Gideon Killion, a therapist, coach, and counselor in Denver, Colorado, offers some thoughts about New Year’s resolutions that work.
It’s natural to feel drawn toward change and growth at this time of year. For many people, the New Year offers an opportunity to turn the page and have a fresh start.
But with all the advice out there about forming new habits, setting “SMART goals,” and motivating yourself, it can be confusing to know how to begin. I’d like to share an insight about how to shift behavior patterns. It’s my belief that New Year’s resolutions usually fall flat, not because we fail to try hard enough, but because the goals we’ve set are lacking adequate support. It helps to have intent as a support framework.
Trying to force a new outcome can feel like an uphill battle, unless you determine a specific intention to support your goal. That’s because goals are set in the future, but what actually gets you to that finish line is the choice you make right now, in each moment. Intent helps you to identify which choices of today will help you reach your future goal.
Another way of looking at intent is that it allows you to clarify your values. Goals define “what” you want to accomplish; intent helps you understand “why” (the motivation for change). Goals are detail-focused, but intent provides the big-picture view of how your goals will get you where you want to go.
So here’s an example:
Goal: I will write one chapter of my novel by January 21st.
Intent: I am embracing a daily writing practice.
See the difference? The intent, which is focused in the present, provides the framework and mindset that supports the goal, which is placed in the future.
With this distinction in mind, here is my practical advice for creating real change in your life.
1. Recognize that goals require sacrifices, and make your goal proportional to your willingness to endure sacrifice.
One of the most common mistakes people make with New Year’s resolutions is trying to go from zero to 60. Moving from inaction to full-on commitment is usually unsustainable because it’s just too painful to make the personal sacrifice required.
Using intention as a framework can help. If your goal is to do a cardio workout twice a week but you hate gyms, the personal sacrifice of submitting to an unpleasant environment may be too painful over the long term. Reflecting on the intent behind your goal can help you find a way to adjust the pain meter so that a smaller sacrifice is required. If your intent is “choosing to move more and sit less,” you could reconsider whether enduring the gym is the only way to get a cardio workout. What about playing Ultimate Frisbee with friends on Saturdays and going for a run with a friend on Thursdays?
2. Consider making a series of small achievable changes that together add up to something bigger.
Checking in with your intent every day can spark small changes that add up, over time, to a significant behavioral shift. The key is to focus on things that are easily achievable—just one step removed from what you’re already doing. In the case of “choosing to move more and sit less,” you might set a few related small goals that get you moving just a little more than before. If you’re famous for finding the closest possible parking spot, try parking one row over. Always take the elevator to the 4th floor? Decide that you’ll take the stairs to the 2nd floor and ride up from there. It’s true that one tiny change by itself doesn’t make much of a dent in your activity level. But several tiny changes can easily become new habits, and you can continue shifting your behavior in small increments until one day you find that you’ve made a major shift.
3. Don’t try to change behaviors without adjusting the supporting context.
When you try to create change in an environment that doesn’t support change, it won’t stick. The best way to address this problem is to come up with a structure for success—a plan that’s big enough to handle the change you want to make. The most effective plan will be one that anticipates setbacks and includes rewards for progress. That’s because you’re human: you will make mistakes, and you will be more committed to a plan that gives you positive feedback in the form of small rewards.
Scott Adams, the guy who created Dilbert, suggests that goals don’t produce changes, but rather systems do. For any goal he’s wanted to reach, he has put in place a system that is calculated to produce that result. I think “system” is an extension of intent—a thought-out plan for manifesting an intention on a consistent and in-the-moment basis.
And here’s the best part: when your resolution is based on a framework of intent, it’s more likely to produce beneficial and healthy changes even if you don’t reach the specific goal.
If you’re looking to create big or small changes in your life but aren’t sure how to take the next step, you might need a coach or counselor to walk you through it. Give me a call today, ask for a consult at one of my Denver locations, and learn more about how I can help.