Q: Any tips for New Year's resolutions? I struggle to get mine to stick.
A: Number one tip: don't make them. There is very little evidence that supports their effectiveness, with some suggesting around 80 per cent of resolutions are abandoned by February.
Setting yourself up to fail is not a great plan, for your self-esteem or for reaching your goals.
Change is hard, and even more so with the kind of change people tend to want to engage in at this time of year. Coming as it often does on the back of overindulgence and the unwinding of work stress, it can be easy to feel a sense of enthusiasm for change - and a genuine desire to do things differently - but it's hard to translate that into action.
Part of the problem is the natural flush of enthusiasm that comes with the "New Year" - what psychologists call the "fresh start effect". It just feels like the best time to make changes, a new year, a blank page, a new chapter.
But here isn't anything inherently better or easier about the new year when it comes to making changes. In fact, coming off the back of too many Christmas mince pies and evening beers, it may for many of us just be a way of trying to deal with how we feel about our relative lack of self-control in the previous two weeks.
This emotional payoff, the fact that it can feel good, feel like a sense of control, to simply make the resolution to stop (insert so-called "bad habit" here) is part of the problem - it might sound good, but it doesn't actually solve the problem.
So what does work?
Well I'm privileged enough to generally take a few weeks off this time of year and I find it is useful to have the space and time to stop and reflect. To step back from the hurly-burly of day-to-day life and think about how I'm going and what the next year holds.
If, on reflection, there are things that you want to change make goals, not resolutions. Simply put goals are positively framed - about what you want to do, as opposed to negatively framed - what you want to stop or not do.
Even better if your goals are linked to values that are important to you, as well as specific and therefore easy to know if you're doing them - or not.
For example, being healthy may be a deeply held value and eating a healthier diet is a great goal, but even better if it's specific - for example: "Eat five servings of fruit and vegetables a day."
The above is much more likely to succeed than "stop eating junk food".
Which is not to say it's easy, but it is where self-compassion and patience comes in. What doesn't work is giving yourself a hard time and berating yourself when you don't meet the goals you set yourself. So make sure they're achievable and realistic.
One of the seductive aspects of resolutions is that we just solve these things by being determined enough. Actually we often need to make many small changes and keep working at it over an extended period of time, for changes to really stick. This is true of small goals, all the way through to dealing with addictions.
We very rarely make changes easily, and in one go. (Despite the fact we would all love this to be true.)
So whatever you feel you might want to change this year, don't give up - and remember we are in the middle of a global pandemic and living through what will, for most of us, be one of the most stressful and challenging periods of our lives.
It can also be enough to decide to simply keep going this year and not throw any extra challenges in the mix.