This article first appeared in Happify
It’s that time of the year when a lot of us quit the New Year’s resolutions we set with such determination less than a month ago. Perhaps it’s the dreary weather that begins to take a toll on us. Perhaps it’s the deprivation we put ourselves through, or the upward battle we didn’t foresee. Perhaps it’s the ease and pleasure of old habits that draw us back to the life we were desperate to leave far behind.
It’s estimated that about 80 percent of New Year’s resolutions fail by February, but the effects of these failures go way beyond unreached goals or unchanged habits. Persistent failure can lead to lack of agency and eventually to a state of learned helplessness where we give up on even our most cherished goals.
If you find your goals slipping away, it’s time to understand what’s going on and to recommit to the life you want for yourself.
Know Your Why
A lot of us commit to goals that are driven by some form of extrinsic motivation. For example, we may be looking to win the approval of others or to be rewarded for the outcome. Or we may be driven by our own expectations of ourselves—often a result of the expectations we grew up with and hang on to—in order to maintain our sense of self-worth. Some of us may genuinely believe that the desired outcome is important, but the importance may be tied more closely to what society values than to our own needs and values.
Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan’s research on motivation has shown that intrinsic motivation is not only a far better predictor of goal success but also correlated with psychological well-being. This doesn’t necessarily mean we dump our current goals and move to a remote mountain village to discover our calling. It simply means understanding why our goals are important to us and how they help us achieve something that’s far bigger than our sense of self-worth. For example, losing weight may allow us to be more involved in activities that are meaningful to us. Or managing our finances may allow us to send a child to a college of their choice.
Believe in Yourself
An important component of change is the belief in our ability to implement it. This belief may be lacking for some of us or restricted to a certain area of our lives—often the one on which we depend to maintain our sense of self-worth. We may believe we can achieve a certain goal at work, but not as a partner or parent. We may even believe we can do well in our current jobs but not at a more senior level.
To develop a more expansive belief in ourselves, we need to build general mastery, a concept far broader than task-specific competence. General mastery allows us to take risks without the assurance of a specific outcome, because we believe in our ability to move on from potential failure or criticism. We can develop general mastery by reflecting on past successes and by savoring our present wins. We can also do so by visualizing future possibilities, because the brain cannot tell the difference between what’s real and what’s imagined. Finding ourselves off track with our resolutions can be another great opportunity to build mastery, because our ability to come back from failure contributes to it at least as much as success.
Have a Plan
Most New Year’s resolutions are about desirable outcomes with little on the how of achieving them. Peter Gollwitzer, a psychology professor at New York University, sees this as the distinction between goal intentions and implementation intentions, or what he calls “waypower.” Waypower is about knowing not only the steps we need to take to achieve our goals but also the “if/then plans” we need to put in place to counter old habits or move past moments of weakness.
However, sometimes our best plans desert us because we’re counting on willpower to stay on track. Roy Baumeister’s research has shown that willpower is a depleting resource. The most successful people are those who set good habits so they don’t waste time and energy arguing with themselves about why a behavior that looks uninviting is better than the pleasures of old behaviors and impulsive actions.
If that’s you, you can set positive habits by starting small, building on what’s already working, making your habits appealing, and rewarding yourself for taking action. If your New Year’s resolutions are losing their steam, see which of these three steps need your attention to get back on track. After all, you don’t want to be setting the same New Year’s resolutions at the end of this year. Nor do you want to give up on them and settle for a lesser-lived life. Take charge and make it your best year yet!