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Why you should stop setting New Year's resolutions and set intentions instead (2023)

The Promise

We can't help it. Every year as the dawn of a New Year approaches, we make promises to ourselves.

"This is the year I lose the weight". "This is the year I go back to school". "This is the year I leave my job". "This is the year that I get my house in order". We create such lofty goals for ourselves because we want better for ourselves. There is a part of ourselves that knows that things aren’t working or that we’re not happy and we commit to doing something about it. We get all the journals, we announce to our friends and loved ones to keep us accountable, we look ourselves in the mirror and say “This time is different! I promise!” And we often start off good, reading all of the ways to improve ourselves.

Let's face it. These past few years have been a challenge and the promise of a new year with new dreams and hopes seems really appealing. However, without looking at the internal workings of your mind, your beliefs, and your values, you may be setting yourself up for another pattern of goals set and disappointment. Let's try and shift our attention.

Sometimes we create SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timely), sometimes we just wing it believing in willpower and the power of our minds to just “do it”. And yet study after study shows that setting resolutions don’t work. Studies approximate that between 8% and 9% of people actually achieve their goals. It is unclear how many sustain their goals once they have achieved them, but we are clearly struggling with this concept.

With such dismal statistics, many people have given up setting resolutions they know will fail year after year. So many people stop setting them, but so many continue, with the hope and optimism that one day they will achieve their goal. I think that it is our nature to set goals and want to better ourselves because we know that there is more out there and we are capable of having and doing more than what we currently have. So I support people setting goals.

As a therapist, goals are important to establish in order to help clients feel better and deal with issues that are not serving them or are making them unhappy. Many come to therapy to feel better and can acknowledge their suffering, but oftentimes they attribute their unhappiness from significant things like bad relationships, childhood traumas, anxiety and grief to every day issues like weight gain, job dissatisfaction, poor self-esteem.

One of the first activities I do with clients when trying to establish goals to ask them why they want to work on their identified goal. Based on their answer, I ask them to visualize a future wherein the problem was solved or their goal was achieved. Often, people have a hard time with this exercise. People are often so caught up in the problem that they never bother to think about what life will look like if the problem stops.

Immediate responses are often, “Well I’d be happier”, to which I push “how will losing weight, addressing trauma, leaving your job, etc. make you happier?” “What is your definition of happiness?” This becomes our starting point and I encourage you to start off by asking yourself why you are setting this goal? Is it internally based (i.e. I’m tired of being unappreciated and unhappy) or is it externally based (i.e. people will like me, people will notice me)? Often, I find that people set New Year’s resolutions with an external focus, rather than an internal one.

While the external focus is valid, it is much easier to give up the external focus when things get difficult. Secondly, ask yourself how will your life improve/ what will life look like if you achieve the goal. Because many people don’t ask themselves this question, they cannot sustain their motivation.

In addition to this, people depend on motivation and willpower to achieve something when this is the wrong focus and difficult to sustain. Thirdly, I explore with a client the potential consequences of achieving their goal. Clients express being puzzled by this question. Immediate responses are “What are you talking about, there is no downside to achieving my goal”.

Allow yourself to really explore this. There is always a consequence to change. Whether it be having to buy new clothes, start a new job where you don’t know anyone, you may actually have to stop being angry and resentful, you can no longer hide, you may actually have to stand up for yourself, you may actually have embrace success. Ultimately, setting goals is about changing your identity and you have to be prepared for that. And oftentimes we aren’t because it becomes overwhelming.

I find that setting intentions and working at those intentions is the better way to truly get what you want, because what you want is true happiness, not a new job, more money, more confidence, less anger. Let’s explore how to actually implement change as it relates to a common goal like weight loss.

Things to Consider

1. Explore WHY it is you want the change. “I want to be around for my children and able to keep up with them” (internal) vs. “I want to be skinny and fit into my jeans by the time I go on vacation” (external). Neither are wrong, but they need greater exploration.

2. What would life look like if you achieved your goals. “I would be able to take my kids to the park and play with them” vs. “I will look hot on vacation”.

3. What are the potential consequences to getting what I want? Note that this exploration should take you some time. Really ask yourself what can be the unintended consequences and write down all of the possibilities.

“What if I find that I don’t like playing with my kids, what if I’m no good at parenting?” “What if my kids still don’t want to do things with me?” vs. “Am I going to have to give up McDonald’s? Can I afford a new wardrobe? What if no one notices me in my skinny jeans?

What if EVERYBODY notices me? What if my friends and family get upset because I’m no longer the heavy one?”

