By Grant H. Brenner
New Year's Resolutions are popular, even seductive, alleviating anxiety about long-unmet goals from a quick-fix mindset. Let's face it, though—we often make them with a wink and a nod, recognizing that traditionally they don't stick. Let's instead set ourselves up to pursue what we really need and desire.
Many people try to get motivated from a harsh and unforgiving place, essentially treating themselves as someone they expect—almost want—to fail. A "loser." Don't do that! Change it up!
Stemming from a self-critical mindset, typically internalized from how our parents and schools taught us to see ourselves, the assumption is that by being "strong," we can overcome resistance and make changes. If we fail at that, then we are "weak," possibly contemptible. If we succeed, we reinforce harsh internalized self-parenting, often driving ourselves to a state of chronic burnout to keep proving we are good enough—while deep down feeling like we aren't.
So, how can we move away from this vicious cycle, to one which is sustainable, resilient, and ultimately more rewarding and satisfying?
1. Cultivate a growth mindset.
While your primary goal may be, for example, to get in shape in the New Year, adopt lifelong learning as an overarching mindset. This means that whatever it is we're working toward, we are always on some level interested in our own developmental needs.
Drawing on the four parenting styles, practicing good self-parenting means being authoritative, rather than authoritarian, permissive indulgent, or permissive neglectful. Authoritative parenting involves three fundamentals: self-compassion, warmth, and kindness toward oneself; setting clear guidelines and expectations for our own behavior; and avoiding self-gaslighting or over-analyzing our own decisions. Self-reflection is essential, but spinning into excessive self-doubt or obsession leads to stuckness.
2. Plan across different time scales.
Think about what you want in the short-, middle-, and long-term—realize that it is an ecosystem where different planning scales are ideally synergistic. Set long-term goals, though not too many at once, and prioritize which are most important. Many of these are "stretch" goals, or aspirational; some are wishes. Avoid all-or-nothing goals which are a setup for failure. Instead, aim to gradually develop new habits which will be more durable.
For example, I may want to be "totally ripped" by April, and that's a nice fantasy—but more realistic fitness goals, knowing myself, are attainable within that time frame. It's important to use good judgment and kindness when defining long-term goals to be pragmatic and optimistic. That super-fit version of myself may take a lot more time and investment than I have right now, versus getting in better shape in the mid-range and re-assessing once I've gotten there.
With a longer-term frame in mind, define the initial set-up required and work out the logistics for the first three or four steps. This is a moving frame, meaning that as you accomplish or revise these steps, you lay out the next few steps as they come up. This not only works like a ladder, where we get to the top rung-by-rung, but it also builds muscle memory for how to get where we want to go in other areas.
Middle-term goals are important for several reasons—one of the big ones is that the motivation to start is not the same as the motivation to sustain. When the initial momentum wears off, what will keep us on track and engaged?
Have a plan for recovering if you slip—everyone has off days and persisting through them is key.
3. Cultivate a problem-solving mindset.
This goes hand-in-hand with the growth mindset. When unanticipated things come up—and they will—first, catch your breath. Rather than going into a tailspin, take time to re-align your primary goals. Get centered and take disappointment as an opportunity to learn for the next time while honoring and accepting difficult feelings with compassion to move forward—"diving under the wave" rather than getting knocked down over and over.
Being aware of negative feelings and learning to regulate them, in particular, is critical to keep procrastination from undermining plans. Research shows that people who push through procrastination when they have negative feelings about a task recognize how they are feeling and are able to set those feelings aside enough to say "yes" to the job at hand, and "no" to the all-too-appealing distraction, whether it's a productive one (cleaning the apartment instead of preparing that report) or purely diversion (binging on that awesome new show). And not only that, but mindfulness practice has been shown to reduce procrastination by helping with emotion regulation.
4. Accountability rules!
Use tools to create gentle-yet-firm accountability, again coming from a supportive, wise self-parenting position rather than harshness and self-rejection. Tools can be solo, like a daily diary, routines, or other rituals that support gradual but consistent change, or social, accountability partners like friends, coworkers, family members, or groups with similar goals. They work together.
Establish with accountability partners the expectation for support and encouragement, clear guidelines and expectations, and avoid excessive analysis or "getting in each others' head" when learning from missteps. Keeping it encouraging and supportive means that success is rewarded in the short run, and over time working toward positive change becomes something to look forward to, grounded in healthy relationships.
5. Avoid the willpower trap. Create a context for success.
We often wait until the 11th hour, setting ourselves up for failure by imagining that the way to achieve goals is via willpower and then confirming deep-seated beliefs we are weak or inadequate. This undermines self-efficacy, yet belief in self-efficacy is a core motivator, correlated with life satisfaction. If we can't get out of the willpower trap, it may be time to take a step back and re-assess how we are approaching change.
From a place of self-compassion, willpower has a role but is not the centerpiece. Instead, using the problem-solving mindset, set things up so less willpower is needed, making accomplishment a lighter lift. For example, scheduling time every day for meditation, rather than leaving it as an afterthought to fit in and getting frustrated; saving special culinary treats for special occasions rather than keeping them in the pantry for emergency soothing; and having a friend you can call when you need support, encouragement or even a candid course-correct.
The Role of Self-Compassion in Long-Term Planning
Practices like mindfulness meditation or other types of meditation that increase self-compassion (such as "Mindful Self Compassion") are a gradual game-changer, sometimes starting with sudden recognition followed by consistent attention. They don't work overnight, and there's more to the story than only cultivating compassion.
However, there is a snowball effect where slow-and-steady-wins-the-race—over time catalyzing a paradigm shift in how we see ourselves from unworthy to lovable, as the balance of warm and engaging experiences starts to build up and harsher experiences become more the exception than the rule. Self-love becomes a salubrious habit, one we can't live without, while working from self-abnegation becomes harder and harder to imagine.
Do Conscious Thoughts Cause Behavior? Roy F. Baumeister, E. J. Masicampo, and Kathleen D. Vohs, Annual Review of Psychology 2011 62:1, 331-361
Burnette, J. L., Billingsley, J., Banks, G. C., Knouse, L. E., Hoyt, C. L., Pollack, J. M., & Simon, S. (2022). A systematic review and meta-analysis of growth mindset interventions: For whom, how, and why might such interventions work? Psychological Bulletin. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000368
Alissa C. Bell, Thomas J. D'Zurilla, Problem-solving therapy for depression: A meta-analysis, Clinical Psychology Review, Volume 29, Issue 4, 2009, Pages 348-353, ISSN 0272-7358, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2009.02.003.
Hassan Soleimani Rad, Soheila Samadi, Fuschia M. Sirois, Hanieh Goodarzi, Mindfulness intervention for academic procrastination: A randomized control trial, Learning and Individual Differences, Volume 101, 2023, 102244, ISSN 1041-6080, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lindif.2022.102244.
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