Photo: The Temptation of St Anthony by RyanDianna
This time last year I posted my new year’s resolutions on this blog. I also promised to write about ‘Why New Year’s Resolutions Fail’. I’m pleased to say I kept all my resolutions – my next post will tell you how I did it, and how you can keep yours. I’m afraid I didn’t get round to the post about why resolutions fail – so here it is.
The following three pitfalls have been highlighted for me over and over again while coaching clients to keep their resolutions – and I can assure you I’ve made the same mistakes myself many times.
1. You focus on what you ‘should’ do, not on what you want
This is an easy trap to fall into. After all, there are plenty of things we probably ‘should’ do that don’t seem a lot of fun, especially at this time of year. For example:
‘I should really lose some weight’
‘I need to get fit this year’
‘I ought to give up smoking’
‘I have to do my tax return’
Have a read of that list again – how does it make you feel? Personally it gives me a feeling of mild disgust and aversion. The words ‘losing’, ‘giving up’, ‘weight’, ‘bad habits’, and ‘tax returns’ conjure up a succession of mental images that make me feel slightly depressed if I focus on them.
This is the problem with the ‘should’ mindset. Logically, those are all sensible things to do – but instead of motivating you to get going, they have the opposite effect. This is partly because they are all ‘problem focused’ statements. It’s a classic case of ‘don’t think of a pink elephant’ – your brain can’t process these statements without making you think about what you don’t want. And nobody likes thinking about what they don’t want – our natural tendency is to put it to the back of our mind and forget all about it.
Another problem with these statements is the use of the words ‘should’, ‘need’, ‘ought’, and ‘have to’. This kind of language dissociates you from your real reasons for wanting to do these things. It’s as if there were some kind of objective standard that you really ‘should’ measure up to, or – even worse – as if someone else were telling you what to do. I don’t know about you, but I can’t stand being told what to do – if someone offers me well-meaning advice my knee-jerk reaction is to want to do the opposite.
2. You rely on willpower
Hand in hand with ‘should’ comes ‘willpower’. Smokers are particularly fond of this one. The idea is that if you exert enough of this magical force, you will somehow be able to overcome your real desires (‘cravings’, ‘temptations’ etc) and stop yourself doing what you desperately want to (smoking cigarettes, eating cream buns, mainlining heroin etc.).
Willpower is basically an extension of the weird prejudice against emotions in modern culture – acting on your feelings may be OK for children or Romantic poets, but when we grow up we’re expected to put away such childish things and become reasonable, rational adults. John has plenty to say about this. But I digress.
The big problem with willpower is that it’s hard work. You have to force yourself to stay on the straight and narrow, and avoid giving in to weakness. You have to be vigilant at all times. And it’s hard to escape the nagging thought that you might not have enough willpower to see this through. After all, you’re only human – sooner or later, your resolution cracks and you wake up the next morning full of remorse, berating yourself for not being strong enough to resist temptation.
Fortunately you don’t need to worry about willpower, as it doesn’t exist. As the great sage Homer Simpson says, it’s ‘imaginary – like elves, goblins and eskimos’.
3. You try to go it alone
Self-improvement is a lonely place. When you’re going through the pain, struggle, fear and worry associated with changing long-established habits, it can feel like you’re the only person in the world who has had to deal with the difficulties you’re facing.
To give an extreme example – about 10 years ago I was working as a psychotherapist in the NHS with people with addiction problems. One of the questions we used to ask drug users and heavy drinkers was ‘Are you prepared to make some new friends?’. Because if you are a recovering addict hanging around with your friends at a party, in the pub or on the park bench and you are the only one who isn’t drinking, smoking, snorting or injecting something, then you’re likely to feel a bit left out. And the longer you sit there watching everyone else having a good time, the stronger grows the temptation to give in and join the merry throng. On the other hand, if you start hanging around with people who share your enthusiasm for golf or skydiving or embroidery then it’s a lot easier to keep your attention (and hands) occupied with these activities – and the cravings have a tendency to fade into the background.
OK so that’s an extreme example, but if you’ve ever tried to give up smoking and sat there in the pub watching your mates light up, or if you’ve ever been on a diet watching your maddeningly thin friends tucking into a second helping of chocolate pudding, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Mark has plenty to say about this.
Trying to make changes on your own also gives your inner saboteur plenty of opportunities to derail your good intentions. Like at the end of a hard day, when you can’t help thinking that ‘no-one would ever know’ if you went home and flopped out on the sofa instead of going to the gym as you planned…
Edit January 2011: If you want some help keeping your New Year’s Resolution this year, check out my new coaching program The New Year’s Resolutionizer – available only until 31 January 2011.