Why You Should Stop Making New Year's Resolutions

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Like most self-help authors and coaches, I love asking people what their New Year’s Resolutions are. Weeks ago I started asking some of my clients what their plans are in 2017.

Some had a very detailed an elaborate plan; while others hadn’t even thought about it yet. But regardless of what their plans are, I always like to ask “When are you going to start?”. But I know better.

By encouraging my friends, family and clients to make New Year’s Resolutions, I’m failing to recognize that people don’t just make resolutions and then leap into action the next day.

As much as I wish this was possible research shows that it probably isn’t. Fortunately, I have better equipped myself this time to help my clients make more attainable goals by referencing behavior change researchers James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente; who have written extensively about how people actually do change. According to Prochaska and DiClemente, people change in four stages. They essentially go from not even considering making a change, to contemplating making one, to preparing to make the change…and THEN (and only then) do they spring into action; which again doesn’t always result in an adherable change. The actual behavior change (like starting to exercise,

or going on a diet) is not the first stage of change, but actually the fourth. To put it simply, in order to be successful with a New Year’s Resolution, you need to be in that fourth stage of change. What stage are you in?

1 | You sort of want to make a change but don’t really think you need to

Or maybe you don’t really want to make the change, but someone else is pressuring you to make a New Year’s Resolution. Maybe your doctor has mentioned that you need to lose weight or perhaps your wife wants you to spend more time with away from work. You can see their point, and you aren’t entirely opposed to the idea, but just reading this you can feel your resistance rising.

You probably know this, but at this stage you aren’t ready to make a New Year’s Resolution. If you do make one at this stage, you’re highly susceptible to regression and in most cases failure. You’re in the first stage of change, which is called “Pre-contemplation.” According to Prochaska people get stuck in this stage and here are three reasons why; perhaps you can recognize one of these reasons in yourself:

1. You don’t know how to make the change you’d like to make.
2. You’re feeling demoralized by previous attempts to make similar changes and don’t want to fail again.
3. You’re in denial — you tend to defend yourself or rationalize your behavior when others suggest you make a change.

If you are at this stage of change, instead of making a New Year’s Resolution this year you’ll do better (again, according to Prochaska’s research) to make a list of all the good reasons, or “pros,” to make the change. How will you benefit? How long can you make this list of “pros”? Just start contemplating these things for now.

2 | You’re thinking about making a change, but you’re worried about how that change will affect your life

Perhaps you’re considering starting an exercise regimen, and you are aware of the benefits. But you also are pretty sure that you don’t have enough time to be regular about it, you wake up with aches and pains and you don’t really feel comfortable enough to ask a professional for the help you know you need. Or maybe you’d like to cut back on your drinking, but you hate the idea of being made fun of at the party–you’re afraid people will think you’re uptight or being “too good” for them. And your doubts are what’s keeping you from getting started.

I, like many others, am in this stage with various aspects of my life. However, my struggle is not the fear of how this change will affect my life (directly) but the fear of how the change will affect those around me. But I digress, it is still something holding me back from making the changes that I know I have to make. By thinking about something (but not taking action) I feel like I actually am doing something about my situation (even though I’m not). And the reason that many get stuck in this stage is because it is safe. I don’t risk failing, given that I’m not actually doing anything to change.

If this is you, you’re in the second stage of change, “Contemplation”. Before you take action or commit to a resolution, you’ll need to deal with the things holding you back from making the change, aka the “cons. If you’re worried you don’t have enough time, think about all of the time you waste in a day. According to research, the average person “waste” 4 hours of productivity a day. This could be scrolling through Instagram, reading Facebook past, channel surfing and so forth. If you took even a fraction of this time you would have more than enough time to achieve anything you set out to. One of the biggest struggles people have with this, for example, is convincing yourself that you actually have the time. Can you find five minutes in the morning?

How can you convince yourself that this will be worth it? Sometimes what helps you get through this stage is finding the benefits of making a change for others. How will your friends and family benefit from your change? How can you use these benefits to assuage your fear about how others will perceive your change? But keep in mind, any change you make to your life must come from you and unequivalently be for YOU.

3 | You truly intend to change, but you still have some reservations

You’re out of denial, in that you recognize that you really do need to change — or you’ve solved the problem of not knowing how to make a change (for example, by signing up to meet with a therapist or blocking time out in your schedule for you and your family). Your list of benefits is longer than your list of drawbacks (pros vs cons). The only thing you have to surmount now is fear of failure. This third stage of change is called “Preparation”.

The way to move from here into action is to take an honest look at how the change you are preparing for can truly make your life better. How do you think and feel about yourself as you are right now, if you never change the behavior in question? Maybe you are often stressed, and you’re seriously thinking about getting in an exercise habit to combat this. Without more physical activity, you think of yourself as sedentary and out of shape, and you feel stressed and anxious. Now, imagine yourself having made the change you are looking for. How will you think of yourself differently? Most importantly, how will you feel?

Sometimes, on New Year’s Eve — or in life — we feel pressured to commit to changes we just aren’t ready to make. If you aren’t ready to spring into action, there’s no harm in that. Please realize that you have more options than either making a resolution (and probably failing, if you aren’t in the fourth stage of change) or doing nothing at all. All you need to do to grow is to move from one stage of change to the next!