New Year’s resolutions are easy to make. They’re also hard to keep.
In fact, they present an excellent illustration of what we mean when we talk about “boom-bust cycles” on Design.org. In a nutshell, these cycles happen when you have a burst of inspiration and motivation (say…on January 1), followed eventually by a time of despair and discouragement (say…on January 31). Sound familiar?
Odds are, you’re probably familiar with the boom-bust cycle when it comes to New Year’s resolutions. After all, about 80% of resolutions fail, many before the month of January even comes to a close.
But no one sets a New Year’s resolution with the expectation that it will fail. We set them with the goal of creating lasting change. So what happens during those first weeks of the New Year that take us so quickly from boom to bust?
What causes a resolution boom-bust cycle
Any number of things can cause a boom-bust cycle, but here are some of the most common.
The timing of the boom
Look, if you’re not ready to make a lasting change in your life, then a lasting change isn’t going to happen. Designing a new life for yourself, and making significant change that lasts, takes perseverance.
When it comes to New Year’s resolutions, however, it’s easy to get caught up in the collective act of resolution-making the whole world seems to be participating in. Even if you typically refrain from making New Year’s resolutions, it’s hard to stay out of it entirely when everyone else has such a gung-ho spirit about the whole thing.
But if you’re not really ready on January 1 to make that lasting change, then chances are, your resolution will fail. The date may inspire you to make the change, but there is nothing magical about that date that will instill in you the dedication you need to keep the change in the following weeks.
Perfectionism is enticing…and dangerous. We would all love to live perfect lives and to be perfect people, but such perfection simply isn’t possible—period.
When it comes to resolutions, perfectionism is a killer. What happens when you resolve to exercise 5 days a week, the entire year…and then you get the flu and you’re out for a week? Or when you resolve to eat healthier, but then go out for your birthday and indulge in dessert?
For too many people, once they’ve broken that “perfect” streak, it’s too hard to get back on track. You feel weak, you feel discouraged, you feel like you’ve let yourself down, and you stop trying.
Perfectionism is the cause of many a resolution “bust.”
Negatively framed resolutions
When I tell you “Don’t think about an orange panda bear,” what do you do? You think about an orange panda bear.
So if your resolution is “Don’t eat junk food,” you’re putting junk food in the forefront of your mind. Too many people make resolutions to “stop” doing something, or to “not” do something, and really all they’re doing is keeping the thing they want to avoid front and center in their brain.
Another way to think about this is using another concept we talk about a lot here on Design.org: fear versus love. When you’re coming from a place of fear, you’re moving away from something you’re trying to avoid. Fear ends up breeding other negative emotions like guilt and anger. Love, on the other hand, moves you towards something you value and want. It brings you positive vibes, and fosters joy and satisfaction.
By setting our resolutions up in a negative framework, we’re setting ourselves up for a bust.
Last, but not least, we have to talk about impatience. Lasting change doesn’t happen overnight, but when we experience the “boom” that delivers a huge dose of inspiration—basically a vision of what life would be like if we make that change—it’s easy to want that change to happen right now. And when it doesn’t? Well, sometimes it’s easier to just give up.
Impatience can take you from boom to bust, pretty quickly.
How to keep your resolution going
We mentioned just a few things that commonly cause a “bust” in your resolutions; there are certainly more of them. But even those few things are likely things that we are all familiar with and guilty of.
With so many things working against us, how do you break the boom-bust cycle to create lasting change? How do you keep your resolutions going when the going gets tough?
Here are some things to try.
Don’t beat yourself up.
Remember: perfectionism is the enemy. Thinking that your resolution is only worth sticking to if you can stick to it perfectly is going to lead you straight to a bust.
If you want to create lasting change, you have to forgive yourself when (not if) you mess up. When you miss a day at the gym (or three), when you indulge in a slice of cake, or when you splurge when you could have saved, just breathe, accept it, forgive yourself, and let it go.
Insisting on perfection is going to hold you back from real progress. Accept that you will mess up, and decide that you’ll keep going anyway. It’s the only way you’re going to make your resolution last.
