We hear about them most often as the holiday season approaches and we begin to reflect on the passing of one year and the beginning of another. I'm talking about those highly anticipated, yet often dreaded resolutions. But resolutions to change aren't exclusive to New Year's. Many people resolve to change after a significant event in their lives, such as a death, or the birth of a child, or a major illness. 

Regardless of when we make them, at the time we make them, resolutions to are almost always made in earnest, with a genuine commitment to improve our lives or the lives of others. But within a short period of time, most resolutions falter. What exactly is it about change that makes resolutions so hard to keep?

Actually, there are a lot of reasons. But one of the most common is fear. Fear of change. Fear of the unknown or untested. Fear of failure. And sometimes fear of the pain or discomfort that comes along with certain kinds of change (such as quitting smoking or dieting). Fear is one of our most powerful emotions. And while it can serve as a vital protector in some situations (i.e., running away from a real threat), it can be a crippling obstacle when it keeps us from reaching our goals.

As writer and blogger Olusegun Jegeda writes, "Fear is like a virus that wrecks havoc in our lives. It develops into mistrust, anxiety, worry, hopelessness, and other negative emotions. It paralyzes us and hinders our progress in life. When fear grips you, you become powerless. It's the greatest obstacle to personal success."  

Fortunately, there are a few strategies you can use to overcome these challenges and increase your chances for success.

1) Know thy enemy.

Because the resolutions we tend to make often reflect a significant and unfulfilled challenge in our personal or professional lives, something we've wanted to accomplish or change for quite some time but weren't able to because it was either too challenging or too complex (i.e, losing weight, improving a relationship, saving money, getting fit), they can be a cunning enemy in the battle for self-improvement. Trying to accomplish a gargantuan task that you haven't been able to accomplish all year (or maybe even longer) is obviously not the kind of kind of thing you're going to be able to do within a month. If it was that easy, you would have done it already.

2) Set realistic, achieveable resolutions.

While this may sound like common sense, all too often the resolutions we make are nonspecific, ill-defined, and/or easily complicated by a variety of factors that aren't necessarily within our control. "I resolve to be happier." I resolve to get fit." "I resolve to have a happier marriage." When we make such resolutions, we significantly reduce our likelihood of accomplishing them. 

3) Don't view resolutions as all or none.

Rather than view a resolution as an "all or none" goal that you either accomplish or you fail at, try to reframe resolutions as smaller, more realistic tasks that, over time, will eventually get you to your ultimate goal. For example, a very common resolution is to get out of debt. The problem is that it's too vague, ill-defined, and lacks any sense of time, which are all qualities that set resolutions up for a rather quick and untimely death. To breathe life back into your desire to change, you need to make smaller resolutions that are precise, well-defined, and time-sensitive, tasks that will bring you closer and closer to your ultimate goal. For example: "I will bring my own coffee from home and stop going to Starbucks every morning before work;" "I will use the money I save by not going to Starbucks to add $100 to my minimum payment on my VISA account every month." Both tasks are realistic, measurable, and achievable.

4) Reward yourself for small steps. 

It's important to reward yourself as you make progress rather than waiting until the ultimate goal is completed. For example, if your ultimate goal is to lose 20 pounds by [fill in the blank], it will be a lot easier to accomplish if you reward yourself in some way as you make progress toward that goal instead of waiting until you drop the whole 20 pounds. High-achievers are notoriously bad at rewarding themselves for a job well done. Even if it's just a pat on the back, positive reinforcement can serve as a great motivator to push you along until you reach where you want to be. 

5) Don't resolve to change what you can't control.

Another way to improve your chances for success is to make sure the tasks/goals you set for yourself are within your control. You may be able to control a lot of things, but ultimately you can't control what other people do. So instead of setting a resolution like "I'm going to get a raise before the end of the year," try framing the goal in terms of specific things you can do at work to increase your chances for getting a raise.

6. Share.

Although high-achievers tend to have a "do-it-yourself" mentality that makes them reluctant to share their wants/needs or to ask for help from others, when it comes to making long-term changes, not sharing can be short-sighted. Making your resolutions public is not only likely to increase your motivation to succeed, it also helps family and friends know what you're trying to accomplish so that they can provide support and encouragement along the way.

7. Reduce your fear by embracing the positive aspects of change.

It's easy to get side-tracked by "what-ifs." "What if I fail?" "What if I can't do this?" "What if I do this and don't like it." But living a life of "what-ifs" can be crippling. Not only that, it's not possible to live and not change. Change is constantly happening within us and around us. In fact, change is the foundation of life as we know it. It's what keeps us interested and invested in life. It improves our well-being and makes us more adaptable. Without change, we become stagnant. We don't grow personally or professionally. So why not embrace it?

Resolutions have the power to move our lives in new and more positive directions. The key is setting them up in a way that optimizes your chances for success.

© 2011 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved


Dr. Bourg Carter

is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (2011, Prometheus Books).

About the Author

Sherrie Bourg Carter Psy.D.

Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., psychologist and author of "High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout," specializes in the area of women and stress.

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