Life Hack: Resolutions That (Really) Work

[Please note: The views and opinions expressed in each post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of BayNVC as a whole.]

SO HERE WE ARE at the beginning of January and the annual question arises: Will we set personal goals for the new year—or just burrow into the sofa with a warm blanket? Resolutions are hard: we love them, we make them, sometimes we don’t keep them, then we blame ourselves and instead of going back to zero for a restart, we suddenly feel like we’ve landed at minus ten points. Maybe minus twenty.

I just did a Google search of “new year’s resolutions” and found literally 1,420,000 results, many of which give specific suggestions: drink more water; get more sleep; back up your computer. All worthy goals. But what the authors don’t say is how to sustain them.

Okay, how do we do this? I’ve been mulling it over for a few weeks now with fabulously poor results. But then! This morning it occurred to me that a resolution is really just a pledge—except instead of making a commitment to another person, we make one to ourselves. I may be naïve about New Year’s resolutions, but as a mediator and executive coach, I know a few things about creating sustainable agreements. So here goes.

THE CONVENTIONAL APPROACH to pacts (and yes, resolutions) looks something like this: Make a contract. Assume it’s carved in stone. Forever. Attempt to keep this agreement. Fail. Initiate blame and punishment, preferably aimed at someone else. Add a layer of shame. Conclude that you and/or the other person are hopeless liars and cheats, or possibly buffoons. Crawl under a rock. The end.

Awesome way to start the new year, right?

So let’s try something different.

1. Identify the agreement you’re making—in this case, with yourself
What do you want to accomplish? We often set intentions that are vague, such as, “I want to be healthier in 2018.” But this doesn’t include an action step, or any way of knowing when you’ve achieved your goal. Instead, make a plan that’s specific and measureable, like, “I want to be able to swim a mile in 30 minutes.” Or, “I want to work out for an hour every day.”

2. Identify the reason—and core values—for your resolution
Now consider why you’re making this commitment; if you can connect to the underlying core needs, it will help you stay on track. In the case of a workout plan, you might be looking for health, strength or a sense of ease in your body. Maybe exercise clears your mind so you can make better decisions. Or maybe going for a run lets you connect with nature and beauty. If you were making a request of another person, you’d want to tell them why their actions matter to you. You can honor your request of yourself in the same way. Once you uncover the meaning of your plan, hold it at the center of your intention.

3. Consider how you actually feel about your plan
You’ve decided to exercise every day; but when you think about this, is your stomach in a knot? If so, that’s a clear sign that some part of yourself is entering into the agreement under duress. What does that part of you need? Look for one tiny step towards your goal that sounds so easily doable, you can say a wholehearted “yes.” You might think your new goal is too small, but you can always amp it up later—and it’s more effective to maintain a small shift over time than taking on a big change that dissolves within days. What if you scaled back your plan and decided to exercise “only” three times a week? Would you heave a sigh of relief? Wonderful: you’re on the right track.

4. Set up a supporting agreement
What structures can you put in place to help achieve your goal? You’ve decided to exercise three times a week; now how do you maintain this commitment? Maybe you’ll sign up for a class because the predictability and sense of community encourage you. Or maybe you’d rather find an exercise buddy for companionship and privacy. Perhaps you’ll decide to exercise first thing in the morning because that’s when you have the most energy. Or maybe you’d rather go for a long walk in the evening because it helps you unwind and transition from work to personal time. Whatever you choose, look for a supporting agreement that bolsters the main agreement, and makes it sustainable, not in the fantasy of some perfect world, but in the day-to-day rhythm of your own life.

5. Take your resolution out for a test drive
And now the real heresy: commit to your goal fully, but not forever. Instead of assuming this plan will last for life, try it on for a shorter period—in this case, perhaps a week. At the end of that time, evaluate what’s working and what’s not, and tweak the plan as needed. More on this when you…

6. Make a restorative agreement
Now make a plan for what happens if you don’t keep your original commitment. No, this isn’t self-sabotage. On the contrary, it’s a way of getting buy-in from the part of yourself that’s resistant, by offering reassurance that you won’t punish mistakes. You’re asking that petulant inner voice to stop shouting and get on board—because it’s safe to do so. Part of the restorative agreement is simply checking in at the end of your “test drive” to find what did and didn’t work. What unforeseen obstacles precluded your participation? If you said “no” to your exercise plan, what were the needs to which you said “yes”? Maybe you slept later in the morning because you needed more rest. Maybe you canceled an evening workout in favor of a movie and the couch, because you craved relaxation and pleasure.

Promise yourself that if you break the original agreement, you’ll let yourself just experience the disappointment–that you’ll mourn your losses, celebrate your victories and tweak the plan as needed. So you went for an early-morning walk, but were so hungry that you stopped after 10 minutes? Delightful: because you also got out of bed and tried. Since it turns out you need food in your belly first, your new supporting agreement needs to include a handful of nuts or a smoothie. Or maybe you discovered the whole getting-up-at-the-crack-of-dawn thing is a deal breaker. Excellent! Now you have real-time feedback about what’s actually viable. And your new supporting agreement needs to include a time slot that makes your life better, not worse. Maybe you have the luxury of a long lunch break that can include a workout. Or perhaps you prefer to go for a run after work, thereby avoiding commute traffic on your way home. Double score!

Whatever your situation, adjust your resolution to fit reality and try again. And again. Because successive approximation rocks.

WISHING YOU MUCH JOY AND PEACE in the new year. And if you choose to make a resolution, may it be empowering and supportive.

LISA MONTANA offers personal and executive coaching, conflict resolution and group facilitation. She works with individuals, families, businesses and organizations around the country. Lisa came to conflict resolution from the corporate world, where she witnessed frequent disputes, most of them handled in ways that nobody liked. In collaborative communication, she found a model in which everyone’s needs matter, and against all odds, has seen wildly antagonist foes find common ground. Contact Lisa at:
Copyright ⓒ 2017 Lisa Montana. Reprint with permission.
This article references some of the work of my friends and colleagues, John Kinyon and Ike Lasater.