, it becomes easier to go back to the other items in the project plan and deal with them. You may want to put “joining a gym” as a dependency, but if budget constraints are also a dependency, what else can you do in the short- to medium-term to move you toward your milestones and goal until budget constraints will allow for that membership fee?

Remember also, there are always options, even if they’re not your first choice. Just because you don’t LIKE having to exercise to lose weight, doesn’t mean the only way you’ll make yourself do it is by committing financially to a gym and letting Expenditure Guilt motivate you to go. Trust me when I say, that just adds unnecessary pressure to the project’s Success/Fail criteria that comes dangerously close to self-sabotage for many (especially at the end of the year when people doing the mental reflection then have to deal with both the failure of the goal AND the sense of wasting money in the process).

It all sounds like a complicated process, but really it’s not. It’s all about being clear and positive in articulating your overall resolution goal(s), setting realistic and achievable milestones within the goal, and checking in with yourself frequently enough throughout the process to make the work become a good habit instead of shoving it to the back of your mind and relying on stubbornness to carry the day. Resolutions provide a great framework for making positive changes, but making them in the fever of hopefulness instead of the clarity of mindfulness, brings the potential for dismay come next December. A little extra planning work in January can make the entire rest of the year flow so much more smoothly!

[Addendum: As I’m investigating working towards building barter-for-service links through services like swapsity.ca, I came across a much more succinct blog post about this exact same topic for financial matters: http://www.swapsity.ca/posts/view/145.]

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