Open Space Counselling in Vancouver's Logo
Heart lights with text that says Happy New Year

We’re at a point in time in which it seems that self-transformation is practically a religion. Do we even need to make New Year’s Resolutions?

I’ll be honest: I think they need a rebrand. Resolving is just a setup for disappointment and abandonment (and endless rationalising about the abandonment). New Year’s Intentions? New Year’s Reset? But the moniker notwithstanding, I’m all for doing a bit of an audit of what’s working and not working for ourselves (anytime of the year!).

Why do New Year’s Resolutions often fail?

I’ll get to my problem with the word failure later on. But for now, I’ll acknowledge: when it comes to follow through, the statistics are grim! According to research, while nearly half of us make New Year’s resolutions, a meagre 8% of us attain these goals by the end of the year (this desolate percentage even spawned a defiant hashtag:  #MakeItStick).

I get it. Sometimes, change is inconvenient (reducing our carbon footprint seems like a great idea, until we have to bike in the rain). Sometimes it’s unpleasant (trying to break up with your iPhone is better in theory than in practice). Other times, one simple resolution opens an exponential can of worms, and we realise that changing one thing actually means changing a cluster of things. Case in point: in 2012, TIME magazine released a list of the Top 10 Most Commonly Broken New Year’s Resolutions. The one that raises my eyebrow upon perusing this list is “Be Less Stressed.” Beyond losing major points for sheer vagueness, I immediately understand why this resolution fails to produce results for people. Stress is not a singular behaviour – it is a byproduct of a multitude of factors: temperament, circumstance, coping skills, boundary setting, core beliefs, expectations of self, expectations of others, habits. It’s not that it isn’t possible to be less stressed, it’s more that such a blanket goal actually is tantamount to at least a dozen resolutions in one.

But far be it from me, or any other therapist, to decry self-improvement. Turfing self-destructive habits, improving how we relate to others, making more authentic choices…such lofty topics are part of our daily parlance. We know how difficult the work of change is, and how even the most broken down goals can prove difficult to enact. For that reason, I’ve been thinking about how we can set ourselves up for success, rather than discouragement when setting New Year’s Resolutions (or intentions, reset, etc).

Start with values.

Knowing your “why” is critical for motivation.

Make a list of all your values, and identify which ones are critical to your satisfaction and well being (and why!). Values are not the same as goals; they are priorities that remind us of how we want to live.If you’re not sure, try taking an online values assessment to get you started. Once you have identified your most important values, ask yourself if these are reflected in how you are actually living your life. For example, if you identify “Fun” as an important value, try to whittle down what fun actually means for you (and realistically looks like, because pandemic). Think less about content and more about process. For me, fun means laughing a lot, feeling more alive,  and not being so in my head. When do I laugh the most? With two of my best friends. When do I feel the most alive? When I’m outdoors, in nature, moving at a fast clip. When am I not in my head? Well, hardly ever, but I definitely overthink less when I’m getting enough exercise. And from there, I can do a bit of an audit of how often I am actually seeing the people that make me laugh, breaking a sweat, and hauling my butt out to the mountains.

Slice your goals thinly. Then slice them even thinner.

One resolution I was talking to someone about recently was “spend less time on my phone.” . It’s a good goal, but it is also broad and aimless. When we whittled this one down, we arrived at the conclusion that the majority of time she was on her phone was spent on Instagram. So then we arrived at “spend less time on Instagram.” But this too seemed insufficient, and besides, Instagram was necessary for career networking in this case. More shaving down, and we arrived at more specific parameters: post and respond to posts at liberty when alone or on transit rather than in the company of others. No posting or checking during family time from 5-8pm. Remove chimes that alert new activity; they are too intrusive. All the makings of a great goal: a roadmap for behaviour that is based on pragmatics, values and relevance.

Expect setbacks, and look at them as opportunities to learn.

Relapsing back to old ways of behaving is an opportunity masquerading as failure. Rather than judging yourself for your slips or wondering if you even have it in you to bother, be curious (and kind!) when exploring what threw you off course this time. We do some important fine tuning by examining the context of our lapses, and we can then better prepare ourselves for future challenges.

You may know my favourite term: flailing ≠ failing. It definitely applies here.

Consider doing “experiments” rather than resolutions.

I love short-term experiments. They allow us to try out a new behaviour without being intimidated by the inherent commitment. Seeing as though it takes 21 days to form or break a habit (so they say) I’ve always liked the round number of thirty days to try out new behaviours or break patterns. After a month, you can decide where to go with the stated goal. You’ll likely have learnt by that point whether it’s a change worth sticking with, and if you’re interested in making this a more permanent change, how you can reasonably go about it.

The upshot:

Inspiration is the easy part. Following through is much more difficult. In addition to wanting things to be better, we also need to buy into the belief that we have what it takes to follow through, and to accept the discouraging feelings that go along with inevitable setbacks. Most importantly, guilt and shame are the enemy of transformation. We need to redirect our judgment of ourselves into patience, encouragement, and a reminder of our “why.”.  It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that New Year’s resolutions are usually relevant and self-affirming, and worth the moments of frustration and tedium that it takes to get there. Do you want to do a deeper dive into your values and look at specific ways to experience transformation? Reach out to us  – we’d love to help you in this process.

About the Author

Elana Sures is the owner of Open Space Counselling. She has a Masters degree in Counselling Psychology from UBC (2005) and is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and an Accredited Clinical Supervisor with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. Elana is a go-to expert on the psychological experiences of female high achievers.