New Years Resolutions: The psychology behind what works and what doesn’t

Jan 2020

Happy New Year!

It’s 2020 and we are ringing in a New Year.  This is the time of year when we tend to think about how we lived our life during the past year. We determine whether or not we are living the life we want to live. How close does our ideal self match our actual selves. In order to answer these question we often look to our value system. What matters to us? Is it health, relationships, parenting, career growth, ect. In order for you to be able to assess whether or not you are living the life that you want to live, it’s important for you to think about what matters to you. Make a list, write it down and identify any areas in your life that you think you may be forgetting. The Bulls Eye from an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Model can help you evaluate this. The middle of the bulls eye represents that you are living the life you want to live in that particular area. The further away you believe you are from the middle identifies an area that you would like to focus on. Once this is identified, it’s helpful to identify any potential barriers that are preventing you from participating in behaviour that brings you closer to the centre. I’ve attached a copy of the bulls eye in case you want to practice this method yourself.

Based on our evaluation of how we lived our life during the past year, we then tend to make plans around how we want to live moving into the New Year. In public, you can often overhear people talking about New Years Resolutions. Some people are anxious to set New Year goals while other’s flat out refuse because of their misguided attempts in the past.  If you’re among the many who have attempted to change a behavioural pattern and have been unsuccessful, welcome to a long list of good intentional members.  In fact, change is not easy.  Neurobiologically our brains our wired to respond to consistent behavioural patterns.  In order to change a behaviour pattern, we must make a conscience effort to create new neural pathways in our brain. We do this by repetitively participating in a sequence of behaviours that move us towards our goals. Because change is so difficult, we often come up against either internal, external or both barriers. If change is so difficult than how does one go about doing it?

Important Steps to Consider Towards Implementing a Behavioural Change.

We often set unreasonably high expectations without the knowledge of how internal or external barriers will get in the way of allowing us to reach our goal.  For example, people will often review how their life went last year and decide that they want to incorporate wellness into their life.  They plan to eat clean, exercise, meditate, be a present partner, parent and excel in their career.  Wow!  I think that they forgot to add self compassion to their list. In this blog I will attempt to discuss some healthy strategies to increase the likelihood to a successful behavioural change.

Internal Barriers

Unfortunately often the barrier to a behavioural change lies within ourselves.  Let’s take the example to desire to incorporate more physical activity into our lives. I frequently find myself falling into this trap.  I start off by thinking that I’m going to get to the gym three times a week.  I schedule Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays for gym days.  My first error is setting an unrealistic expectation that I will get to the gym three times a week. Like so many of us, I’m a busy mom of two boys that play competitive sports and work full time. Realistically I may not have enough spare time to get to the gym three times a week. The next barrier that pops up is when Monday comes. On Monday morning, I begin to anticipate the effort that it will take me to get myself prepared to attend a class at the gym. I will then anticipate the unpleasant feeling of starting an exercise program and the struggle I may experience half way through the class. Consequently, I question whether or not I’m up for the challenge that day.  I then shift from the plan to go to the gym to attempting to find reasons why I shouldn’t go. I go through my list of responsibilities and rationalize that the other areas of my life need my attention more.  I then rationalize that I’m still being responsible if I don’t go to the gym because I’m participating in my other obligations.  That rationalization provides me with the justification for missing a workout.  Once I go through that thought process internally and I come up with a solution to move away from my goal.  I instantly feel relief. That relief is short lived. Shortly after I make my decision, disappointment in myself sets in.  I’m not living the life that is congruent with my values of living a healthy life. I then feel stuck and trapped due to myself. Ahhhhhhhhhhh! How do I break out of this.  

Fozzie Not Feeling Guilt about Relaxing.

How to get unstuck

In order to break out of your thinking patterns that are acting as barriers preventing you from working towards your goal, one must be hyperaware of how your thoughts, emotions and your sensations in your body all work together to impact your behaviour.  It’s helpful to identify any unworkable behaviour that prevents you from taking the steps to move towards your goal.  Unworkable behaviour is typically defined as any behaviour that provides justification to help you get out of participating in the behaviour that leads you towards living the life you want to live. Some common unworkable behaviours include; avoidance, rationalization and procrastination. Participating in unworkable behaviour initially feels good. It produces immediate relief from the anticipated dread you think you will feel when initiating a new behavioural pattern.  The long term consequence of unworkable behaviour often leads the individual towards feelings of being stuck and feeling unable to make a change. Typically it’s our own thought process and decision making that prevents us from participating in the behaviour that allow us to live the life we want to live. If change is so difficult and if we ourselves often act as barriers towards change, then what are the steps that we can take to overcome ourselves?

Helpful steps that can lead to successful behavioural changes.

  • Set realistic expectations. Focus on one goal at a time. Make sure that your goal is reasonable and can also be implemented. If you set unrealistic goals then you will set yourself up for disappointment and will increase the chance of failure.
  • Identify unworkable behaviour: For example, identify any thought process that you have created that prevents you from working towards your goal. Keep in mind, you may identify more than one justification.
  • Awareness: Recognize the immediate reward that you receive by using unworkable behaviour. Avoidance, rationalization, procrastination can produces immediate relief from the anticipated unpleasant feeling. The long term consequence to that reward can create learned helplessness and keeps you stuck in the cycle of behaving in ways that produce away moves towards your goal.
  •  Ignore/Distract: Ignore or use distraction as a way to get around your brain chatter that is strongly tempting you to not put on your exercise clothes. Remind yourself of the feeling of satisfaction you will feel when you get unstuck.
  • Active Approach: Pack your bag, get on gym clothes, get out the door, walk through the door at the gym and start your class.  
  • Review: Pay attention to how good you feel after your work out. You are not only taking the steps towards your goal but you also became unstuck from your own unhelpful cycle.

The Choice Point

The Choice Point is a tool that can be helpful for us to identify the patterns of how we trick ourselves into believing that we are making the right decisions in order to avoid the anticipated unpleasant feeling that is associated with a desired behavioural change. If we are aware of the content of our mind chatter that is attempting to convince us to evade an unpleasant experience, then we are more likely going to be successful at moving towards our goal. It is often very helpful to map out our thought and behavioural patterns that push us away from making changes that would lead us toward our goals. Please take a look at the diagram below that maps out the problem that I encounter around getting to the gym. Please feel free to use a similar template and substitute your own problem.

External Barriers

It’s important to note that external barriers also play a role in impacting our ability to live the life we want to live. For example, competing demands on your limits time. What happens when you have two values that compete with each other for your time. For example, spending quality time with your children vs committing to a work out routine. In today’s world, many people are faced with to much work and not enough time. It’s important to design your life in a way where you feel you are in control of your time. In order to do this one must set up boundaries and schedule activities that matter to you in your schedule. For example, if you value being present for your children, going to the gym, maintaining healthy relationships, schedule activities into your calendar. If situations come up when people request your time, give yourself permission to set boundaries, question whether or not the request matters to you and whether or not you can commit to carrying it out. Sometimes we are often riddled with guilt by not fulfilling someones request because we feel as though we are disappointing them. Very often the desire to please others is a contributor to not having enough time to participate in the activities that you would like to do. Developing self compassion is a newer concept. I’ve attached a copy of a booklet on how to develop self compassion.

In conclusion, be kind to yourself, and recognize that change is not easy. It’s difficult for everyone. Living the life that is congruent with your values is a life long journey, not a sprint race. It’s through the process of being present, being self reflective and frequently checking in with yourself that is going to allow you to achieve this goal. In 2020 I wish that you give yourself kindness, patience and the space to grow.

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