4. Acknowledge the potential discomfort and explore your readiness to become a different person. “I’m scared that I won’t be a good parent even when I am able to run around with them, and also I’m kind of scare about being a good parent.

I may be a better parent than my parents were to me and that’s scary”. Vs. “I may upset people with my weight loss and I’m sort of uncomfortable with all the attention because I’ve never had it before.

I’m scared that people may only like me because I’m skinny and not because I’m a good person”.

5. Make the intention setting focused on internal change. “I am committed to being a good parent vs. “I am committed to this journey because I really want people to see me”.

6. Set your intention. “I am a great mother to my children” vs. I am someone who stands out”

7. Once you set your intention, your job is to do something on a daily basis to make that statement true. By setting your intention, you expand what it means to be and have the things you want.

You should take the time to define what your intentions mean and be creative. Being an exceptional mother can mean so many things beyond running around after them. Perhaps it is cooking for them healthy meals, helping them with homework, reading to them, not yelling, exercising with and without them.

Standing out can mean holding the door for someone, raising your hand at the next meeting, offering someone a compliment.

8. Identify what you can do on a daily basis to make that intention that you set true. I am a huge proponent of habits, establishing them, setting aside time for them and working on them. Habits to me are defined by a set of actions, which completed with regularity and consistency lead to an overall, improved life.

We all engage in habits both good and bad (i.e. brushing our teeth vs. always eating a big tub of popcorn mindlessly when going to the movies). There are several books on habits, willpower and motivation out there, so find one, read it and implement. What most of these books will argue is that motivation and willpower are a myth and instead it is micro habits that ultimately lead to long term success.

Motivation is what shows up on January 1st, but what keeps you working on your goals come March 1st are habits. I believe in showing up every day, for 15 minutes doing something. Have a to do list, set a timer, go for it and STOP when your 15 minutes are done. Seriously.

Oh, and get a habit tracker to see how well you are doing with being consistent. As an aside to all of this habit forming, I want to call out all of the fantasizing and procrastinating that tends to happen before we start something new.

We often procrastinate doing the thing because we think it has to be perfect. “Before I start my exercise journey, I NEED to get cute outfits.” “Before I start the diet, I NEED to get cute glass containers”. “Before I start cleaning my house, I NEED to get organic cleaning supplies and bins”. “Before I start writing my book, I NEED to set up an office and buy that cute Ikea desk”.

STOP IT! These are excuses. That cute outfit is not going to get outside and run for you. Those glass containers are not going to cut up your veggies and magically have them show up in your skillet. Those cleaning supplies and bins aren’t going to magically clean your floors and get rid of the socks with holes in them. That desk isn’t going to write the chapter of your book.

Spoiler alert, YOU are the one making these things happen, so it’s up to you to show up for yourself and your goals. These are ways that your brain is trying to trick you from doing something it may perceive as scary. Having resources and items are cool and would be nice, but they are not necessary.

I often find that people who have all of these great plans and get all of these cute things, are really just creating more work for themselves. More laundry, more dishes, more clutter, more stuff. You can succeed with your lap for a desk, an oversized t-shirt to work out in, a plastic container for your veggies. As you begin to truly embrace this new identity, you may decide to splurge and get all the nice things, but do not use the excuse that not having something is keeping you from being successful.

You, your fears and your worries are the things that are holding you back. If you just commit to something every day, in time, you will see the change.

9. At night reflect back to yourself. What did you do today to make “I am a great mother” true. Did you cook them a meal? Did you get off your phone and read them a book? Did you talk to them about their school day or do a load of laundry containing their favorite sweater?

The beautiful thing about this is if you did NOTHING today to make that statement true, you have the next day to make that statement true. When you look back at the end of the year, hopefully you will have memories and moments (than non-memories and unhappy moments) to support that intention.

10. Finally, give yourself some positive self-talk. We are all trying our best and in our quest for perfection we are creating needless suffering.

In conclusion

We all want to be better, but just allowing yourself the opportunity to do something better should be commended. While we don’t want to be endlessly complimenting ourselves, we should acknowledge the good things that we are doing to make a better life for ourselves and our loved ones.

As a therapist, I am always a proponent of engaging in therapy to sort these issues out in a much more in-depth fashion. This list only scratches the surface of what you are capable time so take the time to invest in yourself and your well-being.

My name is Eddie and I am a mindfulness-based therapist in Bordentown, NJ who specializes in trauma, anxiety and Mom stress. I provide online counseling throughout the state of NJ and specifically in Mercer and Burlington County, NJ (Bordentown, Chesterfield, Robbinsville, Hamilton and Princeton).

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