I'm sorry to break it to you but you're probably not going to follow through with those New Year resolutions you just set. It's not because of a lack of willpower, or a lack of motivation; it's because most resolutions are set up through a restrictive frame. They are all set with the intention of stopping or removing some behavior. Many of us set resolutions such as "lose 10 pounds," "stop drinking," "cut out sugar," "stop getting so angry." We find parts of ourselves that we don't like and vow to destroy them.
While it is noble to want to reduce harmful behaviors research shows that this is the wrong way to go about it. By setting restrictive resolutions we are deeming some part of ourselves as "bad" and are trying to destroy it. We are practicing self-aggression and self-punishment. And, let's be honest, we do enough of that in our daily lives as it is. While this can be effective for a short while, eventually we realize we are hurting ourselves and we'll default on our resolutions. The world can be punishing enough, so we let go of our self-inflicted punishments first when stress builds.
I see this a lot when working with clients pursuing sobriety. Many clients come at from a very aggressive standpoint "I hate myself when I'm drunk." "I get into fights when I'm fucked up and I keep screwing up my life." "When I'm high I don't do anything, I'm a waste of space." Again, while these kinds of statements can be effective to wake us up or start us on the path of change they are not sustainable. We can't keep hurting ourselves.
Additionally, many of the things we wish to give up are our main coping strategies. For many, drugs, alcohol, television or food are the primary way of coping with stress. We turn to these things to soothe us when things don't go our way or when we need to numb our experience. So resolutions often fail when the stressors of life mount back up.
Do you know what else is stressful?
The very act of restricting ourselves can create enough stress to fall back into the old patterns.
So how do we set resolutions that do not cause stress? How do we set ourselves up for success? Well, the trick is to set self-rewarding or enhancing resolutions. Focus on doing more of something that you love! If you want to go the extra mile you could choose something that contradicts the habit you'd like to remove. For example, if you wanted to stop smoking you could resolve to run more or to take up yoga, do things that require deep breathing. If you'd like to lose weight commit to learning how to cook nutritious recipes, explore your local hiking trails, or invite friends over for healthy potlucks.
By focusing on what we want more of we'll reduce the things that we don't want. We have a limited amount of time and energy after all. So I encourage you to reframe your resolutions to focus on the positives, focus on what you want more of instead of what you want to remove. It feels better to add things or our lives instead of taking things away. You'll be kinder to yourself and perhaps you might even get what you want.
Arno Fuhrmann , Julius Kuhl. (1998). Maintaining a healthy diet: Effects of personality and self-reward versus self-punishment on commitment to and enactment of self-chosen and assigned goals. Psychology & Health. Vol. 13, Iss. 4.
Kelly, C. W. (2011), Commitment to health: a predictor of dietary change. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 20: 2830–2836.