Why You've Had Trouble Accomplishing New Year's Resolutions
Most New Year's resolutions fail. Here's how to overcome those barriers.
Posted Jan 07, 2013
This year, you swear, is going to be different: you're finally going to lose that weight, finish that degree, get that new job, or clean out the garage. And yet, the ghosts of Unmet Resolutions Past haunt you.
Most New Year's resolutions fail. As a productivity specialist, I suspect that that's due to a combination of perfectionism, ambivalence, and underinvestment. Here's how to overcome those barriers so you'll have a different story to tell in 2013.
Perfectionism is not, as many people believe, “having high standards.” It's, (a) setting unachievable standards, and (b) punishing yourself harshly for failing to meet them. “If I don't lose twenty pounds, I'll be ugly and fat,” is a perfectionist statement, as is, “If I don't finish my degree this year, it will just be because I'm lazy.”
Losing weight and completing a degree are tough challenges, but perfectionists tend to make them even tougher by not changing their habits and context to support success. So, the would-be dieter thinks she can lose weight while still preparing all her family's high-calorie meals, and the person seeking the degree thinks he can get it while still working fifty-hour weeks. Those happen to be examples of grandiosity, a key perfectionist trait in which you think things that are difficult for others should be easy for you. Other perfectionist characteristics include dichotomization (black-or-white thinking, so that your projects are either a “total success” or “total failure,” with no middle ground); rigidity (so you try the same ineffective solutions over and over); overfocusing on outcomes instead of process; overfocusing on external rewards instead of internal ones; and overidentifying with your work (so that perceived failures become a source of deep shame).
The two main problems with perfectionism are: (1) it sets unattainable goals, and (2) it creates a sabotaging fear of failure. People typically react to fear by trying to escape the thing that is scaring them; and the method that people use to escape from their perfectionist resolutions is procrastination, so the resolution never gets accomplished.
The opposite of perfectionism is a mindset I call “compassionate objectivity,” a realistic, grounded, flexible attitude that focuses on process and internal rewards. Nonperfectionists may set high goals, but they create reasonable plans for achieving those goals, and they also change their context to support success. (The dieter may get others to do the cooking; the degree-seeker may reduce his work hours.) Nonperfectionists also focus on recognizing and building on their successes rather than on perpetually bashing themselves for their perceived failures.
To overcome perfectionism, you need to understand its role in your life and thinking. So journal about your perfectionism, and maybe discuss it with a therapist, coach, or other professional. Then, practice compassionate objectivity in all areas of your life, and you'll become a calmer, happier, more successful person. (Click here for more tips on how to overcome perfectionism.)
Next we come to ambivalence, the condition of having two or more goals in conflict. Even a tiny bit of it can sabotage your progress, and so it is probably your biggest barrier to success next to perfectionism itself. If a part of you desperately wishes to lose weight, while another part thinks weight loss is a vain, trivial, or futile activity, you are in for a hard time. Ditto, if part of you believe you have no right to ask others to help you, or that you shouldn't invest much time or money in pursuit of your goal.
Beyond conflicts about the goal itself, you can also have conflicts about success. All successes involve change—often from a relatively simple and easy, but limiting, existence to a fuller and more satisfying, but also more complex and challenging, one. And change almost always involves loss. Someone seeking to lose weight, for instance, might have to give up a comfortably sedentary and passive lifestyle for one that is more active and intentional. At the very least, they'll have to commit to investing a lot more time, energy, and thought into their food and exercise.
Make no mistake: there is a sense of loss, and even of grief, in leaving behind comforting old habits and customs—even harmful ones. There's also often fear and anger and resentment at having to do so. I believe a reluctance to face these unpleasant emotions is, for many people, a huge hidden barrier to success.
To overcome ambivalence, you first need to know that it exists. Use journaling and introspection to uncover the whole range of your motivations and feelings around your goal. Since many people have been taught to subordinate their needs to others, journaling can also help you gain clarity on not just what your priorities are, but that you have a right to pursue them. You also have a right to look out after your own welfare, meet your own needs, and strive for your own happiness.
Always get the best mentors you can, since the best ones tend to know a lot more than the merely average ones, and also have great contacts. You may luck out and find a free top mentor, but if you have the opportunity to pay for great mentorship, perhaps in the form of a therapist, coach, or trainer, you should take it. Few investments will pay off as well. (Information on how to find and keep a mentor at this link.)
Beyond that, invest in classes, tools (especially, technology that can help you work faster and more effectively), and community. The emerging science of what author Tina Rosenberg calls “positive peer pressure” supports the idea that our success is based largely on our communities: surround yourself with ambitious, successful, nonperfectionist people with a positive attitude, and you'll likely flourish in 2013 and beyond.
Heal your perfectionism, resolve your ambivalences, and get some great mentorship and other support: these three steps could transform your 2013!
Hillary Rettig, guest blogger to "Geek Pride," is the author of The 7 Secrets of the Prolific: The Definitive Guide to Overcoming Procrastination, Perfectionism, and Writer's Block. She is currently writing How to Get Willpower for Weight Loss and Your Other Important Goals. Learn more about Hillary's work at www.hillaryrettig.com, and email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.