Rebooting Your Resolve: How To Get Back on Track Now That Your New Year’s Resolutions Are A Distant Memory

This year was going to be different, wasn’t it? You were going to hit the gym four days a week. You were going to prepare your own balanced, healthy lunch and dinner every day. You even bought an organizer to map out your life and keep all your big plans on track.

But that was last month. What happened to the new you?

If you’re anything like 80% of the people who make New Year’s Resolutions, according to U.S. News & World Report, you’ve abandoned your plans by February.

Don’t despair, though. While New Year’s might seem like the perfect time to start over, it’s really just another day. So if it seems like our resolutions are in ruins, remember this: everybody fails now and again, but the only real failure is accepting these minor setbacks as the final word. There’s nothing to stop us from picking ourselves up and trying again right now.

Failure is also a learning experience, though, so an important first step is to take an honest look at what went wrong. Ask yourself: What is my ultimate goal with this resolution? Is it even attainable? Have I chosen the best method to go about reaching it? And then modify your plans accordingly.

For example, maybe your goal was to lose 30 pounds in three months, and you put yourself on a strict low carb, low calorie diet to reach it. That lasted for a week until the carb deprivation drove you to blindly eat an entire package of cookies in one sitting, and then in despair you gave up your dreams. If that is the case, you might consider instead setting a goal of simply living a healthier lifestyle for six months. Instead of starving and torturing yourself, put your effort into learning. Teach yourself to prepare foods that are both enjoyable and good for you. Bump up your activity level just a little bit. You might be surprised to find that after a few months of this, you’re well on your way to your original weight loss goal, and you haven’t suffered to reach it.

To Willpower …

Still, resolutions are tough. Change isn’t easy. Self-control can feel like a superpower — because we don’t have it.

That story from U.S. News & World Report that we linked to above breaks down the traditional line on discipline, outlining a step-by-step plan for developing it, with the bottom line of “don’t bail!” Basically, in order to develop discipline, we need to have … discipline?

Nobody said it would be easy. Here are the five steps they give to “train your brain” to get ready for real resolutions:

  1. Think small. Don’t start with big resolutions; make them little things that you know you can accomplish.
  2. Build self-trust. Accomplishing those small goals reminds yourself that you can do the things you set your mind to.
  3. Invent challenges. Continue to train your brain with daily tasks to build up these “trust muscles.”
  4. Cultivate optimism. Pessimism is a choice; don’t choose it.
  5. Develop critical awareness. Know yourself and avoid self-sabotage.

Or Not to Willpower?

You might look at that list with skepticism, and you might be right. David DeSteno, professor of psychology at Northeastern University, recently wrote in the New York Times of the cottage industry of books about self-control that have sprung up over the past 30 years, and of how despite all this effort, nothing has changed.

DeSteno argues that the focus on willpower and self-control as a means of success is misguided, and that there’s a better way: social emotions. The article is worth a read.

Willpower, he says, doesn’t come naturally to us because, from an evolutionary perspective, it didn’t really matter to our ancestors whether they stayed up late studying for exams, saved money for retirement, or made it to the gym each day. These are modern priorities, and forcing the kind of self-control required to achieve them can cause us real mental and physiological stress.

What defined success in the past had more to do with the social bonds we created — the relationships that encouraged people to “cooperate and support one another, which helped ensure that their sacrifices would be returned time and again when required in the future.”

And what does that have to do with New Year’s Resolutions? Well, according to DeSteno, the gratitude and compassion we feel when involved in reciprocal social activities has been tied to all of the following: better academic performance; greater willingness to exercise and eat healthily; and lower levels of consumerism, impulsivity, and tobacco and alcohol use.

It’s like a greatest hits wish list of self-improvement, and you don’t even have to try.

It’s an interesting idea to think about. Trying to use “social emotions” maybe isn’t practical for every New Year’s Resolution on our list. It probably won’t swell our bank accounts, for example. But it might help us reframe our idea of what a resolution should be.

And when it comes to personal health, it’s hard to beat the support you can get from being part of a like-minded group who goes all in on it together — whether it’s your family, a local cooking club, or a regular yoga class at the gym.

So, whether it’s January, February, March, April, or any other month of the year, it’s time. Pick yourself up from the floor, dust off those resolutions, and take your next best step, whatever it might be. Be grateful for the chance to start again, and celebrate every small success.