January 21, 2021
Pandemic or not, the new year always comes with a little uncertainty. After the predictable slew of holiday gatherings, we find ourselves at the frontier of a fresh start. So much potential, so many unknowns!
We are filled with new hope and possibility — but that also includes the possibility of things going wrong. Biologically, we are wired to feel this way, to fear the unexpected. When the clock strikes 12, whether we realize it or not, ours brains respond with at least a hum of anxiety. In response, we seek order and control.
It’s no coincidence that New Year’s resolutions often take over our lives for the entire month of January. On the heels of December sloth and indulgence, resolutions harness our worst anxieties and alchemize them into opportunities for self-improvement. You may not know what lies ahead, but you know you’re going to do yoga every day.
This year is different. Many of us are stuck at home, pondering the future. It’s been hard to imagine what 2021 will look like, let alone find the motivation to set goals. If last year showed us anything, it’s how little control we have in the grand scheme of things. We can use this wake-up call to aim higher and change our approach.
In the past, resolutions may have felt like exercises in perfectionism, or procrastination. But as another unprecedented year begins, we can plan to take an equally unprecedented approach to setting and achieving our goals — one that is motivated by treating ourselves with kindness and compassion, not with punishment or pressure.
Here are a few (gentle — and research-backed) tips to help you get started.
Build on something you’ve started.
A lot has been written about why 80% of New Year’s resolutions apparently fail by mid-February (because they are unrealistic), and why fad diets don’t work (because they are unsustainable). I won’t echo those studies, but I will explain why self-acceptance is a better approach to setting goals than self-improvement.
When we set goals with only self-improvement in mind, we are treating the current version of ourselves as inadequate and flawed, as if we are problems in need of a solution. By extension, the diet, the gym membership, the new job, the relationship — all of those external things — become the antidote that will cure us, or the puzzle piece that will make us whole.
Focusing too hard on “improving” ourselves is a recipe for self-judgment, anxiety, and many other crappy emotions. Needless to say, this is not helpful: Research shows a direct correlation between negative emotions and procrastination — the more anxious we feel about completing a task, the less likely we are to do it. We need a different framework for approaching change if we actually want to take action.
Rather than surveying your life for all of the things you need to “fix,” acknowledge all of the things you’ve already begun that you’d like to continue, or build upon, this year. Maybe last year you committed to reading before bed instead of scrolling on your phone. Perhaps this year you decide to go a step further and read two new books a month. Whatever you choose, notice how your mindset changes when you regard your goal as a continuation of something you already feel good about.
I’ll bet that it feels a lot easier.
There is some science behind why this is. Our brains naturally prioritize short-term needs over long-term ones, a tendency that psychologists call present bias. We care more about feeling good in the present moment than we do about feeling even better in the future. This, too, explains procrastination: Avoiding a stressful task feels good in the present, even if it sets our future selves up to fail.
To set ourselves up for success, we need our goals to feel as safe, comfortable, and easy as possible. Being kind to ourselves is one way to do this, as is celebrating our existing wins by choosing to experience more of them.
Practice the feeling-state.
As a hypnotist, one part of my job is to help people rewire habits and behaviors that are no longer serving them. The other part is to replace those patterns with healthier ones, and this often includes setting goals.
I kick off the process by asking a simple question: “How do you want to feel?”
Sometimes, my clients have an immediate answer: I want to feel confident and self-assured. Other times, they’re more sure about what they don’t want: I don’t want to feel anxious in social situations. When this happens, I tweak my question slightly: “How will you know when you’re no longer afraid? What will it be like to overcome that fear?”
The purpose of these questions is to help people recall and access positive feelings that they have experienced in other areas of their lives, and reduce feelings of stress that are related to their goals. Suddenly, whatever change my clients are trying to make seems possible because they have embodied what it will feel like when they get there.
Why does this work?
Too often, we intellectualize our goals. We think about what we should be doing, changing, eating, or fixing. We’re taught that grit and discipline are key ingredients for success, but when we’re stressed, our bodies feel under threat. The parts of our brains responsible for creativity, awareness, concentration, and decision-making — the parts that inspire change — shut down.
Visualizing scenarios that allow you to tap into positive and resourceful feelings isn’t just New Age-y fluff. It’s an effective technique for motivation. Research shows that when we visualize an action, we stimulate the same parts of our brains as when we actually perform that action. Visualizing success, in particular, has been correlated with the achievement of goals.
Let’s give it a try:
Visualize yourself waking up tomorrow feeling how you want to feel, doing exactly what you want to be doing. Are you excited about a project? Enjoying quality time with a particular person? These are just a few ideas.
Now pay attention to your body. Do you feel warmth in your chest? A sense of lightness or freedom? That is the sensation you should experience when you think about your goals.
If you imagine running on a beach, for instance, maybe you set a fitness goal. But make sure you visualize feeling how you want to feel as you exercise — light on your feet, strong legs, alert mind.
Wherever you are, whoever you are with, gather clues — from your own mind — about what might be a meaningful goal to set for yourself, and how you will feel when you achieve it.
Be radically compassionate.
Achieving a goal is not a linear vector. Odds are, you will take one step forward and a few steps back — or to the side. Remember that being kind, gentle, and forgiving with yourself is not a luxury, but a necessity for achievement.
In her pioneering research on self-compassion, psychologist Dr. Kristin Neff discovered that the #1 reason people resist being kind to themselves is that they fear it’ll make them lose their edge. But in reality, it’s quite the opposite. In 2016, researchers found that “self-compassion led to greater personal improvement, in part, through heightened acceptance.”
When it comes to resolutions, this means being open to exploring, learning, failing, and flailing, and getting up each time. Your journey — whatever the destination — will be made of small steps. You don’t need to schematize these steps into a to-do-list. (Remember, stressing yourself out is literally not helpful.) But you do need to be compassionate with yourself along the way, the same as you would with a baby learning to walk. You’re both just trying to figure out how to exist in the world in a new way.
And listen: Even if goals aren’t your thing this year, keep this metaphor in mind. Babies don’t set the goal of learning to walk. They just do it. They change, they grow — just as you inevitably will this year, and every year, goals or not. Reward yourself by simply noticing these changes and areas of growth.