William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar was warned to beware the Ides of March. The rest of us should probably shift that caution back by a month or two.
January and February can be dark times. A number of articles cite these as the most depressing months of the year. One reason for all this gloom? It’s around this time that many realize they aren’t living up to their New Year’s resolutions. We slip up on our diets and ambitious exercise routines. We make our first goofs on the new budgets we’ve set for ourselves. How can that be the number on the scale???
Sure, there can be reason to be a little disappointed as we get moving into the new year, but there’s also a lot we can learn from these early fails at our resolutions.
One reason we may fail to meet somewhat arbitrarily chosen New Year’s-style goals is because we don’t know ourselves or our motivations as well as we might think. For example, researchers at Michigan State found that in addition to motivation and ability, subjects pursuing a goal did much better when they had a higher sense of “self-efficacy,” meaning confidence in their ability to execute a goal, and that this was in turn tied to an orientation toward “learning” rather than “outcomes.” In other words, when we have some confidence in an area and are genuinely interested in pursuing more knowledge in this arena, we do better than when we shoot for an arbitrary outcome. Think of the difference between goals phrased as: “Lose 10 pounds” and “Expand my enjoyment of cooking by learning 10 meatless recipes.” In the second case, the resolution draws on a sense of self and ability and connects it to potential for growth, rather than another generic resolution that’s neither inspiring nor particularly meaningful to a sense of self.
Consider the following self-reflective questions:
1. Is your “failed” resolution actually someone else’s?
Often, we look to external expectations to form our definitions of success, be that social standards of attractiveness, financial targets or glamorous vacations taken by distant friends on social media. The external pressures may give us a feeling about what we should be trying to achieve with New Year’s resolutions or other goals we set for ourselves. However, if we don’t truly care about these measures of achievement, this disconnect may be the reason why we don’t stick to diets or start that side hustle, whatever the case may be. For example, while the goal of starting a side business to make extra income may well be a noble ambition, if your heart actually desires spending your time more creatively, this may be why there’s a misfire in moving your new business plan forward each week. Maybe your vision of success looks more like having the time wealth to pursue your creative work rather than the wealth affiliated with a certain number in the bank. Chances are, you’d be more successful sticking to a resolution that’s truer to your desires.
2. Does your resolution make you feel good about yourself?
While some goals fail because they are too big—pay off my mortgage in one year!—others may fail because they don’t inspire us with ideas about our better selves. Theories of goal setting suggest that we find resolutions motivating because they suggest a higher version of ourselves to be achieved. In contrast, goals that are too easy don’t tap into this aspirational energy. If one of your resolutions leaves you feeling a bit “meh,” perhaps it needs a tune-up. Saving a certain amount each week by skipping Friday lunch out isn’t, after all, the stuff of which legends are made. But maybe surprising a loved one with a special trip for two with money you’ve made from savings or extra work would make you feel like a romantic vacation hero.
3. Does your “failed” resolution need a revision?
Maybe the disconnect between your stated, “failed” resolution and your true definition isn’t quite so broad. Perhaps you do indeed want to be more “healthy,” a nebulous goal if ever there were one. But you’ve made a resolution to be on a strict diet. What if, instead, your definition of health has more to do with bodily movement and you’d do better re-orienting your goal around an ambitious exercise target that taps into a sense of accomplishment—running a race in a certain time, preparing for a special hiking vacation, taking a special yoga workshop and building the muscles necessary for a press-up handstand—rather than triggering fears of deprivation? It may well be that your definition of success when it comes to health has more to do with what your body can achieve than a particular number on a scale.
Rather than beating ourselves up in these early days of the year, we’d do better to brew a pot of tea, grab a notebook, and see what we can learn. Building self-knowledge out of our so-called failures is kinder and a lot more fun than simply throwing in the towel on those New Year’s goals.