Revise resolutions as needed.
What if I told you that the resolution you make on January 1 doesn’t have to be the same one you’re trying to reach on February 1? (Did your mind just explode?)
Sometimes, it becomes glaringly apparent that you’ve set the wrong resolution for yourself. Let’s say you set this resolution: stop eating junk food. Well, as we discussed above, this negative framework isn’t going to do you any favors. For that matter, neither is the vague nature of this resolution. (What constitutes junk food? Do you have to stop completely? Can you “drink” junk food?)
Maybe somewhere along the line, you realize that this resolution isn’t really working for you, for whatever reason. At this point, you can either (a) give up on it, or (b) revise it so that it does work for you. Either choice is acceptable, but if this is a change you really want to make, then b is your only viable option.
You might change your resolution to something like “Eat fruit for dessert,” or “Snack on celery and peanut butter every afternoon,” or “Drink only water with meals.” These resolutions are tied closely to the original resolution, but they’re more likely to take you to lasting change.
At Design.org, we sometimes refer to this as prototyping. You’re in control here; you can change what isn’t working, and keep changing it until it does work.
Ask for help.
In Gretchen Rubin’s book The Four Tendencies, she talks about there being four distinct personality types when it comes to making habits. These types are defined by how they meet outer expectations (what other people expect of them) and inner expectations (what they expect of themselves). I won’t go over all four types right now, but there is one type in particular I want to mention here: obligers.
Obligers find it easier to meet other people’s expectations, rather than their own. That is, it’s much easier for them to stick to a habit when there’s someone else counting on them to do so. This is essentially the idea behind having an accountability partner.
Rubin also says that Obligers are the largest of the four groups. That, coupled with the fact that accountability partners work for at least one of the other tendencies as well, means that the odds are good that an accountability partner will help you stick to your resolutions.
Bottom line: having someone hold you to your resolutions will help you stick to them. You might choose someone to do the resolution with (e.g. a running buddy or a book club), or you just might enlist someone like a spouse, sibling, or close friend to regularly check in with you about how your resolutions are going.
Track your progress
Finding a simple way to track your progress can be a huge help in keeping your resolutions at the forefront of your mind. After all, sometimes the reason we don’t end up keeping our resolutions is that we simply forget about them (and when I say “we,” I mean “I”).
Tracking your progress can do a lot of great things for you. It can help you see how far you’ve come and remind you how hard you worked; it can encourage you on those days when you aren’t perfect (because you can see that you’ve still made progress); and it can help you recognize patterns or potential opportunities for improvement (do you always skip working out on Tuesdays? Why?).
Find a way to track your progress that works for you. It could be an Excel spreadsheet on your work computer, a goal-tracking app, a sticker chart (not just for 3-year-olds anymore), a bullet journal—whatever works for you. The important thing is to keep it simple and as easy to track your progress as possible.
Waiting until December 31 to celebrate your victory is not very motivating. In all likelihood, you won’t even make it to December 31. That all-too-human impatience will probably kick in and result in you getting discouraged well before year’s end.
Fight back against that impatience by rewarding yourself throughout the year. Maybe you set milestones and reward yourself when you reach them (e.g. if your goal is to lose 50 pounds, reward yourself every time you lose another 10 pounds). Or, you could set monthly check-ins and reward yourself if you’ve kept up with your resolution that month. Whatever you do, don’t let the entire year go by before you pat yourself on the back for what you’re accomplishing.
Quick note here: a “reward” doesn’t have to be food, or something else that indulgent. Try not to reward yourself with something that sets you back on your progress toward your goal. For example, if you do want to lose weight and you set those milestones for yourself, maybe you reward yourself with theater tickets, new running shoes, or a new outfit. Find something that helps you progress.
Even the most avid goal setters can have a hard time keeping New Year’s resolutions. But as long as you have the right tools and the right mindset, you can stay strong on the path toward reaching those goals, avoiding boom-bust cycles, and creating meaningful, lasting change in your life.
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